Forced to Volunteer

by Rabbi Shua Brick, Jewish Studies Teacher

The title of this week’s Torah portion is extremely misleading. Terumah is a word for a donation, a
sacred gift. The context is that Moses should receive gifts that are “offered from every person who is
moved by their heart [to contribute]” (Exodus 25:2) in order to collect necessary materials for the
building of the Mishkan, the traveling temple that accompanied the Jewish people during their journey
in the desert. At first blush, it seems to speak of gifts inspired by a beautiful spirit of generosity, internal
motivations, and pure devotion.

However, the verb used to describe the transfer of these goods is not receiving, but taking. For each
time the word donation appears, Moses is told to take these from the people. “These are the gifts you
should take.” (Ex. 25:3) Are the gifts voluntarily given or forcibly taken?

These directions are followed by a list of specific acceptable gifts, and the exact materials needed before it
launches in precise and detailed dimensions of all the component parts of a temple that would house a
similarly regulated and rigid collection of acceptable practices. The consequences of deviating are dire,
as we see that as soon as only the 8th day since opening its doors – or, more accurately, tent flaps –two
practitioners are incinerated for bringing an unrequested offering. Intuitively, would we not wish for
religious service to be organic, emerging from devoted and open hearts, and allow for the expression of
love in whichever way that we worshipers are moved?

Dr. Mara Benjamin, in “The Obligated Self” writes brilliantly of understanding religious obligations, such
as these demanding instructions, through the lens of being a mother. An illustrative metaphor for the
phenomenon we are describing here is how one shows love for their child.

You can imagine that while a parent may have dreams of how they wish their kids would grow, visions
for how they would parent – playing catch, shared interests, bonding over the same music. And then
they are born and begin months of trying to decipher the very demanding and exacting needs of a
newborn – often requiring oddly specific stimuli to finally stop crying. To parent is to love the child, not
just any child in the abstract, but this specific child with unforeseen demands and individualized
attention, not always receiving our love in the exact way we wished to offer it.

True relationships, that assume two parties are equally involved, include a give-and-take. Sometimes, a
grand gesture, instead of being graciously received, could land as a rejection. If it is mismatched, the
receiver may think, “Does my partner not know me well enough, or care about me enough, to know that
I would not want this gesture?” Back to the theological realm, in Hebrew, alternative offerings are
referred to as Avodah Zarah, strange worship. To worship on our own terms, ignoring Their requests, is
to be a stranger to the One with which we wish to commune. Truly loving service takes into account, not
only our own needs to express and feel love, but also connecting and deeply understanding the