an antique drawing of a great cloud hovering over the mishkan with israelites worshipping
"The Tabernacle in the Wilderness" from the 1890 Holman Bible

Our hands and heads held high, let’s scale those spiritual heights

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 25:1-27:19

Oy, thought the Rabbi of Chelm, it’s Parashat Terumah again. He looked at his student and wondered, in these days of pandemic, climate change, BLM, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, and political crisis, how can a Torah portion about Moses collecting materials to build a dwelling place for God, the Mishkan, be relevant?

Not to mention all that will go inside of it: the ark, table, menorah, altar, walls and curtains. The text does say that all those with a willing heart (nediv libo) were to bring Terumah to build the Mishkan. I’ll start with that …

“I have a question,” says the student. “What’s Terumah?”

Rabbi: “We can understand the word Terumah by visualizing it. Pretend the book I am holding is a gift, and I’m going to give it to you by hand. Let’s both of us stand up, you reach out and I will give it to you by extending the book toward you and you reach out to accept it. See, I raised my hands and lowered the book into yours, making a “ruum,” a hill, a little mountain, a “ramah,” in the air.”

Student: “I went to Camp Ramah!”

“Right, ramah is a high place. Terumah is the shape we make when we make a gift.”

“Is there a better word than gift? I return gifts all the time.”

(Wow, thought the Rabbi, this is going in another direction. I’ll drop in a little Rashbam, aka Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir, France, 1085-1158.)

“The Rashbam says that ‘Terumah’ implies something that is set aside from one’s own property.  It’s a contribution from yourself.”

“Do you mean my own property or from my own self, like my heart?”

Rabbi: “Yes! Here’s a teaching from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (z”l):”

Hence the special word that gives its name to this week’s [parashah]: Terumah. I’ve translated it as “a contribution” but it actually has a subtly different meaning for which there is no simple English equivalent. It means “something you lift up” by dedicating it to a sacred cause. You lift it up, then it lifts you up. The best way of scaling the spiritual heights is simply to give in gratitude for the fact that you have been given. God doesn’t live in a house of stone. He lives in the hearts of those who give.”

Student: “Scaling the spiritual heights is what I want to know more about. It’s not the Terumah itself, but the feeling of Terumah is gratitude. It sounds like lifting up one’s hands and head.”

Rabbi. “Yes! In Exodus 14:8 the Torah states that the children of Israel left Egyptian bondage ‘b’yad ramah,’ visualized as hands held high and heads held high. The image is of a people filled with pride, not defeat and dejection. Have you ever felt that?”

Student: “Yes. Back when we could, my family went to Third Baptist Church of San Francisco on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day. That’s how I felt when the choir and congregation sang ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’”

Lift every voice and sing 

Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Rabbi: “Imagine the Israelites, formerly enslaved people, hands held high and heads held high, bringing their Terumah to build the Mishkan.”

Student: “I am imagining James Weldon Johnson, born 1871, died 1938, a Black man in Jim Crow America, in the second verse:”

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

“That’s a midrash on Parashat Terumah,” says the student.

This stuff never gets old as long as I am with the young, thought the Rabbi.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].