Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.
In this week’s sidra the command to build the sanctuary (Ex. 25:8) is not what we would expect. Instead of saying, “Let them build Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in its midst”, God promises, “…and I will dwell in their midst” – i.e. in the midst of the builders.
Why doesn’t He speak about inhabiting the building? Because He spans the whole universe, and no edifice, however grand and beautiful, can contain Him.
It is strange then that the Tanach calls the sanctuary “Bet HaShem”, the House of God, and to this day we speak of a synagogue in the same way. The description is understandable but rather problematical. The fear in Biblical times was presumably that people would think that the sanctuary was God’s dwelling-place whereas the rest of the world was not His domain or concern. We had to be warned that (as Psalm 24 tells us), “The (whole) earth is the Lord’s”.
We have the same problem today, thinking that the synagogue (and nowhere else) is where to find God. Result? As Eliezer Berkovits says, the Almighty is like a prisoner locked up in the synagogue, visited at set times and wholly divorced from the real business of daily life in the world at large.
Having synagogues is nullified if we leave God behind when we go home. The only way to make the sanctuary meaningful is to carry God and His message with us wherever we go.
T’RUMAH & THE ELEVATOR
The British word for it is a lift: the American word is an elevator, and in Hebrew it is a “ma’alit”. You have to choose the right word or you might not be immediately understood. Interestingly, not only do all these words both have the meaning of raising up, but there is another Hebrew word – “T’rumah”, the title of this week’s portion – which is not used for a lift/elevator but conveys the same idea.
Not that the Torah portion is concerned with how you get up and down a tall building, but when it speaks of a “t’rumah” it means a gift or offering, implying that when you nominate a gift of any kind for the purposes of religion and the community, the gift takes on a new nature. It is no longer mere money or just a physical item: it has been elevated and now serves a higher purpose.
It transforms the giver too: when you make an offering in the name of God you yourself are elevated. Some donors realise this so well that they almost treat their gift like a bribe (God forbid) which assures them of immortality – or least of earthly notability. I know people who would only give if their donation earned a physical reward like naming rights for a building or at least a plaque on the wall. It is probably better to name a building or erect a plaque than for the community to be left without financial support, but the Jewish ideal is to do the good deed for its own sake even if no reward eventuates.
There was a certain quiet member of my congregation to whom I once went for a donation of several thousand dollars to create a particular facility for the synagogue. He said to me, “I’m happy to give, but on condition that there are no votes of thanks and that it’s completely anonymous!”
GIVING SOMETHING BACK
Cecil Roth called the postwar era of Jewish history the philanthropic age, since it required vast sums for the rebuilding of Jewish life. Philanthropy goes back at least as far as today’s sidra, which enumerates the three types of gift to the sanctuary – gold, silver and brass.
The givers of gold were the most generous, not just because of the nature of their gift but because they gave out of golden-heartedness. Those who gave silver were doing a mitzvah, but their motivation was a little lower. When they gave it may have been in the midst of misfortune; they may have felt that giving to the sanctuary might make things better. The donors of brass, the sages thought, waited to give legacies and bequests. The most praiseworthy group were the golden givers who gave at once and without ulterior motives.
Where did any of the three groups get the wherewithal to be generous? In the wilderness there were no shops, safe deposit boxes, or mineral excavations. Some rabbis thought the precious substances the people possessed came directly from God, carried on heavenly clouds. The donors were giving something back to God. His gifts were given by way of trust, as if to say, “All these things remain Mine. Look after them! Use them wisely!”
The wise way of looking after God’s gifts was and still is that of allocating as much as possible to sacred purposes.