Friday, February 15, 2013

Parsha Terumah: Voluntary Giving > Obligatory Giving

It’s that “most ‘wonderful’ time of year” where we get geared up for April 15th to file our taxes. Because who doesn’t love a burdensome regulatory system that has thousands of pages of tax code that’s next to impossible to follow, causes a lot of man-hours being used, or funding the oh-so-wonderful IRS that costs the taxpayers nearly $13 billion every year?  You know you’re a public policy nerd when you take this time of the year to have fun debating things such as lack of oversight in the value-added tax, whether the carbon tax is a good way to cut back on carbon emissions, or what I would consider an “ideal tax rate.” I also take this as a moment to reflect on the idea of spending money and what one does with assets. Money might be the fruit of our labors, but the spending of our money is also a reflection of how we view the physical and spiritual world because money is not an ends unto itself, but rather a means to an end. How we go about income, consumption, investment, etc., brings me to this week’s Torah portion, Parsha Terumah. 

At the beginning of the portion, in ch. 25, verse 2, it states:

דבר אל-בני ישראל, ויקחו-לי תרומה:  מאת כל-איש אשר ידבנו לבו, תקחו את-תרומתי.

Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take my offering. 

Looking at Rashi’s commentary of the verse, the word terumah, or offering, can refer to three offerings. The first two refer to a half-shekel donation that was a regressive tax that everyone had to pay. The third refers to the donations that each individual Israelite made. What differentiates these two types of offerings? The first was an obligatory tax that covered the sockets of the Tabernacle. The second, also obligatory, was a similar regressive tax to cover the communal offerings. The third terumah was set of gifts were voluntary. People gave because they wanted to, and they gave so much to construct the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, that they actually had an excess of goods to use. So why the distinction between obligatory and voluntary? Why the need for these types of offerings? 

I would like to extrapolate the idea of obligatory versus voluntary action to the great realm of Jewish practice. On a base level, we need a sense of obligation. It brings structure, it brings guidance, and the idea is there because let’s be honest, not every day do we feel like doing certain things. Obligation acts both as a foundation and as a safety net. In spite of that need, the Torah portion goes into this huge detail about the voluntary donations, making me conclude that the emphasis here is not on the obligatory giving, but on the voluntary giving. 

Taking a quick look at Pirke Avot, Ch. 1, Verse 3, it states that we should not be slaves and serve our Master, i.e., G-d, for the sake of reward, but rather be like one who serves without that condition [of receiving a reward]. And let the fear of Heaven be upon you.” We notice that fundamental idea of obligation, or being an eved Hashem. The Maharal’s commentary on this verse points out that the highest form of service is one that is motivated by ahavat Hashem, the love of G-d. That is precisely what the Israelites are doing in this week’s portion. A bulk of their offerings are voluntary. They are giving because they want to. They want a place where G-d can dwell, and a place where they can feel a sense of divinity and spirituality. 

Translate that alacrity into 21st century terms. We shouldn’t ultimately do things because we feel we have to or “our parents did it, and our parents’ parents did it.” Ultimately, we should say to ourselves “I do it because I find meaning in what I do, it brings me closer to G-d, and because we want to.” With this mentality, not only do we strive to, as Nachmanides puts it, to go beyond the letter of the law, but because this approach is healthier, both spiritually and emotionally, and as the Israelites show us in the parsha, it gets better results.


  1. I practice Judaism because I love it, because it brings me closer to HaShem, and because I want to and find meaning.. but a sense of obligation towards the past brought me into this love. A sense of duty and responsibility to my forcibly converted Hebrew ancestors led me into this love, though; it was the gate to the garden, if you will. It has been entirely voluntary and a journey of love, but I do see my duty very clearly as being a Jew in the Jewish world. Without that sense of obligation to my past, it would not have been there. I don't think we should do anything in Judaism formulaically or by rote or "just because": but I also think we shouldn't slough off the past as dead or declare history irrelevant. As a historian, I know that history is more alive and more surprising than people give it credit for.

    1. Forcibly converted ancestors? I am truly not trying to be flippant or insulting, Mark, but, am I getting this straight or are you saying that your ancestors are 70 BCE Idumeans who were forcibly converted to Judaism by the Chasmonaim, and you KNOW your lineage back that far, and your generations have continued to practice Judaism anyway? Or did I get it backwards, and you are/were gentile and found out your predecessors were Jews forcibly converted to some form of Christianity? Sorry for being dense.

  2. I am gentile and found out my predecessors were Jews forcibly converted to Christianity, Anon. They were converted in July 1772, which is when the Inquisition was in full swing for many Catholic countries, not just Spain. Jews at this point in time were overwhelmingly societally oppressed, marginalized and poor, so I doubt that even "voluntary" conversions meant that Jews were being wooed by Christianity per se... the vast majority of such conversions were done in the hope of procuring a better socioeconomic existence, and because of the desire to survive.