No Deposit, No Return (Terumah)

By Rabbi Shohama

A special post for Community Service Month and Parshat Terumah.

It was 1976 and I’d been alienated from Temple life for 20 years. Not that my parents didn’t try: they insisted my family and I come with them every year to High Holidays, and then lovingly guilt-tripped me into joining a synagogue “for the sake of the children.”

That Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Maurice Davis gave a sermon that reached deep into my soul (though at the time I didn’t know I had one). He named his talk “No Deposit, No Return,” probably motivated by what then was the new practice of charging an extra nickel for each bottle of soda, to encourage recycling.  Return the bottle, get the nickel back.

Rabbi Davis’ point was that Judaism is much like that. If we don’t give to the Temple services and community, then we won’t feel connected. We won’t have the unique sense of gratification that comes from giving. We won’t feel the kedushah (holiness) that comes with generosity. Of course, a deposit on a bottle is rather straightforward. For a deposit to a holy cause to have deep effect, the heart must be in it.

How right Rabbi Davis was. When I opened my heart to deep relationship with God and my Temple, my joy increased. This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, makes the same point about opening hearts in giving to spiritual community:

God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts: you will accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. These are the gifts that you will accept from them: gold, silver and copper; blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting on the [priests’ shoulder plate] and breastpiece. Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:1-8).

450px-Holman_The_Tabernacle_in_the_WildernessGod tells Moses to tell every Israelite whose heart was so moved to bring terumah (holy gifts) to build the first Sanctuary. The directives are both specific and varied. Some bring kesef (silver), zahav (gold) or nechoshet (brass); others bring skins or wood. Some bring stones for the High Priest to wear; others offer talent as artisan, weaver or builder. By these heartfelt offerings, the people together build a Sanctuary for God, and God can “dwell among them.” This is the source and meaning of our liturgy’s song, “Sanctuary”: V’asu li mikdash v’shochanti b’tocham / “Make Me a Sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Ex. 25:8).

The word terumah (holy gifts) comes from the Hebrew root ram (lift up). When we give, we lift up ourselves and the cause that receives. Our sages deemed it vital for all to give — both rich and poor — because giving lifts ordinary lives and makes them extraordinary. When we give from our hearts, we fill with satisfaction and worthiness. When we give, we build a Sanctuary for God. By our giving, God dwells among us.

To fulfill our holy duty of terumah, our shul honors Community Service Month in February. We ask all who find nourishment in this sacred community — whether physically in New York or online — to uplift this heartfelt cause in three ways.

First, we are promoting our $30,000 Accessibility Fund Drive so our doors can be open to all. It is our duty to place no stumbling block before anyone seeking spiritual community (Lev. 19:14) — but our 1950s building has outside steps, and our bathrooms and social hall are down a steep flight of stairs. Our synagogue must be a house of prayer for all people (Is. 56:7), regardless of ability or age. We can achieve this goal if all members and friends contribute with a full heart. Please make your tax-deductible gift by our Paypal site or by check.

Second, our Children’s Support Drive is collecting new games, toys and books for the Pediatric Wing of Montefiore Hospital. It is our duty to support especially especially the young and vulnerable. Bring gifts to any Temple activity, especially Game Night (Saturday, Feb. 15, 7-9pm), or to Kaleidoscope Gallery (280 City Island Avenue, City Island, NY). Items purchased for this drive at Kaleidoscope Gallery will be 25% off.

Third, we ask members to join one of our committees. Just like the Sanctuary of ancient days, we need fundraisers, writers, planners, caregivers, designers — whatever you can offer. Give time and talent for Development (fundraising), Programs (activities), Outreach (care for the ill and persons with special need), Building (caring for our physical Sanctuary) and Oneg (sponsoring receptions). To volunteer, email Paul Klein.

In this special time of terumah, may all be blessed with the gifts of giving and receiving. May our terumah gifts uplift us and build a Sanctuary to enhance holiness in the world. With a generous deposit of love and generosity, may we merit the returns of blessing, community and joy.

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