Make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell within you. (Exodus 25:8)
Research in the field of positive psychology over the last two decades that it truly is better to give than to receive. In a study published in the journal Science, psychologist Elisabeth Dunn gave envelopes containing money to her 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 donate materials for 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 them.” 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 in holiness, for the name of the portion, Terumah—meaning “a donation”—comes from a Hebrew root for “to lift up.” 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.
The character trait of generosity is known in Hebrew as nedivut, which refers to an openness of heart that moves us to share what we have with others. The cultivation of this quality is an essential Mussar practice. The founder of the movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that “the spiritual is higher than the physical, but the physical needs of another are an obligation of my spiritual life.” We heal our own souls by bearing the burden of others and sharing what we have with those who are in need. As Alan Morinis notes in Every Day, Holy Day:
The heart gives freely when it realizes that it is not a separate and isolated entity, but rather belongs to larger wholes. Giving comes easily to such a heart because it experiences no rupture between the one who gives and the one who receives. Generosity by its nature draws closer the giver and the receiver, until ultimately there is neither “me” nor “you,” but only love.
Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
Begin each morning with the phrase: The generous heart gives freely
Then try to do three generous acts per day: one with your money, one with your time, one with your caring.