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Terumah, Gift Giving and Valentines Day

Judaism places greater emphasis on deeds rather than inner motivations. No one can know what is in other person’s heart. No one can bring proper intention to every single deed. Therefore Judaism emphasizes action over belief, mitzvot over creed. Abraham Joshua Heschel remarked: “There is power in the deed that purifies desires. It is the act, life itself, that educates the will. The good motive comes into being while doing the good.” (God in Search of Man)

Motivation and intention are shaped by our deeds. Feeling follows action.

Yet this week’s portion suggests otherwise. “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts [termuah]; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25:2) Only gifts from those whose hearts are filled with proper intention are accepted by God. Is the construction of the Tabernacle the exception to the rule? Must our acceptance of gifts be dependent on the giver’s “inspired heart”?

Is a gift about the object or the intention?

So much of today’s gift-giving is obligatory. We give gifts for birthdays, anniversaries, b’nai mitzvah, weddings, even mother’s day and father’s day. And if we are to follow the advice of greeting card companies, we also give for secretary’s day, boss’s day, sweetheart’s day, grandparent’s day, every Jewish holiday, and of course the forthcoming Valentine’s Day. Our society attempts to obligate us to buy more. Advertising instructs us to purchase gifts for every imaginable occasion.

The Torah offers a needed corrective. The gifts that God most wants are those that come from inspired hearts. For the construction of the Tabernacle, God’s dwelling place on earth, only those gifts that are motivated by a purity of desire are accepted. Often, the most cherished gifts are those that are unexpected.

The intention of the giver appears more pure when the gift arrives in honor of no occasion nor in thanks for a job well done. There is a purity of motive when the gift is occasioned by nothing except love.

It is for this very reason that magazines offering advice on romance always counsel: “Surprise him or her with a gift.” If it were possible to say, the relationship between God and the children of Israel is in this “young love” stage. The commitment of the Israelites is questionable. And so God instructs Moses to accept gifts only from those whose hearts are in the right place. The people can thereby tangibly demonstrate their love for God.

Of course people often get carried away with gift-giving. “The people are bringing more than is needed…” So Moses instructed them: “Let no man or woman make further efforts toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:5-6) Ah, young love!

To nurture a loving relationship between God and the Jewish people, God makes allowances. God permits an overflowing of gift-giving, even though it might lead to a poverty of circumstance.

Furthermore, God allows the people to construct a home for God. Why else would God command them to build the Tabernacle? God does not really need a specific place to dwell. God lives nowhere and everywhere. The midrash observes: “Has it not been said: ‘The heaven is My throne…Where could you build a house for Me…?’ (Isaiah 66:1) What then is the purpose of the commandment: ‘And let them make Me a sanctuary’? To enable them to receive reward for fulfilling it.” (Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael)

Perhaps their gift giving might shape their love.

We rediscover. It is all in the name of love. It is all in the name of God’s love for us.

And some friendly advice: don’t forget to buy a gift for your love. It does not matter if it is large or small as long as it is accompanied by “I love you.”