Dvar Torah: Terumah and Tetzaveh

Written by Alan A. Fisher on . Posted in Torah

Although the subject of Terumah and Tetzaveh is the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), as we know from all Jewish organizations, the building fund precedes any construction project. An underlying part of these Torah portions is the fundraising, and the methodology for Terumah and Tetzaveh is very different.

In this week’s Torah portion, תרומה, G-d starts giving Moshe instructions on building the Mishkan: “Take for Me a portion (תרומה); from every man whose heart motivates him you shall take My portion.” The word תרומה in this context is a voluntary donation–– but for a voluntary gift, “take,” clearly an active verb, is a strange word. The more common word for a donation is נדבה, which means a donation in response to urging. In contrast, a portion “from every man whose heart motivates him” is a donation whose virtue depends on the thought behind the donation. The person making the תרומה for the Mishkan must give it with his heart and soul and without any outside motivation. The collectors who take the תרומה must be Jews and must sit passively waiting for those wishing to do so to come and present their gifts.


תרומה contrasts with next week’s parsha, which opens with “ואתה תצוה”: “Command the Children of Israel that they shall take for you pure olive oil [and other items]…” תצוה is a commanded, or required donation. To use the scientific term, תצוה is a tax. According to Rashi and Rabbinu Bechaya, תצוה is an obligation for all those who sinned with Egel Zahav–– to make atonement so God’s presence could return to the Mishkan.

The distinction between תרומה and תצוה brings up a difference in opinion between Ramban and Rashi over the chronological order of the sections in the second half of Sefer Shemot and the reason for the Mishkan. Ramban and many other commentators claim that G-d gave the instructions for the Mishkan right after presenting the Ten Commandments and that the reason for the Mishkan was to extend the Har Sinai experience so that the rest of the revelation could take place with G-d’s presence among Bnei Yisrael. Rashi disagrees and claims that the Torah after Yitro is not in chronological order, and that the instructions to build the Mishkan came only after B’Nai Yisrael sinned with Egel Zahav (Golden Calf). [For details, see Rabbi Menachem Leibtag’s shiur on Mishpatim at www.tanach.org.]

The Mishkan was a temporary structure that God envisioned being replaced by a permanent Migdash, or Temple, at the place He would designate once B’Nai Yisrael returned to our homeland. The Temple would be a national place of worship, the intent being that all Jews would come for the three major festivals every year. Since the destruction of the Temple, and especially with the dispersion of Jews all over the world, the ideal of all of us returning to Jerusalem three times a year, all at the same time, is beyond my ability to comprehend. When Mashiach comes, he will explain how we are to implement the next stage of our history. Meanwhile, the institution of the synagogue enables us Jews to find a place where we can come together as a community and come close to G-d wherever we may be–– Israel, Europe, Australia, Los Angeles, or Maryland.

The Mishkan may have been unique in Jewish history by having its building campaign over-subscribed almost immediately. In recent times, most of our Jewish institutions have struggled both for building campaigns and ongoing expenses. We as a community can do a great mitzvah by coming together to help our Jewish institutions both survive and thrive: through Terumah, or voluntary donations, because our hearts tell us that these institutions deserve our support, or through Tetzaveh, or obligatory donations such as membership dues or taxes.

Alan Fisher, a retired economist with a government agency, is the membership chairman of the American Dahlia Society. He produces and shares a weekly compilation of divrei Torah (Potomac Torah Study Center) and davens most often at Beth Sholom.