What a radical, remarkable, enduring gift the Jews have given the world — a paradigm of reciprocity, between one another and with God. This week’s Torah portion, T’rumah, begins the Israelites’ construction project of a portable sanctuary to carry through the wilderness, at the heart of which is the ark to house the etched tablets of Torah.
The essence of this communal, sacred building project is offered in the parshah’s beginning words, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.’” The Hebrew verb for “bringing” these gifts to God, “v’yikhu,” literally means “take.” The choice of this word reflects the biblical authors keen understanding of human nature at our core. Simply put, the giver of a gift is no less a beneficiary than the receiver of a gift. Actually, it’s in the giving that provides the greatest take-away — it gives meaning to our lives.
Although the Torah portion begins with people bringing gifts to God, to be used in the building project, let’s not lose sight of who initiates the cycle of giving. Of course, it’s God! What precedes is Torah’s pinnacle moment, known as Matan Torah, the Giving of Torah — from God to Moses to all of the community of Israel (including those non-Israelites who choose to cast their lot with the Israelites). This begs the radical question — does God, like human beings, have an existential need as the giver, to also experience what it’s like to be on the receiving end.
The answer is given just a few verses later, when God requests of Moses, “V’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham — and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” The rabbis, in a stunning midrash (which I will paraphrase with poetic license) likens God to a parent whose daughter just got married, and will be creating a home of her own. As parents celebrate their children finding their life partner, the life cycle of marriage also marks a separation from parents. In the midrash, the father appeals to his daughter and son-in-law to build a guest room for him to stay when he visits.
In this parable, the daughter represent Torah (and by association, God) and the guest room as the sanctuary we build to invite and welcome God’s presence. The midrash concludes, “So said the Holy Blessed One to Israel: ‘I gave you the Torah, but I can’t separate from it. Nor can I tell you not to take it! So wherever you go make me a house where I can live.’”
As Rabbi Avital Hochstein teaches, “The explanation of the parable presents a picture of how anxious God feels after giving the Torah. Once the Torah is given, God feels obsolete. God has already revealed Godself, and given us His wisdom, what more does humanity need of God Himself?! True, God is the source of the Torah and the giver of the Torah, but it would seem, that since the Torah was indeed given, those who received her are no longer in need of a connection to her source — God.”
What better role model than God! The most fulfilling giving requires us to be vulnerable. The most meaningful relationships are manifest by a healthy reciprocity. It’s more than a transaction off goods, it’s an exchange of what is life giving and life sustaining. As rabbis, many of us are blessed to work with students on their path to become b’nai mitzvah. The conversations around the “mitzvah project” are always the most profound to me. To a person, whether a 12/13 year old, or an adult, when asked how they feel as “givers,” the answers is always “really good, uplifted, grateful, etc.” How perfect that the Hebrew word for gift, after which our Torah portion is named, T’rumah, shares the same root meaning “to elevate.” That’s the take-away when we give a gift from the heart. We are elevated. In this way, we are constantly making room for God to accompany us.
The deepest relationships thrive on a healthy reciprocity; relationships that sustain and nourish one another. The metaphor used when we return the Torah scroll to the ark, is that of a tree. I can’t think of a more fitting metaphor for reciprocity. The tree provides human beings with oxygen, literally life with every breath we take. The tree, and all of plant life, in turn, receives our outbreath, the carbon dioxide that allows them to flourish. In this way, the metaphor reinforces our relationship with Torah and God. We need one another, in healthy reciprocity.
“Etz chayim hi lamachazikim bah —it is a Tree of Life for those who hold fast to it.” That embrace has sustained the Jewish people, and served as a gift to all of humanity over the millennia. Let us continue to hold one another in a mutually loving embrace. JN
Rabbi John A. Linder is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley and a leader of the Valley Interfaith Project.