The Ba’al HaTurim points out that the word terumah is the word Torah with a Mem, which equals 40. This teaches us that only those who learn Torah given in 40 days can eat terumah. Well, the truth is, they also have to be a kohen, because a non-kohen would be punishable by death for eating terumah.
But there are different kinds of terumah, which only means an elevated offering. This parsha is not about giving terumah to the kohanim, but about making contributions to the construction of the Mishkan. And this terumah seems to be less about what was actually given as opposed to how it was given, with the heart. Called nedavos haleiv, this terumah was a heart offering. The actual physical contribution was just the way to reveal it.
Tzedakah is another example. How much you give is less important than how you give it. True, the one collecting would rather have a large amount than a lot of heart with it. They didn’t come to strengthen their self-dignity. They came to better their financial standing, and they are perfectly willing to swallow their pride if, it means they will receive more.
Unfortunately, they usually go hand-in-hand. People are only generous when they want to give generously, and that usually affects the way they give it. The person in the street or at the door does not usually have a choice between one or the other.
I can see it at my own door. There are people who come collecting who make you wonder if they should be. There is a lot of fraud out there, and in many cases, the halachah might be not to give, at least not significantly. But it is hard to know on the spot, so you end up giving kind of begrudgingly, and not very generously.
There is an older man who comes around once a year only (he starts off by reminding us of this). He’s collecting for a yeshivah of ba’alei teshuvah, but there is a certain sincerity and chayn about him that makes you want to make him happily. Invariably, I end up contributing more than I would have had he come once a month for a whole year.
But it’s not just the amount of money. I noticed that even though we only know each other from our one-a-year-at-the-door meetings, I feel connected to him. I feel like I’ve known him for years, and am concerned about his well-being. I walk away feeling good about what I gave when he walks away feeling good about what I gave.
In most other cases, when I’m not so inspired to be financially super-generous, I learned a long time ago that, just asking the person if they want a drink goes a long way too. You can tell they’re used to asking for a donation, getting some small amount, then just moving on. Taking an extra second to say, “Can I get you something to drink?” makes them change tracks. They usually seem surprised, caught off guard, and respond with gratitude in their voice. One person once told me it was a less common “gift,” and very much appreciated.
IT’S NO DIFFERENT with tefillah. The Shema tell us to love God with our heart(s), life, and possessions. Prayer is our main opportunity each day to talk to God with our heart, life, and possessions. How many people do that?
Taking time out of your busy schedule to doven cannot really be called terumah. It’s an obligation. We have to pray three times a day. But how much a person puts themself into their tefillah is up to them, and can transform their tefillah into a terumah. The sefer Shoresh HaAvodah explains that just saying the words can take prayer only so high in the sefiros. It is a person’s kavanah—intention, that takes it higher, perhaps even the rest of the distance so that God can hear and answer it.
As we say, it is the heart that God wants. A despot doesn’t care what their subjects think of them, just as long as their subjects do what they’re told and don’t step out of line. But God is not a despot. He made man to be the recipient of His love and care, and gave man the opportunity to care back for man’s own good. He doesn’t need anything from us, but He gives us the opportunity to give back to Him to our benefit.
Obviously, it is for our own good, since God does not gain anything from what we do. He certainly doesn’t require us to do anything just for the sake of doing it, as tyrannical rulers often require of their subjects. Everything we get ourselves to do can only be for our own good when it is in keeping with God’s will. But how?
Let’s start with the obvious: mitzvos earn us reward in the World-to-Come. The better and more sincerely we perform them, the more reward they earn us. We can’t emotionally appreciate that now, but we can intellectually. My parents made me save my Bar Mitzvah “earnings” for the future, though I had big plans for them at the time. I could not appreciate at the time why their idea was better than mine, but I certainly could years later when the money came in handy to do far more important things with my life.
But we don’t have to wait until Olam HaBa to see the wisdom in giving terumah now. We are here to elevate Creation. We live to elevate Creation, to take the mundane and use it for something meaningful. One dollar may buy a pack of gum which will taste great and last a certain period of time. It might even have an expiry date on it.
But one dollar given to someone in need may be the difference between someone going hungry that day, or being able to eat something. Together with other’s contributions, it might feed a whole family, or allow someone to wear decent clothes, etc. Because that is what God wants, it becomes infused with holiness, even if everything remains the same physically. Gold looks great in watches and can make a person feel rich. But the same gold given to build the Mishkan where man can serve God makes the giver wealthy…forever!
This is the important point. When a person gives terumah, they eat terumah. Not with their mouths, but with their being. The greatest thing about giving sincerely to benefit someone or something else is that it gives back to us. Reward in the World-to-Come, which is priceless, and completion in this world, which is personally fulfilling.
It’s one of the ironies of life that the yetzer hara has blinded so many people to. We think we are saving ourselves by being stingy, but every time we act selfishly, we save ourselves nothing. On the contrary, we cost ourselves a lot more than we save. It’s like working hard to make money and rather than buy food with it, the person starves to death trying to save it. What was the point of that?
This was the fundamental difference between Ya’akov and Eisav. As Rashi points out in Parashas Vayishlach, their confrontation ended up being an ideological one, two points of view on how to use this world. Eisav was a hoarder of wealth and power for its own sake because he believed the more he kept for himself, the more he had. Ya’akov understood that possessions are only meaningful as a means to bring out our personal greatness. That meant using them in an elevated manner, which he did. Everything he owned was only valuable in terms of its ability to be some kind of terumah at the right time, even as a gift to Eisav.
The rule is, when it comes to the material world, the more you keep the less you truly have, which is why such people tend to want more even beyond what they could ever enjoy. It sounds counterintuitive, but that’s only because we’re used to listening through the ears of the yetzer hara.
But when it comes to the spiritual world, the more spiritual greatness you accumulate, the more life you live. Spiritually giving is getting. And as the Kli Yakar explains on the brochah Yitzchak gave to Ya’akov, not just in the next world but in this world as well. Yitzchak made sure of that when he blessed Ya’akov with gifts from God.
THE TRUTH IS, as we saw back in Parashas Yisro, the entire Jewish nation is called a “Nation of Kohanim.” That does not entitle non-kohanim to eat the terumah of produce grown in Eretz Yisroel, but it does teach us that other kinds of terumah are available to us to “eat.” As we say each day:
These are the things that when a person does them, he eats from their fruits in this world, while the primary reward waits for him in the World to Come… (Peah 1:1)
It’s not talking about just anything, but about specific mitzvos, and really all mitzvos in general. On one hand, a mitzvah is the performance of specific act commanded by God. Giving charity because a person likes to give needy people is a really nice thing, even godlike. But giving it because God said to makes it into tzedakah, and a mitzvah.
What’s the difference? When a person does an act for themself, it doesn’t elevate the act or what they use. If a person does an act, even the exact same one, as a function of the will of God, then the act and what they used are elevated, and Creation is rectified.
One feeds the body while the other feeds the soul. A multi-billionaire can give away half of his money to charity, but if it is self-serving in any way, it may benefit the body but not the soul. And like all physical pleasures, the benefit will be fleeting. If it earns them any reward in the World-to-Come, it certainly will not be anything close to the amount they gave because, in the end, they didn’t give that much. It’s the heart that counts, not the amount of zeroes, unless those zeroes are a measure of how much heart was given too.
In the Mishkan, and then later the Temple, the altar corresponded to the heart of a person. The Kodesh Kodashim and the Aron HaKodesh corresponded to the head and brain of a person, but the mizbayach corresponded to the heart. It was the place that we gave our heart to God through sacrifice to remind us that this is what we’re supposed to be doing in life even away from the Mishkan.
This is what it means that the God dwells within a person. When a person clears their heart of foreign desires and leaves the space for only the will of God, then God is said to dwell within the person. They don’t abandon their own will but, in the words of the Mishnah, make their will like God’s will. And to the extent that a person does this is the extent to which they eat the terumah they have brought, in this world and the next one.
As my good friend Ithiel Snyder just reminded me, “True happiness comes from self-fulfillment not self-indulgence.” That’s Ya’akov versus Eisav right there, and getting it right is the way to become a personal Mishkan for God.
Talking About Eretz Yisroel
IN 1993 I PUBLISHED a short little book called, “If Only I Could Stay.” Unlike the previous three books I had already written, this book was intended primarily for Torah-observant Jews. I was on my way back to Eretz Yisroel after a three-year stay in Toronto, and I was astonished, and sometimes bothered, by the reaction of many religious Jews to my decision.
When a non-religious Jew asked me, “Why would you want to move back to Israel?” I was never surprised. They had yet to learn and appreciate what Eretz Yisroel means from a Torah perspective, even in this day and age. As far as they could see I was moving to a danger zone and a place lacking financial opportunity. Pursuing a closer relationship with God from their perspective was no reason to leave behind family, opportunity, and the comforts of an advanced society.
However, when I was asked the same question by religious Jews, it confused me. They were supposed to know the answer to the question already. They acted as if they knew first hand that Eretz Yisroel was the last place God would want a Jew to live today.
Only on occasion did I hear from an observant Jew:
“Wow, I admire you for that. I have no desire to go there right now in my present situation, but I certainly appreciate your willingness to live there.”
This type of response I could accept back in 1993, because at that time I did not see any reason for Jews to suddenly pick up and make aliyah en masse. I certainly could not imagine it happening before Moshiach came given how attached Jews—including and sometimes especially religious Jews—had become to the comforts and conveniences of Diaspora life.
Thus, at the time I returned back to Eretz Yisroel, making aliyah was a to-each-his-own kind of a thing. Understandably, just as I was a fish out of water outside of Israel, many Jews were felt like fish out of water in Israel. Nevertheless, did that justify what I often detected as a general disdain for Eretz Yisroel and making aliyah?
The question became even stronger when I recalled that it was specifically the rejection of Eretz Yisroel, back in the generation of Moshe Rabbeinu, that resulted in 40 years of desert wandering. It was as if their sin was our sin, that we had failed to learn the lesson from their punishment, and that we were setting ourselves up for a similar fate, God forbid.
This compelled me to write the book, “If Only I Could Stay.” As the title implies, the book was for Jews who had lost the “forest for the trees,” making the Diaspora their new Eretz Yisroel. “Yes,” I imagined many of them mournfully telling Moshiach, “I guess we have to go and follow you to Eretz Yisroel. If only we could stay here in the Diaspora where we feel at home.”
There is no question that making aliyah at this stage of history is a personal decision that must take into account many important halachic issues. Certainly until the Gedolei HaDor—the Torah leaders of the generation—call for mass aliyah, no one else can with any authority.
Nevertheless, this only addresses the halachic aspect of the issue. When the Spies rejected the Land of Israel in Moshe Rabbeinu’s time they too had yet to be obligated to cross the border into Eretz Yisroel. Somehow their rejection of the land so loved by their ancestors meant so much more than simply the refusal to settle down in that very land.
In fact, it is that very rejection of Eretz Yisroel that is holding up the Final Redemption…