The Art and Science of Giving1
Take for Me a portion. From every man whose heart motivates him, you shall take My portion. This is the portion you shall take…
Rashi: Terumah means something separated. They should separate a portion of their property as a voluntary offering. The word terumah is used three times, Chazal observe. One refers to the beka of silver given for a head-count. The proceeds were used for the bases of the upright boards. Another beka per person purchased the communal offerings of the year. The third was of the thirteen materials that were needed for the construction of the Mishkan, and are mentioned in later pesukim.
Gur Aryeh: Of the three, only one – the last – is actually discussed in the verses that follow. The Torah alludes to the others here, to remind people not to offer so much of their property that they will be unable to fulfill the requirements of the other two, obligatory donations. Rather, they should first address the two obligatory terumos, and only after give voluntarily from what remains.
We can find a deeper meaning in the Torah’s joining the three givings together. The three are a set. None of them operate without the other two. Together, they respond penitently to the sin of the golden calf, which involved three sins rolled into one. Each of the three terumos addresses a different one of the transgressions, and attempts to atone for it.
Idolatry is one of very few aveiros that can be transgressed in Man’s inner spirit. Attributing importance to another deity or force perverts Man’s intellect. It removes his power of rational thought from its proper place within the control of Hashem. Those who gathered around the eigel included people who believed that it had some substantive power. This was an intellectual repudiation of Hashem’s true nature. We call that avodah zarah.
During the episode of the eigel some people actively worshipped it by presenting it with offerings. The active side of the transgression perverted the physical side of Man, the part through which he acts. (Active sin need not flow from or be coupled with an intellectual flaw or decision. Man can sin beshogeg, unintentionally, in which case he sins primarily with his body, and not with his active mind and intellect.)
Finally, Man can sin with his property, with the acquisitions that he sees as extensions of his primary self. Chazal emphasize2 that the riches with which Hashem blessed the Bnei Yisrael helped ensnare them. The effect that a surfeit of gold and silver had upon them led them to stray after the golden calf. Part of the sin, then, was with their property.
Summing up, the Bnei Yisrael sinned with their inner selves, with their bodies, and with their possessions. They needed some expiation of their sin in each of these areas. The three terumos provided that atonement.
Every person combines body and spirit. The two are inseparable; each, in a sense, contributes half of the complete person. This relationship is mirrored in two of the terumos, which correspond to body and spirit. Because they represent the universal truth that a person functions as a combination of these two elements, two of the terumos are obligatory. Furthermore, they are set at a fixed rate of a half-shekel each. Combined, they become a whole shekel, representing the whole Man. Everyone offers the same amount. While bodies and spirits may look and function differently, they have the same relative value to all people. No one gets by without the two elements working together.
One of these terumos was applied to the purchase of the yearly offerings in the Mishkan. Through much of the Torah, korbanos are described as for the purpose of “atoning for your spirits/souls.” The second of these terumos bankrolled the silver bases for the kerashim, for which they served as the receptacle that contained them. In that sense, they symbolized the body, which also acts as a utensil, holding the soul within it.
The third terumah, the one that our parshah deals with explicitly, concerns Man’s possessions. While body and spirit are essential to Man, possessions are not. For this reason, there is huge disparity in the wealth of different people. Wealth, unlike body and spirit, does not define Man. He can own more or less, without changing him. His wealth is peripheral to him. It, too, requires atonement when misused, and protection at all time. The amount that a person offers for this atonement ought to be commensurate with his worth. The more he owns, the more he ought to give.
Many people likely respond this way, and give according to their means. It seems strange, though, that the Torah does not standardize this terumah as a fraction of a person’s worth. The Torah leaves the amount up to whatever his motivates him to do. We can easily imagine a poor man donating more than a rich one! Why is this so?
The answer is that the person of great worth who gives like a miser is not really rich. Only a person who is capable of using his money properly, who can give it away with a generous eye and a generous heart is rich. If he cannot bring himself to give, it is because he sees himself as deficient and lacking – and therefore not rich! By leaving the amount up to the generosity a person finds in his heart, the Torah really does match the donation to the true, usable wealth of each person.
Returning to our original question, we can offer another reason for alluding to all three terumos in one verse. There can be no question about two of them. They are obligatory, and their amounts are fixed. The third, however, depends on a person’s motivation and subjective feeling. We could conclude that it is entirely voluntary. Should a person not be moved to give at all, he would not be in violation of any law. For this reason, the Torah combines all three together, teaching that all three are fully obligatory. Everyone was required to make a donation. It was only the amount of the donation that was left to individual discretion. Each person had to see himself, however, as fully required by halacha to offer something to the collection of materials for the Mishkan.
1. Based on Gur Aryeh, Shemos 25:2; Derech Chaim 4:1
2. See Rashi, 32:31