Dëvar Torah — Parashath Tëruma (Exodus XV.1-XVII, 19)
So begins our parasha:
And Ha-Shem spoke to Moshe to say, Speak to the bënei Yisra’él, and they should take for Me tëruma, from each man whose heart donates it you will take My tëruma. And this is the tëruma which you will take from them. (XXV, 1-3)
The rest of Verse 3, together with vv. 4-7, details the various materials whose contribution satisfies the requirements of tëruma, while v. 8 tells us their ultimate purpose:
And they will make for Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell among them.
In the Talmud (Yërushalmi Shëqalim I, 1), the Rabbis derive from the three-fold repetition of the word tëruma (“conventionally translated “donation”) that the passage actually refers to three distinct contributions: the tërumath adanim, a contribution of silver from which the bases (adanim) of the Mishkan’s wooden supports were made (XXVI, 15-25); the tërumath shëqalim, the contribution of the half-sheqel incumbent on every male Israelite aged 20 years and up, discussed in more detail in XXX, 11-16; and the tërumath ha-Mishkan, the contribution of the materials used to build the rest of the Mishkan and its utensils.
A initial reading of v. 2 leaves the impression that a tëruma is indeed a donation, in the sense of a free-will offering: “… from each man whose heart donates it … ”, but the fact that the Yërushalmi cited above connects this passage with the commandment of the half-sheqel, suggest otherwise:
Everyone who passes the census, from twenty years old and up, will give the tërumath Ha-Shem. The rich man will not give more nor the poor less than the half-sheqel, to give tërumath Ha-Shem to atone for their lives. (XXX,14-15)
The obligation could hardly be less voluntary or more rigid.
Furthermore, the term tëruma is used in other contexts which are plainly not voluntary, e.g., the contributions of ordinary Israelites from their sacrifices and crops to the maintenance of the priests (cf. Exodus XXIX, 27-28 and Numbers XVII, 8ff) or the commandment to separate a portion of dough, which is called tëruma (Numbers XV, 20-21; Shulchan ‘Aruch Yoreh Dé’a 328:1). Both are obligatory, and like the half-sheqel, incumbent on Israel to this day.
Bearing the above in mind, what can the phrase “whose heart will donate it” actually mean?
Perhaps we can find a clue in the Oral Torah. In the first mishna in Tërumoth we learn:
Five may not donate, and if they did donate, their tëruma is not a tëruma: the deaf-mute, and the mentally incompetent, and the minor, and one who donates what is not his, and a non-Jew who contributes what belongs to a Jew, even with his permission.
The first three categories are, fairly obviously, excluded because they are regarded as incapable of making a rational, informed decision. The fourth category carries with it the implcation that the tëruma has been contributed against the will or without the knowledge of the property’s owner, so that the donor is not an actual owner’s representative or agent, but is arrogating to himself another person’s property rights.
But the fifth one is puzzling. The non-Jew in question is not mentally incompetent since, we must hasten to add, if he wishes to make a contribution of his own property it is accepted. Yet even with the Jew’s permission, he cannot serve as his agent in this matter. Why should this be?
The Rabbis long ago enunciated the principle:
Greater is one who is commanded and does than one who is not commanded and does (Qiddushin 31a).
At first blush the pronouncement seems counter-intuitive. We know, for example, from our own experience that a child who is told by his father to clear the dishes from the table and does so uncomplainingly is worthy of praise; but if he offers to do it on his own, without prompting, such a kid is showered with compliments!
But consider a moment. The volunteer of his own free will may, also of his own free will, refuse. His behavior need not be consistent, since it is dependent on his whim. Today he wants to cooperate; tomorrow is a different story. His previous decisions do not obligate him. However, one who feels himself under orders, duty-bound, strives for greater consistency, and carries out those orders even when he “does not feel like it.”
Let us now reconsider that precious child, and we shall see that he has been trained. In the past, he has been asked to help out. If he then complied out of fear of the consequences of disobeying a parental command, he has now come to see and understand that by doing these things he gives great pleasure to his parents, whom he loves and wants to please. So he cooperates without coercion, without reference to the consequences, out of love.
Now we can see why a non-Jew, even one so precious that he would bring tëruma from his own produce, cannot serve as the agent of a Jew. One must not minimize, still less denigrate, the impulse which moves him to make a gift to the Creator. To the contrary, as King Solomon said at the dedication of the first Temple:
And also to the foreigner who is not of Your people Israel, and comes from a far land for Your name’s sake. For they will hear of Your name and Your strong hand Your outstretched arm and he will come to this house and pray. You should listen … and do according to all that the foreigner will call out to You, in order that all the peoples of the Earth will know Your name to fear You like Your people Israel (I Kings VIII,42-44).
But he is not under the discipline of Torah; tëruma is not one of his imperatives. His relationship to the Creator in this regard is not that of one commanded to the Commander.
The word tëruma yields a root t-r-m, which, as we have seen, connotes “donate, contribute, volunteer.” But the written Torah consistently uses the verb hérim (“raise up, elevate, exalt”) from the root r-y-m in conjunction with tëruma, rather than taram (cf. e.g. Exodus XXIX, 27; Numbers XV, 20 and XVII, 19, inter alia). Seen in this light, the nature of tëruma is revealed: by virtue of its dedication to a holy purpose, the property is exalted. Perhaps for this reason, we speak of hafrashath tëruma, “separation” or “setting aside” of tëruma.
Similarly, by virtue of dedicating the property, we too come to be exalted. Through steady performance of G-d’s commandments, collectively called tëruma, we pass through the stage of merely dutiful performance — payment of a tax, as it were — until it becomes a donation of the heart, an act of love without reference to the consequences of non-performance. If in this way, we can harness our strongest urges, such as the urge for material wealth, then we can come to observe the other commandments in the same way; we can pass from observance out of fear of our Heavenly Father’s strong right hand to observance out of love.