A Sabbath Message: Terumah – Creating a Dwelling Place for Divinity

“I believe that what elevates us in life is not what we receive but what we give. The more of ourselves that we give, the greater we become.”  

– Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In this week’s ParshaTerumah, God turns the tables on the Israelites. Up to this point, God has been the one giving, providing miracles of sea splitting splendor and life-sustaining sustenance. Among many others. Now it is time for the Israelites to give back. God instructs Moses to gather offerings from the Israelites: “You are to receive the offering for Me from everyone whose heart moves them to give” (Exodus 25:8). These offerings are to be used to build the Ark and Tabernacle, the holy structures to hold God’s Commandments and Presence among the Israelites.

Detailed instructions on exactly how the Ark and Tabernacle should be constructed, designed, and adorned fill the remainder of the Parsha. In amusing synchronicity, as I am writing this email I am being continuously distracted by a parade of contractors, architects, and designers coming in and out of the Bronfman Family JCC, discussing our forthcoming remodel. Once again, life is imitating Torah.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches that it is the very act of giving that brings God down to dwell among the Israelites. The structure in and of itself is not holy, nor will it literally function as God’s home. It is our intentions in creating the structure that make room in our hearts for God to enter. Remember that God instructs Moses to gather offerings only from those whose hearts move them to give. The etymology of the word Terumah not only means “gift” or “offering,” it also means “raised up.” Through generosity, we are connected to divinity and raised up as a community. 

I felt today—as I was looking up an address to send a young family with a sick parent a meal and challah, as I was emailing a colleague to see how her check in call to an elderly couple dealing with an unexpected hospitalization went—that the work we do at the Jewish Federation truly is God’s work. My father died when I was fifteen, and life as I knew it shattered into a million pieces. It was my Jewish community that scooped my mother and I up. Fed us. Comforted us. Provided us with the safe space to mourn and begin the long journey to healing. 
One of my most vivid memories from that time in my life was right after my father’s funeral. We gathered for a meal at the local JCC. I remember eating an egg while staring at polished linoleum floors. Nothing felt like it would ever be all right again. But I felt cared for. Like I belonged to something that was big enough to hold me and keep me safe through the storm. To feel that momentary sense of place in an abyss of devastation, that to me is God. God dwells in those most tender and intimate intersections of need and service. In the outstretched hand. The warm meal. The unexpected phone call. The gathering together of all the many gifts of our people, into a place where we can dwell in community

Shabbat Shalom,

Samantha Silverman
Camp Haverim Director