Our parshah derives its name from Bnei Yisrael’s donations to the construction of the Mishkan, the sanctuary that accompanied the Jewish people through the wilderness en route to Eretz Yisrael.
Donations to the Mishkan had to be “inspired by the heart,” i.e., wholehearted. One had to give “nicely” (Rosh HaShanah 7b), relinquishing all claim and connection to whatever he was donating. Only then had he truly given it to Hashem, and only then could it be truly sanctified, retaining nothing of its previous mundane existence.
Therefore the Torah refers to these contributions as terumah, literally “lifted.” Just as one had to donate part of his produce to the Kohanim (Devarim 18:6), lifting it from his basket of fruit and separating it from everything that remained his, one had to separate himself from whatever gold, silver, etc., he chose to contribute to the Mishkan, retaining no personal attachment whatsoever.
In the case of mandatory donations, the donor technically fulfilled his obligation even without being “inspired.” Yet such donations were far from ideal. Building the Mishkan is one thing, but building a relationship with Hashem is another. As Chazal succinctly tell us, “Hashem desires the heart” (Sanhedrin 106b).
In Every Generation
The Torah applies in every generation. Even today, bereft of the Beis HaMikdash, we can and must make a sanctuary for Hashem – in our hearts. As the pasuk says, “they shall make Me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst,” not “in its midst” (Reishis Chochmah, Ahavah 6).
Just as the historic Mishkan was built on the donations of Bnei Yisrael, the timeless one we carry in our hearts requires terumah – complete giving, no strings attached. “The world stands on three pillars: Torah, service, and acts of kindness” (Avos 1:2), and terumah is itself the pillar of all three:
Torah study demands our full attention. When learning, we must disconnect from everything else in our lives. Unless one checks his cell phone and other worldly distractions at the door of the beis midrash, freeing himself to concentrate on Hashem’s word, his efforts aren’t fit to be called Torah study.
One meaning of “service” is what Chazal (Ta’anis 2a) characterize as “service of the heart” – prayer. Regarding this pillar of Jewish life, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 98:1, 4) explicitly states, “One who prays must concentrate on what he’s saying, imagine the Shechinah before him, and remove all distractions, until his thoughts and intentions are pure […] and if other thoughts occur to him during prayer, he should be silent until they cease, [because] “prayer is instead of sacrifices, [and] foreign thoughts disqualify a korban.”
We can extend this analogy to sacrifices. Just as the daily offerings were purchased with mandatory half-shekel donations, in which every Jew had to part with his money, communion with Hashem requires that we part with all else: “Before prayer, one should contemplate the loftiness of Hashem and the lowliness of man, removing all worldly pleasures from his heart” (Rema ibid., 1).
If we daven while preoccupied, we’re still connected to ourselves, so how can we connect with Hashem?
Acts of Kindness
We should give tzedakah with no expectation of benefitting in return. If, after the fact, I’m still clinging to my donation, I haven’t completely divested myself of it, so it’s not a terumah in the deepest sense.
If someone gives only to be honored, to get credit, he’ll be rewarded for helping the poor or benefitting the community with a large beis midrash or shul. But that’s not “making Me a sanctuary, “ it’s making himself one! And if there’s no Mikdash for Hashem, there can be no “I shall dwell among them.” (Mesillos BiLevavam)
For Heaven’s Sake
Building a Mishkan means taking oneself out of the equation. Paradoxically, the more we offer up everything we have to Hashem, leaving ourselves behind, the more we ourselves are uplifted. So let’s put the “true” back in terumah, giving wholeheartedly of our time, money, etc., in the service of Hashem alone.
Question for Discussion
When did you or someone you know do something with the purest of intentions, no strings attached?