“When we are able to live generously, then we can create not only a sacred structure, but a more sacred world.”
Parashat Terumah begins the final section of the book of Exodus which deals mostly with the construction of the mishkan, Tabernacle, the Israelites’ portable desert sanctuary. Its opening words instruct the people to bring gifts to contribute to its construction. God tells Moshe to accept gifts from every person asher yidvenu libo, “whose heart so moves him.” How much they should bring is left up to each Israelite.
The word yidvenu has the same Hebrew root as nadav, meaning “generous.” God relies on the generosity of the people to fund the building of the mishkan. God is not disappointed. The people overwhelm Moshe with gifts: gold, silver, copper, fine yarns and linen, oil, precious stones and other beautiful things. Moshe ends up with more than he needs.
The Israelites’ giving is a wonderful example of nedivut, generosity. Generosity is a middah, a character trait or virtue that we all strive to cultivate. We can be generous with our resources, as well as our time, our wisdom, and our love. Additionally, generosity is a Divine quality. In the Talmud we learn that God is generous with God’s kindness to the world, and so we too strive to be generous with our kindness (Sotah 14a). When we act with nedivut, generosity, we help others, and we also elevate our own behavior and relationships.
As we reflect on shmita, we realize how the trait of generosity undergirds its laws. Last week, in parashat Mishpatim, we found the first mention of shmita in the Torah:
“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beast eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves” (Exodus 23:11).
As Robert Alter points out in his commentary, the motive for the sabbatical year in these verses is “a partial redressing of social inequity…” The laws of shmita urge us to create a more just and equitable world.
For this to happen, those who have more need to be able to share with those who have less. This starts with being yidvenu libo – with cultivating that trait of generosity within our hearts. When we are able to live generously, then we can create not only a sacred structure, but a more sacred world.
Rabbi Micah Peltz is the Senior Rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, NJ. He is also a member of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards and the New Jersey State Commission on Holocaust Education.