Terumah is a Torah portion about a community works project. But not any community works project, the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness, the place that would hold the presence of God among the people. It would be the center of not only worship and the model for the future Temple in Jerusalem, but the literal center of the encampment and the place where the people would seek justice, forgiveness and community.
Now there is an interesting line in this Torah portion, specific to the building of this structure and all its furnishings. It says that God asked Moses for donations to the project from those whose hearts moved them. This was not a tax but a request. A sense of community ownership, all have a piece who gave to the building. It belongs to everyone.
Now we can easily find many modern commentators who will find a way to link this Torah portion to their own political ideology. I could do that too. But what is more important to me is that the building of the Mishkan had to have buy-in from a lot of people to make it happen. This was something the people as a whole really wanted not something imposed on them. While the instructions came from God through Moses there was an out, people just could have ignored the call. But the success of an endeavor like the creation of a new people’s understanding of God and worship and the entire development of the Kohanim and Leviim could not have happened if Moses did it through taxing the people or from only a handful of people. Because the more people who give a little to a cause will add something powerful: ownership. This creates a ground swell of support for the endeavor not to fail even if those invested do not have the money, time or material to make it a success on their own.
We see this in many non-profits today. Organizations can live and develop comfortably on big donors and grants and many do. There are several organizations of various sizes that find themselves fully funded through the generosity of a few. But they also know that they are also then tied to whims, fate and desires of that few. But when your donor base is spread out over many people who feel a real stake in the project or program, they will rally to save a program because they will find it in their heart to do so. But what moves hearts? How do you get them invested not only with goods and dollars but with their soul. We can look to the Torah portion to see the way.
God’s direction to Moses was wise. The gold, copper, silver, fabric and other materials were gifts of the soul of the people. A piece of each family is woven into the physical structure of the Mishkan but also the spiritual essence that makes this truly holy. The writers of the Torah knew that holiness in this case cannot be forced on the people but must be created through their actions of giving of free will not a tax. They also should not be coiecred. It had to be a fully willful action because of the desire to complete this centerpiece of the community.
I often get asked for money for things and too often the call is out of pity for people in need. There is a dehumanizing of those who are poor, hungry, suffering that is suppose to move my heart to give. In fact it does the opposite. I cringe when I see the use of what some call poverty porn to try to get me to respond to a request, and I get outraged when people are dressed in ridiculous vests that say things like “Help the Retarded”. That is moving a heart to buy in it is giving an opportunity for someone to throw a dollar in a pot and hope they don’t have to think about it again. The Torah shows that Moses moved hearts with a vision, a story and promise that the people and God would be partners in a wonderful and perpetual relationship. That is truly what moves hearts and opens pocketbooks and creates sustainability. Today we can do the same thing when we tell the stories of why someone’s investment can make a difference. Not “see this child who is going to bed hungry” appeals that we almost want to give to make that go away, but some way build relationships with those being helped. To create a sense of holiness in the relationship between the person with resources and the person in need. Because given a chance you will find that when sharing your resources, just like the Israelites in Torah learned, you get a whole lot back.
So we go through the year begins, think of why and how you give to others, think of how you ask for support on behalf of others and even for yourself. Remember a few dollars tossed in a bucket does help, but it is a one-way and lonely road. Seek opportunities to build relationships, if your heart has never been moved like that before you are in for a real treat.