Parashat Terumah 5777

Rabbi Tanya Sahknovich, 03 March 2017


The most exciting part of the whole parasha seems to be its name “T’rumah”. It means “donation” or “contribution for sacred purposes.“

The word “t’rumah” becomes exciting only because of the context in which it is used. God commands Moses to tell the children of Israel that they shall take a donation for their God. And that donation should be taken only – ONLY – from people whose heart is moved to do so.

Why was the obligation placed only upon those who wished to accept the responsibility?

Paul Piff, a social psychologist and post-doctoral scholar in the Psychology Department at the University of California, Berkeley conducted a series of research studies about how social hierarchy, inequality, and emotion shape relations between individuals and groups.

One of the experiments featured  “Monopoly” – the favourite board game of many.

So imagine yourself” – Paul says – “for a moment playing a game of Monopoly. Except that in this game that combination of skill, talent and luck, that helps earn success in the game, as in life, has become irrelevant as the game has been corrupted and you have an advantage by having more money, more opportunities to move around the board and more access to resources than the other players. Ask yourself: how might that experience of being a privileged player in a corrupted game change the way you think about yourself and how you regard the other players.

“The experiment was asking this very question and so more than a hundred players were brought into the laboratory at Berkeley University, and with a flip of a coin, one player in each pair of players was randomly assigned  a privileged position. The privileged player would automatically be assigned twice as much money at the start; when she/he passed “Go”, the privileged player would get twice the salary and would get to roll two dice instead of one. So, the privileged players would have more opportunities to move around the board too.

“During the experiment a dramatic change in the behaviour between the two players was registered. Among other signs “rich” players started moving around the board more loudly, showing signs of dominance and non-verbal displays of power, becoming less sensitive towards the “poor” player and more demonstrative of their material success. At the end of each game both players were invited to share their experiences. Invariably, the rich players would say why they inevitably won in this corrupted game of monopoly. They talked about what they had done to buy those various properties and earn their success in the game. They became less attuned to all those different factors of the situation, including that flip of a coin which put them randomly in that privileged position in the first place.”

The experiment illustrates how money can make people less sensitive to the needs of others, to the more vulnerable and needy members of our society. That’s why the Rabbis made sure that tzedakah is a mitzvah compulsory for all.

However, does the problem lie in rich people not sharing enough of their wealth with poor only? What about you and me, who are neither rich nor poor? How much can we contribute to the world’s equality and prosperity?

We, as Liberal Jews, always place emphasis on social justice, equality and tzedakah anyway. Many of us volunteer not only our money but also our time. However, despite many efforts, economic and consequently social inequality is growing. There is no simple way of tackling it, but the concept of T’rumah, which we can learn from our parasha, can be a good starting point.

The donations from the people whose hearts move them to do so are needed for the building of the Tabernacle. The description of the Tabernacle, which then extends for three whole chapters, suggests significant amounts of all kinds of expensive materials, including gold, silver, wood and various beautifully coloured fabrics, to name just a few. So God either had a great deal of chutzpah to hope that there would be enough people who would want to make all those generous donations or God knew that the only way to collect those generous donations for sacred purposes was from the people who were moved with all their being to do so. Later, we learn that in the end people brought more gifts and donations than were necessary, so Moses had to ask people to stop giving.

There was no obligation to give – but people gave more than enough and had to be asked to stop bringing their donations. What did people know then that we don’t know today? What reward did they think they were receiving in return for their generosity? A prosperous life? I doubt it. A direct ticket to heaven? It is doubtful too.

Rowan Williams, when he was still the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested that the rich and powerful should be forced by law to spend time every year helping the poor and needy. However, that is not what T’rumah is about. T’rumah, as a concept, is about each of us helping each other as well as the poor, vulnerable and needy.

The word T’rumah derives from the Hebrew root “ramah”, something to do with elevating, exalting and lifting up. Hence, every gift of each heart elevates the person who gives as well as the hearts of other people, those influenced by the noble acts of their fellows.

During the building of the Tabernacle people didn’t only bring valuable donations to build the place; but also they brought donations of their time, skills and talents. It seems to me that the foundation of T’rumah at that time was a mutual understanding between the people, all people, that each of them was responsible for contributing in whatever way they could afford. By doing so, they elevated by their example not only themselves but the people around them too. There was no distinction who is poor, who is rich but the spirit of sharing with each other as equal partners prevailed. Our people were giving for the purposes of their God in the best possible way each of them could. It feels to me that it was a giving rather than a taking environment, full of joy, creativity and generosity of spirit.

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