The Gift of Giving
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The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
Why did God ask the Jewish People to build the Mishkan? Does God need a home, or is He everywhere? Let us examine the text.
God said to Moshe, “Let them build Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Shemot 25:8)
The key word in this passuk is the verb sh-ch-n, meaning ‘to dwell’. Never before had it been used in connection with God. It later became a keyword of Judaism itself. The root of this word is also in the word Mishkan, meaning a holy sanctuary, and Shechinah, the Divine Presence.
The core meaning is the idea of closeness. Shachen in Hebrew means a neighbour, the person who lives nearby. The Mishkan was not built because it was something God needed. It was for the people. What the Israelites needed – and what God gave them – was a way of feeling as close to God as to our next-door neighbour.
How do we come to sense the presence of God? Many people feel His presence when standing at the foot of Mount Everest or seeing the Grand Canyon. You do not have to be very religious, or even religious at all, to feel awe in the presence of a sublime landscape. But how do you feel the presence of God in the midst of everyday life?
That is the life-transforming secret of the name of the parsha, Terumah. It means “a contribution.”
God said to Moshe: “Tell the Israelites to take for Me a contribution. You are to receive the contribution for Me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give.” (Shemot 25:2)
The best way of encountering God is to give. The very act of giving flows from, and leads to, the understanding that what we give is part of what we were given. It is a way of giving thanks, an act of gratitude. That is the difference in the human mind between the presence of God and the absence of God.
The Torah tells us something simple and practical. Give, and you will come to see life as a gift. You don’t need to be able to prove God exists. All you need is to be thankful that you exist – and the rest will follow.
That is how God came to be close to the Israelites through the building of the Mishkan. It wasn’t in the quality of the wood and metals and drapes. It wasn’t the glitter of jewels on the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, the Holy Priest. It wasn’t the beauty of the architecture or the smell of the sacrifices. It was the fact that it was built out of the gifts of “everyone whose heart prompts them to give”. Where people give voluntarily to one another and to holy causes, that is where the Divine Presence rests.
Hence the special word that gives its name to this parsha: Terumah. I’ve translated it as “a contribution” but it actually has a subtly different meaning for which there is no simple English equivalent. It means, something you lift up by dedicating it to a sacred cause. You lift it up, then it lifts you up. The best way of scaling the spiritual heights is simply to give in gratitude for the fact that you have been given.
Hence the message of this week’s essay. God doesn’t
live in a house of stone. He lives in the hearts of those who give.
- Where do you feel closest to Hashem?
- When you give to others, (whether you are giving them your time, thought, help, or gifts) does it bring you closer to them? Why?
- Do you think giving to your community brings you closer to Hashem in the same way that the Israelites’ contribution to the Mishkan brought them closer to Hashem?
as told by Henry Grunwald
On the first Yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sacks spoke of his life-changing meeting with the Rebbe during a summer vacation from university. The Rebbe asked him about Jewish life in Cambridge, and whether he was doing anything to help develop the student community. Rabbi Sacks replied “Rebbe, because of the position in which I find myself, I haven’t…” when the Rebbe interrupted him and said “Jonathan, it’s not the position in which you find yourself, it’s the position in which you put yourself.”
Rabbi Sacks repeated that exchange often because of its effect on him, and because it applies to each of us. We choose how we live our lives.
Terumah means a contribution, lifting something up by giving. Rabbi Sacks always stressed the importance of making a contribution, of making the choice to give. He would say, “the best way to encounter God is to give”. The Children of Israel gave to build the Mishkan – their hearts prompted them to give. And giving doesn’t just refer to material things; it means giving of your time, of your heart, and of your love.
The clear message from this week’s sedra is, as Rabbi Sacks says, “Where people give voluntarily to one another and to holy causes, that is where the Divine Presence rests.” In our lives, we should always choose to give – that is the right choice; that is what God wants us to do.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Henry Grunwald OBE KC is President of World Jewish Relief. He chaired the Rabbi Sacks Legacy’s Board of Trustees from its foundation in 2013 to 2022.
A Closer Look
Henry Grunwald now shares his reflections on Rabbi Sacks and his writings on Mishpatim.
What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks’ essay this week?
“The best way to encounter God is to give”. It’s a key message for us all.
How do you interpret this quote?
We each have our own ways to engage with God. It may be through prayer or through study. But it can also be through giving and encouraging others to give.
And I don’t just mean making a donation to charity. When you help a family member or friend through a difficult time – that is giving. If you visit the elderly or the sick, that’s also giving. And Rabbi Sacks gave of himself throughout his life, by giving us examples of how to live our lives and become closer to God.
What influence did Rabbi Sacks have on your life?
He taught me to be proud and open about my Judaism and how best to engage with both the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds without in any way compromising my Jewishness.
He taught me the importance of Jewish values and how they should underpin all that I do.
And even though I have been a barrister for 50 years, I was in awe of his powers of advocacy!
Question: Which animal mentioned in parshat Terumah shares its name with a person mentioned in
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
In Shemot (25:5) we read of an animal called the tachash. Tachash was also the name of one of Avraham’s nephews (his brother Nachor’s son), as mentioned in Bereishit (22:24).
The Gemara (Shabbat 28b) says that the tachash only existed in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, and it had one horn on its forehead, like a unicorn! Rashi translates tachash as a multi-coloured animal that is now extinct. The Midrash Tanchumah states that the tachash’s fur consisted of six different colours, like the coat of Yosef HaTzaddik.
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks