Community Torah Corner, February 24, 2023

Rabbi Daniel Nevins
Head of School
Golda Och Academy
Parashat Terumah

How do you feel about fund-raising? For many people it is an unwelcome task, but pause to consider the expression, which refers to the elevation of money towards a higher purpose. That is the literal meaning of the word תרומה. Most Bible translations render it simply as “offering” or “donation,” but a few preserve the literal sense as in, “raised-contribution” (Everett Fox), “elevation offering” (JPS, Robert Alter at Ex. 29:27), or my favorite, “heave offering” (KJV also at Ex 29:27, et al). These translations of תרומה preserve a sense of the physical act—a person takes an ordinary object and lifts it up both physically and symbolically, so that it can serve the needs of the altar, of poor people, of the community and ultimately of God.
Already in Deuteronomy (12:17) the word תרומה refers to general donations to the future Temple, not only to the original tabernacle, and this is how the rabbis came to understand the commandment. It was forbidden to eat crops until the תרומה had been separated for the priests, and tithes for the Levites and the poor. This practice of self-restraint, of giving to others before taking for oneself, is itself a form of elevation. Physical desires are made secondary to moral, communal, and spiritual values. Judaism does not insist on an ideal of self-abasement here, but it does demand that all Jews expand their sense of responsibility to share resources for the sake of communal worship and social solidarity. As Proverbs says (14:34), “Righteousness (צדקה) exalts a nation.”

Tzedakah is a core value of Jewish life, and yet we do not find early evidence of this word for righteousness being associated with charitable donations. God says that Abraham will teach his household to “do righteousness (צדקה) and justice” (Gen. 18:19) but that doesn’t seem to refer to charity per se. A beautiful verse in Psalms states, “As for me, in justice (בצדק) I behold Your face, I take my fill, wide awake, of Your image” (17:15, trans. Robert Alter). As Alter notes, this Psalm contrasts the fleeting satiety of full bellies with the lasting satisfaction of divine presence. While the Psalmist may not literally refer to charitable giving here, the contrast between hedonistic pleasure and righteous encounter with God suggests the importance of our practice of tzedakah.
We all know that it feels good to give tzedakah, so why should we shrink from offering that experience to others? The Torah emphasizes that gifts are to be accepted only from “every person whose heart so moves him,” so we know that such gifts must not be extracted by force. Still, Jewish texts emphasize the universal obligation of raising up material resources and becoming a donor, contributing to the community. As Mar Zutra teaches, “even a poor person who lives off of tzedakah should give tzedakah.” When the poor are invited to become donors, it gives them the dignity of contributing to the community, and reminds all that ultimately, we are all “takers” more than “givers,” since none of us can claim credit for all of the blessings of our lives.

The act of raising up materials is the first step in establishing a durable link between heaven and earth. This was true then, and it remains true today. When we share our resources, building community structures and supporting people who are at risk, then we create a sense of unity and of divine presence. In justice we can see the face of another person, and in justice we can sense the presence of God.

*Reprinted from