2 Terumah (Exodus 25, 1 – 27, 19) – the need to give and contribute

The Tabernacle occupies a central position in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), and is the center of ritual and sacrificial worship of the Israelites in their wanderings in the wilderness before entering the land of Israel (and continues to be a center of ritual and sacrificial worship after the Israelites enter the land of Israel until the building of the Temple in Jerusalem by Solomon). In the Torah reading of Terumah, the command is given to build the Tabernacle (Exodus 25, 8). The term terumah literally means contribution, and the Tabernacle is built by contributions of the Israelites (Exodus 25, 2) – “Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering (terumah); of every person whose heart makes him or her willing you shall take My offering (terumah)”. The Tabernacle then, which was seen as the dwelling place of the presence of God, was to be built entirely on the basis of voluntary contribution of the heart. The question here is – why is contribution of the heart the basis of experiencing the presence of God?


People think mistakenly (in my eyes) that we as human beings are in need of receiving love. There is no question that receiving unconditional love not dependent upon, and regardless of, our behavior contributes very much to our psychological health. However, in my view, receiving of love, which is beyond our control, is not really a need – and, our true need, which we do have control over, is to give love and contribute to others. Our focus must be not on seeking our own happiness but on helping others experience happiness. Just as according to the famous statement of the President of the United States, John Kennedy, “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” – so, too, from a psychological point of view we must focus not upon what others can do for us to help us experience happiness but upon what we can do to help others experience happiness.


One of the famous teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a great Chasidic teacher who lived in the 19th century, is that “it is a great commandment (mitzvah) to always be in joy” (מצווה גדולה להיות בשמחה תמיד). In my view, there is no commandment to always be in joy in the Bible. There is a commandment to be joyful on festivals, but no commandment to always be in joy. There are those who wish to learn that there is such a commandment to always be joyful from the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 28, 47) – “because you did not serve the Lord, your God, in joy”. However, the verse in its plain meaning is not a commandment but a reason for curses that will befall the children of Israel, and the verse is speaking about the children of Israel not serving God in joy in times of prosperity from which it cannot be logically deduced that we are to serve God in joy always (even in times of a lack of prosperity). The term joy (שמחה) hardly appears in the Torah (the 5 Books of Moses), and happiness (אושר) does not appear at all as far as I am aware. The ultimate values of the Bible are moral values, such as justice, compassion, freedom, equality, love, and peace. In the Bible, the terms happiness and joy appear outside the Torah in other Biblical books but are really central religious terms only in the Book of Psalms. But, in the Book of Psalms, the terms happiness and joy are not in the form of commandments, and the concepts of happiness and joy are presented in the main in the context of, or as a result of, living a moral life, as in the opening of verse of the Book of Psalms – “Happy is the person who doesn’t walk in the counsel of the wicked”. According to the Biblical conception, one needs to say not like Rebbe Nachman that “it is a great commandment (mitzvah) to always be in joy” but that “it is a great joy to always be in commandment (to fulfill moral obligations)” (שמחה גדולה להיות במצווה תמיד).


Rebbe Nachman, as I mentioned, was a Chasidic teacher, and the Chasidic stream in Judaism is a form of mysticism. Mystics conceive of the essence of religion as a personal experience of enlightenment (in the case of Judaism, cleaving unto God) in which one experiences a deep feeling of happiness and joy – in distinction to the Biblical conception of the essence of religion as good deeds, as according to the verse “you shall do that which is righteous and good in the eyes of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 6, 18). In the Biblical conception moral laws and teachings take precedence over matters of ritual (and ritual is to express moral values and ideals that reflect the moral will of God). Morality, as the essence of Biblical religion, is social in nature and an expression of our concern for the welfare and happiness of our fellow human being – and the focus is upon the other. Happiness and joy are personal experiences – and the focus is upon ourselves. Happiness and joy are not matters of moral obligation and commitment but simply something (like receiving of love) that we naturally desire out of our natural concern for ourselves. Morality (like giving of love) requires that we transcend our natural self-centeredness and animal nature in being not only concerned for our own welfare but also with the welfare of our fellow human being.


As a psychologist-counselor, I studied for a number of years at the Adler Institute in Israel. Adler Institutes, throughout the western world, are based upon the teachings of Alfred Adler who was the first to have fundamental disagreement with Freud (and Freud expelled Adler from his group in Vienna as a kind of psychological heretic). Adler was the first great thinker in the field of modern psychology to emphasize the social aspect of psychological health. According to Adler, a psychologically healthy person has a feeling of social belonging and social interest characterized by cooperation with, and contribution to, others – and, such a feeling necessarily expresses itself in good relationships with those around us. According to Adler then when a person transcends his or her self-centeredness in order to cooperate with, and contribute to, others this (social interest and feeling of belonging) is the outstanding sign of psychological health – and, such a person will experience as a result greater personal happiness and joy though his or her focus is not upon personal happiness but upon contributing to others.


The emphasis in the Bible and Jewish tradition based upon the Bible is upon commandments and moral obligations. If there are moral obligations, then necessarily there are corresponding rights as well – however, the emphasis in the Bible and Jewish tradition is upon moral obligations. For example, in the Jewish tradition, there is a commandment to visit the sick, and the sick thus have a corresponding right to receive visitors – but, visiting the sick is a moral obligation imposed upon us. By contrast, the emphasis in the legal system and culture of the United States is upon individual rights. If there are individual rights, then necessarily there are corresponding obligations not to infringe upon the rights of others – however, the emphasis is upon individual rights. For example, in the legal system of the United States, there is a right to freedom of speech, and thus there is a corresponding duty imposed upon others not to infringe upon the right of another to freedom of speech – but, freedom of speech is an individual right. When the emphasis is upon individual rights, the focus in upon the happiness and joy of the individual. When the emphasis is upon moral obligations, the focus is upon social justice and acts of kindness toward our fellow human being.


Moral obligations in order to fulfill them actually demand a willingness to sacrifice our own personal happiness and joy. This does not mean that we are to seek suffering, but that we are willing to suffer in order to fulfill moral obligations. In order to fulfill the commandment of the Jewish tradition to visit the sick I am displaying a willingness to sacrifice my own personal happiness and joy in that there are many other things that I would rather do than visit a sick person if I were concerned only with my personal happiness and joy. There are humanistic (cognitive) psychologists who suggest that paradoxically when we pursue our own happiness and joy, then happiness and joy seem to flee and escape from us. Preoccupation with ourselves, and our own happiness, often leads to anxiety and tension, and can easily degenerate into a concern with obtaining esteem in the eyes of others rather than self-esteem. But, when we are willing to sacrifice our own personal happiness and joy in being concerned for the welfare and happiness of others, then we as a result experience happiness and joy ourselves – exactly as according to the Biblical conception. A concern for the welfare of others often allows us to forget, or not be preoccupied with, our own personal troubles and worries, or to see that there may be others who suffer even more than we do, as well as perhaps improving our own self-esteem and feeling about ourselves in helping others.


In the Biblical conception, reflected in the Torah reading of Terumah, the basis of experiencing the presence of God is contribution and giving of the heart. Many have pointed out the very strange wording of the verse toward the beginning of the Torah reading of Terumah (Exodus, 25, 8) – “And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them”. Seemingly, the verse should say that the Israelites are to make a sanctuary that God may dwell within it – but, it says instead that God may dwell among them. The sanctuary that is being spoken of is a sanctuary among the Israelites that is built in the heart – and, the foundation of such a sanctuary of the heart is contribution (terumah).

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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