It’s always heartening to read the statistics on charitable giving in the United States, because the Jews always outstrip the other religious affiliations. There is a certain logic in this. Donating was born with the nation. Even before the Jews left Egypt, they were commanded to bring an offering to God. In our Torah reading, as the Jews catch their collective breath after the headlong rush from Egypt to Har Sinai, they are told to give to the Mishkan building fund. I wonder: Did they put up one of those thermometer signs with a rising red line? In any case, the campaign was an amazing success. But how can we describe this type of gift?
The term for the giving is also the name of our parsha, TERUMA. But what does that word actually mean? This article’s title contains a survey of many English attempts to translate TERUMA. But the authoritative Aramaic translation of Onkelos renders it AFRASHUTA, ‘the separated material’. That connotes something different than a donation. It sounds like the process of HAFRASHA or ‘taking’ the gifts which should go to the Cohanim and Levi’im, like taking ‘CHALA’ from our bread dough. This term seems to mean that a portion of our possessions isn’t really ours, and we’re just ‘separating’ off that part which actually belongs to another party.
The Malbim, I think, helps us with the term TERUMA. In Sefer Tehilim, he explains the term L’HARIM (perhaps ‘exalt’). This is a common expression in those Tehillim about praising God, like AROMIMCHA ELO-HAI at the beginning of ASHREI. He explains that L’HARIM is different than LA’ALOT, which means to ‘raise up’ or to ‘ascend’. ROMIMUT means to elevate to the extent that the item being described is now totally separated from the mundane. It has ascended into another realm, unreachable. LA’ALOT can be accomplished by a ladder or elevator; L’HARIM can only be achieved by supernatural, spiritual forces.
The Beit HaLevi explains that the Torah thought that it was important to teach about the importance of sharing wealth and giving charity at the outset of our nation’s history. He suggests that we are being taught that we have to make certain that all of our possessions were honestly earned, because we know that mitzvot can’t be accomplished with ill-gotten materials, like a stolen LULAV. Fascinating, but based upon the real meaning of the term, it seems that something greater than the giving of TZEDAKA or a NEDAVA is occurring. A new plane of existence is being described.
Rabbeinu Bechaye, on the other hand, explains that this new reality into which these gifts have entered is really about cognitive awareness. He suggests that the term TERUMA appears three times in our verse because it’s describing the three different levels of mental awareness: CHACHMA (wisdom), BINA (understanding), DA’AT (knowledge). Those are the three levels of the SEFIROT which exist only in the heavenly, spiritual realm, as opposed to the lower seven which describe holy behavior in this realm.
It appears that TERUMA describes giving of a different kind than we are accustomed to. There are so many reasons why people give gifts or donations, some are altruistic, some are selfish. However, when it’s TERUMA, the gift has been exalted to a level far beyond the giver. A true TERUMA donation can’t have a plaque stating ‘Donated by Family X’, because the gift has been elevated to a new plane. It’s no longer connected to earthly parameters. It’s no longer connected to any worldly reality.
I understand the practical reasons for dedications and plaques, and that’s fine. I remember when a friend of mine was convinced to make his donation publicly so as to encourage others to emulate his generosity. As someone whose salary was paid by charitable largesse for fifty years, I appreciate these considerations. On the other hand, our parsha is describing a beautiful moment in time when the Jews were inspired to pure, altruistic giving on a unique scale. They kept giving enthusiastically until Moshe had to plead for them to stop. It was a sublime moment.
The ultimate message of TERUMA isn’t a pragmatic one. Instead, there is a supremely spiritual sense. Our pasha teaches that when we give in this transcendent manner, we can begin to understand the true nature of material goods. Their true worth is only based on the good they can do, for the recipient and the soul of the donor.