In this week’s parashah, the word Terumah is used for the very first time. We find it regularly throughout the Bible where it refers to a sacred donation, often translated as “a heave offering [of produce].” But in our sidra this first usage of Terumah is a divine exhortation to the Israelites to contribute materiel for the construction of the desert sanctuary – the Mishkan, which will serve as the focal point for communal ritual and worship. In modern parlance, we are talking about a fund-raising campaign, and quite fittingly, we could not find a better English word than fund-raising with which to translate Terumah, which means to raise or lift up (raise hands – l’harim yadayim; a loud [raised] voice – kol ram; the Hebrew root is resh, vav, mem).
While the Torah goes on to describe and mandate other types of Terumot (where the giving is compulsory, but the amount is left to one’s own discretion), this one is described as entirely voluntary; “each person as his/her heart prompts.” This, then, is true charity, an offering that is dependent entirely on one’s feelings or emotions. Let’s pause for a moment to examine the two most common English words for charitable giving. Charity comes from the Latin caritas, having to do with the heart. My online Latin dictionary offers the following: dearness, affection /charity. We also refer to this kind of giving as philanthropy, and again, the root philo has to do with love or affinity.
But neither charity nor philanthropy is same thing as tzedakah, even though we usually use the words interchangeably. Tzedakah has to do with righteousness, justice, or simply, doing the right thing. (In modern Hebrew, Atta tzodek/At tzodeket means you are right or correct; Tzedek, tzedek tirdof means justice, justice shall you pursue). Tzedakah, therefore, is doing the right thing, independent of what our feelings may be.
Most of us have heard of the eight levels of giving as codified by Maimonides. The first two are the most intriguing:
1) giving, but grudgingly and 2) giving less than one should, but cheerfully. These two and these two alone are governed by one’s attitude or emotions. The other levels, increasingly meritorious, are apparently objective and less subject to our “feelings.”
What all this tells us is that tzedakah is the right thing for us to do, even if our hearts are not in it, even if our inclination may be otherwise. The most important thing is that we give. Of course, we all know that ideally, it would be much better if our hearts were in sync with our actions, but as our tradition tells us, lo hamach-shavah ha’ikar, ela ha’ma’aseh – one’s thought (attitude) is not the essential criterion, rather it is one’s actions. And there is a similar debate in the Talmud about whether our fulfillment of any of the precepts require kavannah – complete mental devotion and focus as we carry them out. While there is no definitive conclusion to this debate, the weight of the argument seems to indicate that one may indeed fulfill a precept even if one’s mind wanders, or one’s heart is not in it, although clearly the desideratum is for there to be unity of action with intention.
So, what motivates us to give? Clearly, for some of us the divine imperative commands us. For others, the cause or the appeal speaks to us or touches our hearts. And for some, peer pressure or outward appearances may be our initial or primary motivation. In this regard there is an interesting difference of opinion/interpretation with respect to the purpose of our ancestors sprinkling blood on their doorpost on the night of the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:13). Was the blood to be placed on the outside of their homes or on the inside? And who was the blood for? Was it a sign for God, as the Torah says – “and when I see the blood, I will pass over you”? Or was it a sign for the Israelites themselves because the Torah also says, “it shall be a sign for you?” Or was the blood perhaps a visible mark on the outside for others to take note of? Those three possibilities reflect what are often our own motivations for doing and/or giving. Are we doing it for ourselves? Are we doing it so that others will think well of us, or are we doing it for God?
Would that it were all three! But even if we are motivated only by how we will be thought of by others, the important thing is that we give.
And would that all our giving to tzedakah (righteous acts) produced results similar to this first call for Terumah, a free and overwhelming “offering from one’s heart.” At the end of the narrative that describes the building of the Mishkan, we are told that Moses had to call the people off: Their free will donations had exceeded what was required to construct the Tabernacle! May all worthy fund-raising efforts be like this call for Terumah: given willingly, given lovingly, given generously – and exceeding expectations!