Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Gift of Giving (portion Terumah)

Make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell within you.
                        (Exodus 25:8)

It has long been said that it is better to give than to receive.  Apparently, the latest social science confirms this ancient truth.  Psychologist Liz Dunn recently published some revealing research in the journal Science.  In her study, she gave envelopes containing money to students at the University of British Columbia and told them that by day’s end, they had to either spend the money on something they wanted or purchase a gift for someone else.  When Dunn interviewed the students later, the results were clear: those who gifted others were significantly happier than those who kept the money for themselves.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God asks the Israelites to bring gifts, which will be used in the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that they will carry through the desert for the next forty years.  God tells Moses: “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.”  And the people respond with extraordinary generosity, bringing forth beautiful fabrics, tanned skins, fine wood, oil for lighting, precious stones and, above all, gold, which will be used to cast the sacred vessels.

Why does God request such offerings?  Lest one think that the Holy One needs a luxurious dwelling place, the Rabbis point to the wording of Exodus 25:8: “Let them make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell among them.”  God does not ask for a sanctuary in order to dwell in it;  instead, God suggests that through the building process—which invokes the people’s generosity—God will dwell among them.

In other words, God asks for our gifts because God knows that the very act of giving opens the heart of the giver and thus creates the possibility of intimacy.  When we share what we have with others, we raise ourselves (the name of the portion, Terumah—a donation—comes from a Hebrew root meaning “to lift up”) in holiness.  Through giving, we draw upon our own higher angels and invite the Divine into our lives.

In other words, it really is better—healthier and holier—to give than to receive.

In that spirit, I will end with Rabbi Yael Levy’s poetic interpretation of the portion:

Bring me gifts of what you love,
Gifts of beauty, radiance, and joy.
Bring me gifts of what you value - what you hold most precious and dear.
And make for me a sacred place that I might dwell within you.

Know that it is not your gold and silver I desire,
Nor your dolphin skins, copper, or jewels.
What I am asking for is your generosity,
            Your willingness to give.

For I am seeking intimacy:
            Make for me a sacred place by opening your heart
                        And lifting up the work of your hands.
            Create a space for my presence
                        By honoring your beauty and offering your gifts.

And while I am present in the boundless, the spectacular, the transcendent, the grand,
My desire is to live among you
In the intricacies of your everyday.

So please,
            Light your lamps,
                        Set your tables,
                                    And invite me in.

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