How do you feel about fund-raising? For many people it is an unwelcome task, but pause to consider the expression, which refers to the elevation of money towards a higher purpose. That is the literal meaning of the word תרומה. Most Bible translations render it simply as “offering” or “donation,” but a few preserve the literal sense as in, “raised-contribution (Everett Fox), “elevation offering” (JPS, Robert Alter at Ex. 29:27), or my favorite, “heave offering” (KJV also at Ex 29:27, et al). These translations of תרומה preserve a sense of the physical act—a person takes an ordinary object and lifts it up both physically and symbolically, so that it can serve the needs of the altar, of poor people, of the community and ultimately of God.
Already in Deuteronomy (12:17) the word תרומה refers to general donations to the future Temple, not only to the original tabernacle, and this is how the rabbis came to understand the commandment. It was forbidden to eat crops until the תרומה had been separated for the priests, and tithes for the Levites and the poor. This practice of self-restraint, of giving to others before taking for oneself, is itself a form of elevation. Physical desires are made secondary to moral, communal and spiritual values. Judaism does not insist on an ideal of self-abasement here, but it does demand that all Jews expand their sense of responsibility to share resources for the sake of communal worship and social solidarity. As Proverbs says (14:34), “Righteousness (צדקה) exalts a nation.” Continue reading