Terumah: It is Harder to Receive than to Give

Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Terumah is the name of this week’s portion of the Torah. In Hebrew, it means a gift or offering. It is about giving, more specifically about bringing gifts for God to the mishkan, God’s tabernacle. The parashah is also about the detailed working drawings for building the mishkan. What is the connection between gift giving and working and design drawings? The two topics would seem to be totally unrelated. Further, when the topic of the section is so explicitly about giving, why in my title do I imply that I will instead be writing about receiving?  

The Parashah begins:

1“The Lord spoke to Moses saying: אוַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־משֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:
2“Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. בדַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרֽוּמָתִֽי:

The instructions are unequivocally about bringing gifts, giving gifts and doing so out the goodness of one’s heart. Not as a duty, but only as one is inspired in your heart. The portion then begins to list all the gifts that the Israelites are asked to bring to and for the house of God. It is not accidental that this section follows the receipt of God’s gift to the Israelites, the commandments telling them what they are obligated to do and not do, But this is a higher point, about what the people feel they should give, not about how they are obligated to behave.

God does not seem to be bothered by receiving the luxurious gifts listed. These are poor ex-slaves who are asked to share with the house of God whatever wealth they managed to take with them from Egypt. The section seems to be only about giving and not about the difficulty of receiving. But probe into the context a bit.

In Egypt, gifts were brought to and buried in the pyramids with the mummified body of a person of noble rank. The Hebrews, in contrast, were being asked to bring their gifts to the house of a living God, one who would live among them and not in a separate life afterwards. “Let the people make Me this sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” The text stresses God’s nearness and not His distance, how giving is a means of bringing God closer to oneself. The theme of the section is written in opposition to “distancing” even as we are now being taught to distance from one another by at least two metres to prevent the spread of COVID-19. If distancing is now a virtue to prevent being infected, this section is about nearness as a matter at the core of the life of a spiritual community and a nation destined for a great purpose. Gifts were brought, not to be buried, but to be displayed.

So, to repeat, why write about it being harder to receive than to give? First, because it is. I was a first year pre-medical student at the University of Toronto. My Aunt Lil took me out to lunch shortly after I had begun my first year of studies. After lunch, as we stood on the south-east corner of Hoskins and St. George and we were about to go our separate ways, she reached into her purse and offered me an envelope. I asked what is was. She said it was a gift to help me out as I pursued my studies. I opened the envelope and in it there was a one hundred dollar bill – the equivalent in purchasing power to about two thousand dollars today.

I was taken aback. I insisted on returning the money to her. “I did not need it,” I insisted. My fees were paid by scholarships and I earned enough money to cover my other expenses.” I did not thank her for her generosity, but, instead, insisted on putting forth my pride in being self-sufficient. I am embarrassed to this day about my response sixty-six years ago.

It was not just the lack of grace that I demonstrated. It was about who I was and who I was not. I definitely was not a very commendable human being. I signaled that self-sufficiency was more important than sharing. I perceived receiving a gift as taking on a form of obligation that I did not want. I was not so much overwhelmed by my aunt’s offer as dismissive, in fact, contemptuous for her not recognizing my supposed strength and independence. I may have been a poor relative, one of three children raised by a single mother, her younger sister, but I would and could make it on my own. What is even worse, in my mind I gloated. I bet that my older brother who had enrolled in first year premeds with me, had accepted an equivalent gift. I never asked him, but in my mind I lauded my superiority over him. In reality, my pride stood in the way of recognizing a gracious offer.

Why then do I say that it is harder to receive than to give? My brother would have had no difficulty. He would have been thankful for easing the burden of going to university and providing extra spending money. It is not hard to receive if you are open to the generosity of others. But to learn to accept gifts – which is really very hard – one has to first learn to give them, to engage in largesse and to do so voluntarily even if you are not well off yourself. The Hebrews from the very start were being taught to give voluntarily, action even more important than obeying out of duty. For in learning how to give, one learns how to receive, in this case, how to be open to the message that God was trying to impart.  

My experience was the opposite. I remember one of my own sons when he was very young, on seeing a beggar on the street, turning to me and asking for a quarter. I gave it to him absent mindedly without even inquiring why he asked. Perhaps he wanted to buy a chocolate bar. Instead, shyly and furtively he sidled over to the styrofoam cup. While looking skyward and, thinking he was unnoticed, he dropped his quarter in the cup. He then scurried back to me with a glow and a spirit of having achieved a remarkable release and pleasure. And he clearly did not want any recognition for what he had done.

The real lesson here is not as much about his deep understanding of giving, but about his even deeper understanding of receiving. For he had no trouble asking me for a quarter and taking it. His difficulty was in giving it away so as not to embarrass the man receiving the gift of a child. He was acutely aware that he did not want to embarrass the street person. He also was not looking for any credit for himself.

Read the second verse again. “Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.” (my italics) It is about taking, not giving, taking on behalf of God and taking from God. We can only give freely when we learn to take graciously, for what we take is not for ourselves but for the divine spirit of giving of oneself and creating.

But that is not how I once understood myself, the world and my relationship to others in my world. My wife brought home a beautiful and I daresay an expensive sweater as a gift for me. Embarrassed, I opened the gift. I expressed my admiration for the sweater. “But why?” I protested. “I already have too many sweaters.” For the hundredth or the thousandth time (she never gave up trying to teach me), she swore. “I will never buy you a present ever again.” Her generosity never allowed her to keep that vow. But in exasperation, she walked off. “You’re such a big lunk.”

This was not when I was young and full of false pride. I supposedly was older and more mature. But I easily reverted to type and my practice of always “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” The issue was not appreciation of beauty and generosity of spirit, but a close examination to see whether the horse had healthy teeth and whether it would be worth adding to one’s stable.

How do you teach those who are hard of heart? By teaching them how to give. When they learn the joys of generosity of spirit, of voluntarily giving, then their hearts can be melted and they can learn the harder lesson of receiving. And it is a more difficult lesson. Much more difficult. That is why the verse refers to taking, not receiving. I recall a moment in my life when I had been taught to be much more open even though I had grown up to be stoical. I remember the pride I took when I walked home at the age of 12 after having had my tonsils removed in a surgeon’s chair. When I went to the dentist, I always refused freezing and endured the terrific pain of low-speed drills available at the time for fixing my cavities. (It was before the time of fluoridation of water.)

However, I had attended a dentist appointment after a weekend spent in trying to learn to open up, to lower my defensive barriers, to discard my body armour.  I sat in the dentist’s chair and, as usual, waved away the offer to freeze that area of my mouth. However, when he started to drill, I almost hit the ceiling in extreme pain. I had never felt anything like it in my life. It was excruciating. It was obvious that I could not get my cavity filled when I was in such great distress and, for the first time, I agreed to having my jaw frozen while my cavity was filled.

Instead of learning that being open to the gift of feelings from another meant also becoming very sensitive to pain, I immediately tried to reconstruct my barriers. I wept for the stoical self that had been lost and which I tried to recover, but he seemed lost forever. I was betwixt and between. Neither very open but no longer with the thick walls of protection I had built around myself.  It was a dangerous place.

How do you learn to live in the vicinity of God’s home, to visit God and take the gifts on offer and partake in what God has been given? By learning to give first. By learning that generosity of spirit is a precondition for acquiring an open heart. By learning that when one gives, one must give freely. This is a very much more important lesson than the obligation to behave dutifully. And in learning to give freely, one learns the most important lesson of all, to be able to take freely. “You shall accept,” but not as a duty, but in the same spirit of freedom and generosity which is a prerequisite of giving. Learning to take does not have a functionalist meaning, does not entail an examination of the healthiness of the horse’s teeth, does not mean, as some commentators suggest, engaging in a functional and transactional exercise to vet the gifts on offer.

But gift giving requires care, requires careful thought, requires an intimate knowledge of the needs and desires of those for whom a gift is intended. My late mother-in-law excelled in such giving. When she sent a card, when she inscribed a few words accompanying the gift, and when she chose the gift, it always seemed the most perfect for the occasion and most suited to the needs and personality of the receiver. She made gift-giving into a high art and did so with aplomb and modesty. That is why the text describes the detailed working and design drawings for the mishkan. It is an expression of thoughtfulness that must go into gift-giving.

And then receiving. And then taking. Not why did you buy that for me. I don’t need it. Not, ‘I already have a tie in that colour.’ One has to learn to receive a gift in a way that teaches the other about one’s needs and desires. By making it a guessing game, one reveals a paucity of spirit. Appreciation demands that you become so engaged with the other that they learn in precise detail the colour, shape and size of the very gift perfectly suited to you. Receiving a gift is the highest exercise in pedagogy.

“These are the gifts.” They must be specific and precise, exactly what is needed. God, in communicating what is acceptable to be received for the mishkan, teaches the other how and what to give.  No sending winter boots when there is an earthquake in Haiti.

The Israelites had made their escape from Egypt. They had escaped slavery. More importantly, they escaped a value system the Israelite God abhorred. The epic escape and flight are over. Now came the much more difficult part of the journey – entering into the covenant with God. An initial phase requires learning what it means to live under the rule of law rather than a tyranny. However, the second stage is even more difficult – learning how to give freely so that one can be open to God and receive freely.

That does not involve happenstance behaviour anymore than living under the rule of law does. The pillars and beams, the curtain and the menorah, have very precise specifications. The gate of the mishkan courtyard had to be beautifully embroidered with “blue, royal purple, scarlet and fine twined linen” (38:18). The dimensions of the mishkan are specified in detail. So are the materials to be used. When we learn how to give a gift and what to give, we learn how to receive.

It is said that we live in an attention culture. The most important attribute is to be able to attract, attention, to be noticed. However, the Torah teaches us that it is we who must learn to attend to others, not as an act of disciplined will and duty, but with a fully free and hearty spirit. We do not attend by flexing our muscles, tightening our jaws and stiffening our countenance. To attend, we must be relaxed. To attend, we must surrender pride. To attend, we must acquire grace. Undiluted attention is required. No distractions. Prayer is the highest form of attention. That is what Judaism asks us to do – to attend to God, to attend to others, to attend to our real selves.

Judaism is a religion of grace and not just of laws. It is through God’s grace that the Israelites were chosen. It is through God’s grace that they escaped from Egypt. It is through God’s grace that they received the commandments and the covenant that ties every Jew to God. It is through grace that we learn the highest form of spirituality, how to attend to others and give and, even more importantly, how to receive with grace.


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