Terumah: The gift that can’t be translated between Palestinians and Jews

This week’s Torah portion, which my talk is built around, is called Terumah.

Terumah begins in a setting that’s dramatic, even for the Bible — Moses ascends Mount Sinai, in full sight of the Israelites, to all of whom the presence of God has appeared as a consuming fire, Moses has disappeared into the dark cloud and has remained in there for 40 days and 40 nights.

Terumah begins with God‘s words to Moses from within the dark cloud on Har Sinai, “tell the Israelite people to bring me Terumah; you shall accept Terumah for me from every person whose heart so moves him. And then the rest of the chapter details exactly what Terumah Moses shall accept – incredible fantastic gems and animal skins and oils in specific forms and colors. And what to fashion all these natural treasures into. …Poles and covers and hammered sculptures. All kinds of particular objects – a lampstand of pure gold – very specific and very detailed.

And the purpose of all of it is so that the people make a sanctuary for God that God may dwell among the people.

But there are no instructions on how to do any of this. There are no instructions on where to find these objects. (Are they “real” or only seen with the eyes of mystical experience?) No instructions about, for example, how to make a cover of pure gold and two cherubim of gold at the two ends of the cover. How to make wings spread out above the cherubim so that the cover is shielded.

God does tell Moses to tell the people  that after you place this cover on top of the Ark  and deposit inside the Ark the pact – the 10 Commandments – that I will give you, I – God – will meet with you and I will impart to you all that I will tell you concerning the Israelite people.

So the people are given a detailed list of fantastical ingredients and told that when they put the ingredients together in a certain way, God will dwell among us and God will reveal to us everything that we need to know.

One theme we could explore is gift giving – because Terumah is usually translated as gift. And that is a particularly apt exploration because this is the week in which we are preparing for Purim. And one of the core preparations for Purim is to prepare baskets of gifts for friend’s neighbors and family members – mishloach manot… Gifts that we give only from the heart just as the gifts to build this sanctuary are to be given. So it means that when we receive these we know that we are receiving gifts from someone else’s heart

What are the gifts that we receive from people’s hearts? Are we paying enough attention so that we can listen to people’s words and actions and see how they are coming from the heart? Even the most difficult words and actions. Can we look and pay attention so that we see that they are coming from the heart? And what is the effect on us when we do that?

This is precisely what we explored in our nonviolent communication training in the West Bank last month. How can we be so fully present with each other – Jewish Muslim Christian Israeli Palestinian German American European – how can we be so fully present with each other that whatever words we hear, we hear as an outpouring from the heart?

And the other theme from this week’s portion I want to explore is what Rashi said:

That there is no translation for Terumah. There are objects- ingredients- but to translate those means to really know them, to affect them…

How do we build a world that is a sanctuary for the highest good when we don’t know how to take the ingredients of our lives and translate them into instructions for living?

Dogen Zenji said, look to the cook, who can take any ingredients and prepare a delicious meal.

How do we talk to each other, make peace with each other, understand each other, and know each other without translation?

We sit together for nine days – a growing group of us – now probably 6-800 people have attended our trainings over the last 7 years-   from Israel, the West Bank and sometime, Gaza.   – sitting together staying in the room doing our own inner work so that we can hear whatever words we hear as an outpouring directly from the heart.

And we attend workshops and practice groups to learn more skillful ways of expressing what is inside our heart- and find how much our own hearts move, and the hearts of listeners- when we learn to listen to our own hearts and to then communicate in ways that come from the heart….

In Terumah, God says I only want Terumah- gifts- that move the heart. So it’s not just gifts that come out of a moved heart- its gifts that move a heart when they are received.

And this brings me to my favorite definition of dialogue which guides this work that I’ve been doing in Israel and the West Bank for the last seven years – it’s a quote from my Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh– he says that a dialogue is where both sides are willing to be changed.

And this is how I read the instructions from God– bring gifts that the bringing of the gift moves your heart that the receiving of the gift by me moves your heart and maybe even that the giving and the receiving moves whatever we can conceive of as the heart of God.

Because in our world today is it not the heart of God that needs to be moved for us humans to break through all the violence and fear and scarcity. How do we move the heart of God?

Here are the words I received this morning from an Israeli Jewish participant:

“My most powerful memories from the IIT were related to connection with people “from the other side of the wall”

I never imagined to have a beer and a talk with people who used to be in Fatah, activists in the intifada, and to find that my heart is big enough to have place for everyone.

This was, and still is, very moving.

Aside from many many NVC tools I have learned, this opening of the heart is the most powerful thing that could have happened. ”

And another Israeli Jewish participant:

“One of my most touching moments:

Oe day I was feeling very fragile and a lot of pain was stimulated by seemingly small unintentional actions of others. At one point I felt so much pain I went outside and cried for some time. When I came back, not sure what I was going to do, I met one of my new Palestinian friends, who then noticed I was crying. He suggested we go outside and that he listens to me. We sat together, me telling him my story and him listening very attentively. At some point he said “and that is really painful in your heart right?”- And then I started crying, he joined, and it was the sweetest moment of being together, with the pain, crying together.

It was so meaningful for me”

And here are the words I received yesterday, from  a Palestinian Muslim participant from Hebron:

“I originally belonged to the popular resistance committees, with Israeli and foreign partners from all over the world.  {This  was to engage in the } struggle against settlements and the occupation by non-violent means;  but,  through the NVC course,  I [now]  can connect with myself more and  we found partners – my brothers Israeli and the world- who  really shared their hearts and feelings and needs,  and we found that they  are sympathetic to our needs and understand our feelings well . Through skilled trainers like Robert Gonzales and  Doug and all the coaches, [we]  were able to touch my feelings and determine what Inside of me is  being pressured-[as if]  if they were a mother, a good doctor,  and believed that the only way to resolve conflicts and identify needs only communicate with partners who are listening to you and I sympathize with you and feel your pain and understand your needs and work with you to meet them all, thank you all who have benefited in experience and both lend me and put me towered by non-violence and I was totally transformed from the shape in my home with my children and with the entire community.”

One evening during our 9 days together in Beit Jala,  I invited anyone so moved to join me for my mother’s shloshim- 30 days after her passing. The room filled with Palestinians, Israelis, Europeans and Americans, and I felt so blessed to share my Jewish tradition’s ritual mourning with Jews, Moslems, Christians and Buddhists; to remember my mother amidst this outpouring of global love was an experience of touching our shared humanity in a new and deep way.

One day I sat with young Palestinians whose tears flowed from their eyes as they shared the experience of feeling such deep connection to and compassion for the Jewish people who they were meeting there.

I meditate everyday now on the wisdom I heard from participants- from a Palestinian elder, “pain has no identity.”  From a representative of the Bereaved Families, “our pain is our greatest strength.”  And from the trainers- “Our idea in NVC of honesty isn’t someone telling me what’s wrong with me.” And that NVC consciousness means that I want to speak and act in a way that shows that everyone’s needs matter.

I came away with a deeper seeing of myself- how self acceptance is always the key to my inner peace and happiness and energy to act in the world.

Religious Jewish woman (“settler”)

In my home group, Arab friends asked me so persistently what it means to me to have specifically an Arab’s heart in me, that I had to focus in feeling in away I had not quite before I found it feels like the heart misses her children.
When you care deeply about someone you know of but don’t know personally it’s a very short span to caring for those you don’t know of.

Also, over the course of several sessions of NVC theory of beauty of needs and the discerning (what are the feelings? which are the needs?) process, and in particular with some intimate talks in a session-group with Doug , it struck me powerfully: some of the teachings of the Baal shem tov that I’ve been learning and trying to practice for 20 years, were happening in this process of taking what comes up, and tracing it back in understanding to its most basic holy origin in what is human (usually termed the attributes of the sefirot in kabbala.) this recognition process allows greater acceptance of all that arises moment by moment.
So I have felt as one wisdom corroborated the other that something was made whole in me.

Something pleasing to God

And it can’t be translated

Can’t be put into words

How then t we reach across to one another- if the gift that the divine in us- our essence- can’t be translated?

This is the challenge we face today here in Asheville

And certainly a challenge we faced day after day in the west bank last month as up to 100 of us – Israelis, Palestinians, Germans, Americans, Australians, French… Sat together day after day for nine days in training and an experiment of living together using the consciousness and skills of nonviolent communication.

In Terumah, this week’s Torah portion we are given the ingredients of the gift but, as Rabbi Justin pointed out to us in Torah class this week, were not given any instructions about how to put these ingredients together. That seems to be something we have to figure out for ourselves.

And aren’t these the very challenges we face today here in Asheville in our country in Israel and the West Bank – it seems that we have all the ingredients to connect to come together to make peace to understand each other and yet there seems to be a set of instructions that we are missing.

How do we put together the raw material that we hear from each other?

In dialogue, we know the essential ingredients respect, openness, curiosity, 

What are some others?

Yes- so we know the ingredients-

But what are the instructions?

That is the challenge of Terumah

And of our lives

How do we LIVE, embody, these fine values and principles?

This is the training we go through in our NVC trainings.

So I spent 9 days with Israelis, Palestinians, Germans, Americans…whose hearts were so moved

And sitting together, building something together, which moves our heart our hearts

A dialogue is an exchange where both participants are willing to be affected…

We were affected by each other, by each other’s word…and we kept showing up

Sometimes we walked out…because we were affected…and we went back

The gift was our presence

Our willingness to stay present in the room…

About the Author
Roberta Wall offers trainings inspired by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg, founder of Nonviolent Communication and by the teachings of Mindfulness. She is a lawyer, mediator, trainer, parent, activist, mindfulness practitioner and coach. She shares her time between Israel and the beautiful Hudson River Valley of Upstate New York and travels the world coaching couples, individuals and organizations and facilitating workshops and retreats inspired by Nonviolent (Compassionate) Communication (NVC) as developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg and Buddhist teachers Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, and teachers and rabbis from her root Jewish tradition.
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