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Parshas Terumah - Sacrificing for G-d

By: Rav Dov Lipman

The Torah serves as life’s roadmap for Jews in all generations and was not given solely to the desert generation.  Every section of the Torah contains some message for each and every one of us wherever and whenever we live.  With this perspective let us explore the opening passage of this week’s Parsha.

“G-d spoke to Moshe saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and they should take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivates him you shall take My portion.  This is the portion that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; and turquoise, purple…They shall make for Me a Sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.  According to  everything that I show you…and so shall you do.” (25:1-9)           

G-d commands the Jewish people to donate specific items to be used in the construction of the Mishkan.  What is the eternal message in these verses?  How can we grow in our personal Avodas Hashem from this command, one that is seemingly limited to the generation of the desert?

The concluding words of the portion quoted above add significant weight to our question.  Rashi quotes the Gemara in Sanhedrin (16b) which understands the words “and so shall you do” to mean “for all generations.”  Rashi explains that this refers to the measurements and designs of the vessels which will be described in subsequent verses.  These details should be followed in future Temple construction. The Ramban questions Rashi’s understanding of this Gemara since Shlomo Hamelech, himself, did not adhere to these precise measurements when he fashioned the vessels for the First Temple.  Furthermore, even if Shlomo did adhere to these precise details, how can this be called “for all generations” since Rashi’s understanding limits the Gemara’s teaching to those eras when the Mishkan and Temple existed!  Therefore, we will continue our search for another understanding of this Gemara armed with the Gemara’s explicit teaching that the lessons of this section must be applicable to every generation – even those without a Mishkan or Temple. 


Let us examine more closely the words used in these verses to discover their perpetual message.  The commentators question why G-d says, “and let them take for Me a portion” instead of “and let them give for Me a portion?”  After all, the people were giving their possessions as donations to the Mishkan.  


The Alshich explains that we find in the Gemara (Kiddishin 7a) that although a husband is obligated to give his wife the wedding ring while announcing the intent of this transaction, if she gives him the ring while he makes the pronouncement, the marriage is still valid.  This ruling is difficult to understand since the husband must give something to his bride in order to “acquire” her as a wife in Jewish law.  The Gemara explains that the pleasure she receives from his acceptance of her gift serves as a commodity he has given her through which he can acquire her.


Using this concept, the Alshich explains that when the Jewish people donate something to the Almighty they also derive tremendous pleasure. While they might be giving physically, they are taking emotionally.  This is why the Torah uses the word “take” in the context of a gift to G-d.

The Jewish people in the desert gave physical objects to help build the Mishkan through which they “took” emotionally.  We can learn from here that through donating tzedakkah – be it money or objects – to institutions of Torah and Tefillah, we are the ones who are actually gaining through our giving.  This could be the eternal message of this section and it is a meaningful one.  However, further exploration reveals that the everlasting lesson “for all generations” runs much deeper than this. 

Many take note of the fact that the section quoted above ends with the words,  “…so that I may dwell among them.”  The Torah is describing the construction of the Mishkan.  Therefore, it should have said “so that I may dwell in it.”  Commentaries, including the Nefesh Hachayim (1:84), explain that this teaches that G-d does not dwell within the confines of the Mishkan building alone but that our actions can prompt G-d to dwell in the midst of every single Jew. 

This brings to mind the beautiful words of the 16th Century Kabbalist Rav Elazar Azkari, familiar to many as the song, “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh.”

“In my heart, I will construct a Tabernacle to glorify His honor and in the sanctuary I will place an altar to glorify His splendor.  For the eternal light I will take the fire of the Akeida and for a sacrifice I will offer to Him my soul, my singular soul.”   

While these words are beautiful and inspiring, they are also problematic.  Torah Judaism does not believe that G-d and religion exist simply “in our hearts.”  We are required to study Torah and perform mitzvos thus making ourselves more G-dly!  What, therefore, does Rav Elazar Azkari mean when he speaks of making a sanctuary for G-d in our hearts as a goal? 

Furthermore, we must ask a question on this entire concept beginning from the Torah’s description of G-d “dwelling among them all the way through Rav Azkari’s poetic words.  G-d is not bound by space and is everywhere.  G-d is always with us.  What do we mean, therefore, when we talk about doing actions to bring G-d into the Mishkan and into our hearts?

There is an interesting Midrash Tanchuma which can help shed some light on this issue.  The Midrash states (Pekudei 3):

“The Tabernacle corresponds to the Creation of Man who is a miniature world.”

The Midrash goes on to explain that the Menorah corresponds to the eye, the Shulchan to the mouth, the incense altar to the nose, etc.  What does this Midrash mean?  How can we compare vessels of the Mishkan to parts of our body?

Perhaps we can suggest as follows.  After the first section quoted above, Parshas Terumah explains the precise way the vessels of the Mishkan should be fashioned with very specific materials and measurements.  We, with our limited understanding, have no idea why these details matter.  For example, why should it make a difference if a vessel was a cubit taller or shorter?  However, in the celestial order which G-d created and in the reality in which He exists, these specifications were necessary to bring His presence, as it were, to the Mishkan.   In a similar vein, we cannot truly understand the reasons for G-d’s commandments.  While we do search for explanations to make the performance of mitzvos more meaningful, ultimately, we simply accept that these actions change us into more G-dly beings.  We fulfill G-d’s commands despite our inability to comprehend how this transformation occurs.

Thus, when we use our eyes, our mouths, and other parts of our bodies to do G-d’s will, we are mimicking what was done during the construction of the Mishkan’s vessels.  We are using the tools which G-d has given us to make ourselves G-dly and to make G-d a part of who we are just as the Jews in the desert brought G-d into their midst.  Thus we understand the comparison in the Midrash.

Based on this approach, we can answer our first question on Rav Azakari’s words.  We are not suggesting that it is enough to simply have G-d “in our hearts.”  The opposite is true!!  G-d can only be in our hearts, if we use our bodies to perform the actions which He has commanded.  Once again, a very meaningful message which applies “for all generations.”

We must, however, take this one step further to answer our second question regarding the fact that G-d, by definition, is always “in our midst.”  If we look carefully at the verses quoted above, donating the materials, alone, does not bring G-d to the Mishkan.  G-d stipulates a prerequisite for these vessels to be effective in accomplishing their purpose.  The Torah states that the donations must come “from every man whose heart motivates him.”  A simple action will not help to bring G-d into our midst.  It is clear from this verse that this goal can only be achieved through the combination of the action together with the person’s intentions to forge a relationship with G-d. 

As we pointed out above, G-d is always all around us.  He is not bound by space.  However, as explained in the mussar sefer “Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh,” we do not necessarily want to feel this connection.  We create barriers which make it impossible for us to sense His existence and closeness to us.  The barriers can be our focus on the physical realm, our sins, or the impurity which we introduce into our lives.  When the Jewish people truly desired to connect with G-d and then followed G-d’s precise instructions and commands in the building of the Mishkan, they were able to sense G-d’s presence in their midst.

The same applies “for all generation” when we build our personal sanctuary for G-d’s presence to dwell in our hearts.  Performing mitzvos and studying Torah are necessary but not quite enough.  Many individuals do both and still do not experience G-d dwelling in their hearts.  That is because they are only doing actions by rote.  They do not have the focus, the intent, and the desire that these actions should connect them to G-d’s presence.  They lack the prerequisite of the “motivated heart.”  To apply Rav Azkari’s words, they do not feel the desire to “sacrifice their soul,” to open themselves up to a relationship with G-d. 

Make no mistake about it, establishing a relationship with G-d does require sacrifice.  Hosting G-d in our hearts and recognizing that He is in our presence at all times inevitably means sacrificing many physical desires.  Much like Avraham was willing to offer his greatest treasure, his son, for G-d in the “fire of the Akeida,” we must be willing to make serious sacrifices as well in order to feel that close relationship with G-d.           

Now, the concepts of “take for Me,” “that I may dwell among them,” “so shall you do for all generations,” and Rav Azkari’s “Bilvavi” all unite to form a most beautiful message. Yes, by sacrificing our physical desires for G-d and fulfilling His commands with the right focus we are giving of ourselves to G-d.  However, by doing so we are truly receiving the greatest gift of all – a relationship and a connection to G-d, Himself.

Hopefully, we can all be inspired from the opening passage of this week’s Parsha to emulate the Jews in that generation who gave of their few and precious belongings with motivated hearts.  May we be stirred to begin the lifelong process of welcoming G-d into our hearts by finding just one aspect of our lives which we can “give to G-d” as our personal way of breaking down the barrier and feeling His existence and closeness.

May we try to focus on desiring and sensing that relationship while performing His mitzvos.  The feeling of completion, sense of purpose and, ultimately, G-dliness, which follows such steps is truly the greatest accomplishment we could ever hope to “take” during our time on this Earth.