Pennies for Heaven: Terumah 5779

PushkeHow 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.”

Tzedakah is a core value of Jewish life, and yet we do not find early evidence of this word for righteousness being associated with charitable donations. God says that Abraham will teach his household to “do righteousness (צדקה) and justice” (Gen. 18:19) but that doesn’t seem to refer to charity per se. A beautiful verse in Psalms states, “As for me, in justice (בצדק) I behold Your face, I take my fill, wide awake, of Your image” (17:15, trans. Robert Alter). As Alter notes, this Psalm contrasts the fleeting satiety of full bellies with the lasting satisfaction of divine presence. While the Psalmist may not literally refer to charitable giving here, the contrast between hedonistic pleasure and righteous encounter with God suggests the importance of our practice of tzedakah.

We all know that it feels good to give tzedakah, so why should we shrink from offering that experience to others? The Torah emphasizes that gifts are to be accepted only from “every person whose heart so moves him,” so we know that such gifts must not be extracted by force. Still, Jewish texts emphasize the universal obligation of raising up material resources and becoming a donor, contributing to the community. As Mar Zutra teaches, “even a poor person who lives off of tzedakah should give tzedakah.” When the poor are invited to become donors, it gives them the dignity of contributing to the community, and reminds all that ultimately we are all “takers” more than “givers,” since none of us can claim credit for all of the blessings of our lives.

Since Talmudic times there has been a practice of associating the giving of tzedakah with prayer. We read that Rabbi Elazar used to give a coin to the poor before praying (b. Bava Batra 10a), and this came to be seen as pious practice, as reflected in the codes of Rambam (MT Gifts 10:15) and Rabbi Karo (SA OH 92:10 and YD 249:15). However, it seems that the idea of keeping a tzedakah box or pushke in synagogue originates in the mystical circles of Tzfat in the 16th century. In I Chronicles (29:12) we read, “Riches and honor are Yours to dispense; You have dominion over all.” This passage is integrated into the morning prayers (in ויברך דויד), and it came to be standard practice on weekdays to give a coin to charity as one said those words. This is a lovely custom, but what is mystical about it?

Moshe Halamish writes about the mystical dimensions of tzedakah in Tzfat and later practice. In kabbalistic theology there is constant anxiety about the dis-integration of divinity when the Sefirot become detached from one another. In Hasidic practice many mitzvot are introduced by the meditation, “for the sake of the union of the Holy One and his Presence,” which refers to the Sefirot of Tifereth and Malkhut, which is sometimes known as “the poor one,” based on Kohelet 4:13. In North African and many other Jewish communities, tzedakah was given at regular intervals of the service. When a person takes money and gives it to the poor, there is a sense of parallel action in two realms. In the physical realm, two people who might have been estranged become connected through the gift. And in the spiritual realm, the different aspects of God become joined, unleashing blessing from heaven to earth. This creates a moment that is propitious for prayer.

This mystical perspective seems quite distant from the verse as we find it in Exodus 25:2. After all, our Torah portion speaks of a physical project of gathering building materials for the tabernacle. And yet, the mystical association with fund-raising is not far from the plain sense of the Torah. Just before this passage we found Moses in a cloud, dwelling with God for forty days and forty nights. The tabernacle will now bring God’s cloud down to earth, filling the tabernacle and forming a column overhead. The tabernacle will become a two-way communication device, with the people addressing God at the altar, and God addressing the people from the Holy of Holies. The act of raising up materials is the first step in establishing a durable link between heaven and earth. This was true then, and it remains true today. When we share our resources, building community structures and supporting people who are at risk, then we create a sense of unity and of divine presence. In justice we can see the face of another person, and in justice we can sense the presence of God.

שמות פרק כה פסוק ב

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי:

ילקוט שמעוני נחום רמז תקסא

אם שלמים וכן רבים וכן נגוזו ועבר. דרש רב עוירא זמנין אמר לה משמיה דר’ אמי וזמנין אמר לה משמיה דרבי אסי אם רואה אדם שמזונותיו מצומצמים יעשה מהם צדקה וכל שכן כשהם מרובים. וכן נגוזו ועבר. תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל כל הגוזז נכסיו ועושה מהם צדקה ניצול מדינה של גיהנם, משל לשתי רחלות שהיו עוברות בנהר אחת גזוזה ואחת שאינה גזוזה גזוזה עוברת שאינה גזוזה אינה עוברת ועניתיך, אמר מר זוטרא אפילו עני המתפרנס מן הצדקה יעשה צדקה.

דברים פרק יב פסוק יז

לֹֽא־תוּכַ֞ל לֶאֱכֹ֣ל בִּשְׁעָרֶ֗יךָ מַעְשַׂ֤ר דְּגָֽנְךָ֙ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֣ וְיִצְהָרֶ֔ךָ וּבְכֹרֹ֥ת בְּקָרְךָ֖ וְצֹאנֶ֑ךָ וְכָל־נְדָרֶ֙יךָ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תִּדֹּ֔ר וְנִדְבֹתֶ֖יךָ וּתְרוּמַ֥ת יָדֶֽךָ:

משלי פרק יד פסוק לד

צְדָקָ֥ה תְרֽוֹמֵֽם־גּ֑וֹי וְחֶ֖סֶד לְאֻמִּ֣ים חַטָּֽאת:

בראשית פרק יח, יט

(יט) כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַעַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת־בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת־בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְקֹוָ֔ק לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא יְקֹוָק֙ עַל־ אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו:

תהלים פרק יז, טו

(טו) אֲנִ֗י בְּ֭צֶדֶק אֶחֱזֶ֣ה פָנֶ֑יךָ אֶשְׂבְּעָ֥ה בְ֝הָקִ֗יץ תְּמוּנָתֶֽךָ:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף י עמוד א

דרש רבי דוסתאי ברבי ינאי: בוא וראה שלא כמדת הקדוש ברוך הוא מדת בשר ודם; מדת בשר ודם, אדם מביא דורון גדול למלך – ספק מקבלין אותו הימנו, ספק אין מקבלין אותו הימנו, [ואם תמצא לומר מקבלים אותו ממנו] – ספק רואה פני המלך, ספק אינו רואה פני המלך; והקדוש ברוך הוא אינו כן, אדם נותן פרוטה לעני – זוכה ומקבל פני שכינה, שנאמר: אני בצדק אחזה פניך אשבעה בהקיץ תמונתך. רבי אלעזר יהיב פרוטה לעני והדר מצלי, אמר, דכתיב: אני בצדק אחזה פניך. מאי אשבעה בהקיץ תמונתך? אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק: אלו תלמידי חכמים שמנדדין שינה מעיניהם בעולם הזה, והקב”ה משביען מזיו השכינה לעולם הבא.

רמב”ם הלכות מתנות עניים פרק י הלכה טו

גדולי החכמים היו נותנין פרוטה לעני קודם כל תפלה ואחר כך מתפללין שנאמר אני בצדק אחזה פניך.

שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות תפלה סימן צב סעיף י

טוב ליתן צדקה קודם (לו) תפלה.

שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות צדקה סימן רמט סעיף יד

טוב ליתן פרוטה י לעני קודם כל תפלה, שנאמר: אני בצדק אחזה פניך (תהילים יז, טו).

דברי הימים א פרק כט, יב

(יב) וְהָעֹ֤שֶׁר וְהַכָּבוֹד֙ מִלְּפָנֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּה֙ מוֹשֵׁ֣ל בַּכֹּ֔ל וּבְיָדְךָ֖ כֹּ֣חַ וּגְבוּרָ֑ה וּבְיָ֣דְךָ֔ לְגַדֵּ֥ל וּלְחַזֵּ֖ק לַכֹּֽל:

קהלת פרק ד, יג

(יג) ט֛וֹב יֶ֥לֶד מִסְכֵּ֖ן וְחָכָ֑ם מִמֶּ֤לֶךְ זָקֵן֙ וּכְסִ֔יל אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־יָדַ֥ע לְהִזָּהֵ֖ר עֽוֹד: