Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Gift giving is an art.  By the time the gift has been selected, acquired, wrapped for presentation and delivered, many decisions have already been made.  The first question that arises when thinking of giving a gift is whether I am giving them something I want them to have or something they want to have.  Big ticket simcha gift giving has taken a cultural turn and answered this question for us.  People register for the gifts they want or need.  I can now select an item from their registry that fits my budget and our relationship.  But it isn’t always that simple.  What if I want to gift a newlywed couple something meaningfully Jewish but the gift registry doesn’t include Judaica?  What if I appreciate the artistic moments in my life, and want to gift them a subscription to a museum or theatre, but that’s not on their list?  Once someone has created a registry, do I still have the freedom to gift both the item and the implied wish I am expressing with that item?

When my children were little, both my husband and I wanted to have them begin to understand the messaging of gift-giving.  When one of us had a birthday, the other one would take the kids to a store in the mall that had a wall of gifts for $5 and under.  The kids were told they could choose one thing from the wall as their gift.  Some of our kids chose quickly (whatever was at eye level), while others stood and agonized for far too long about what to get.  They were caught on trying to decide if it was something they thought was beautiful or something they thought the receiver would think is beautiful.  Personally, I received a lot of sticker earrings and way too many baseball caps in tiny sizes. Teaching what a gift means is a very nuanced affair.

I can gift my time, which for many of us is far more valuable than our gift budget.  I can gift my talents, my vision, my expertise…the list goes on.  

It’s interesting that in our society we don’t gift someone the things we already own — we need to buy something new.  Anything we own is seen as already used, second hand, lesser than new and store bought.  Ironically, the idea of a gift is the opposite.  I want to give you something I know is useful or enjoyable because I have used and enjoyed it.  I am gifting you the experience of the thing, I have removed any doubt.  I gift you the book I loved, the art I find meaningful, but our modern sensibilities will conclude that it’s used — I should buy you the same thing I have, but gift you the new one.  The new book has the benefit of the unbroken spine and the new crispy pages, but the loss of opening the book and having it fall open to my favourite page that I read a thousand times — the one I want you to see first.  When I buy you the new one, I remove my presence from the object, and now I have given you…a book.

This is the subtlety of gift giving in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah.  God is teaching Israel how to create a Tabernacle, holy space.  The very first words are that Israel should contribute the things their hearts tell them to give.  It is a list of precious things they already own.  They are not to barter with each other or ‘trade up’.  Their eyes are on their possessions, not their neighbours’.  It’s hard to part with beautiful things I own and value, but I am not being asked to part with them, I am being taught to invest them into building a place of relationships I fully intend to enjoy.  Holy space is open to everyone, and when an Israelite enters the Tabernacle, they will see the things they contributed woven together with everything everyone else brought, and know it was hard for everyone to give these things up and we built it together.

The Hebrew word terumah does not mean donation, it literally means ‘to separate and raise it’.  I am not donating something to the Tabernacle, I am taking it from what I already own, and therefore a piece of me moves into the actual physical space — even when I’m not there, I’m there.  In fact, once introducing this concept to us, God states that by building this Tabernacle “I can dwell inside them” — even when they think I’m not there, I’m there.  

Today, when people are marrying and setting up a new home, or growing their family and in need of specific items, it is extremely helpful to have a registry outlining for us what would be most helpful for them.  Maybe with terumah in mind, that gift could be accompanied by something chosen by our hearts that moves from holy space to holy space, from our home to theirs.

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Parshat Terumah: Angels and Demons and Shades…Oh My!

This week’s Torah portion is parshat Terumah.  It includes the details of building holy objects for the Tabernacle…the details that make many people’s eyes glaze over.  It lists colour selections and table dimensions and what gets coated in gold and what doesn’t. Because we don’t have a Tabernacle anymore, or a Temple, we don’t build these objects today and so we don’t often listen with a keen ear while this portion is read in synagogue.

But, amongst all these details is the description of the cherubim that will sit on the Ark of the Covenant.  A cherub is a type of angel. It is not a pudgy baby angel with a diaper and a bow and quiver waiting to shower us with ‘love arrows’.  It does not have rosy cheeks and a ‘cherubic smile’. By Jewish mystical accounts, a cherub is a fierce, frightening looking and not-happy-to- be-among-us type of angel.  There are two of them sculpted onto the lid of the Ark. They look down, toward the Ark and their wings are spread over them, almost touching wingtips. Almost touching, because the Divine Voice will speak from the space between – the tiny void framed by their wingtips.

Everything about it begs the question of why are there angels in my holy spaces?  Why do I keep inviting them into my world?

On Friday nights, with family gathered around our tables, we sing Shalom Aleichem.  It’s a beautiful, soulful song that frames our Shabbat meal. The phrase ‘shalom aleichem’ means ‘peace on you (plural)’ and we are welcoming the ministering angels and the angels of peace into our homes.  Verse 1 welcomes them, verse 2 beckons them to come in peace, verse 3 asks them to bless us with peace, verse 4 asks them to leave. We don’t want angels hanging around us for longer than needed.

Many ancient Jewish texts tell us that angels and demons are around us all the time and interact with us constantly.  As long as we think of angels as sweet, benevolent miracle workers, we like that they’re here. On a personal and very mundane note, I have struggled with my hair all of my life.  It is very fine. I always remember my mother putting bobby pins in my hair to keep it out of my eyes, only to have the pins float out the bottom of my hair an hour later. It’s a struggle that continues to this day.  Hair stylists have always told me I have baby fine hair. It sounds lovely but imagine being told you’re still carrying your baby weight with you all your life. A year ago, I walked into a salon and the stylist looked at my hair and told me how wonderful it must be to have angel fine hair.  He is now my regular stylist.

But, unfortunately, there really aren’t sources that tell us angels are saints.  They don’t sit on our shoulders whispering good things into our ears. Angels are messengers who do what God bids them to do – they have no free will and they are not always on our side of things.

According to the Kabbalah, angels were created before humanity was created.  That makes them our older sibling species, since God is the Divine Parent. We are the younger sibling that bothers them.  God will command some of them to protect us (Guardian Angels), just as an older sibling is responsible for its younger ones, not a cherished moment for an older sibling.  God will give us special things (the Torah) that the angels will argue they had first and don’t want to share. We overhear them say something that pleases the Parent and then we usurp it (“Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”).  We bother them.

There are positive and negative angels.  A midrash tells us that angels follow us into our homes on Friday evenings.  If they see a home of peace and readiness for holiness, the positive angels say this should continue and the negative angels must answer ‘amen’.  If they see a home of conflict and chaos, the negative angels say this should continue and the positive angels must answer ‘amen’. I’m not sure I want them in my home.

But, just as we live with our siblings from cradle to grave, we live with our angelic siblings every moment of every day.  The Talmud says there isn’t a blade of grass that doesn’t have its angel tapping the earth above it and coaxing it to grow.  When two friends who have been apart for over a year reunite, they are to recite the blessing that thanks God for resurrecting the dead.  This is because love and fellowship create positive angels. The angel of our friendship will guard the relationship and will be nourished by it.  It takes a year apart to starve that angel, but when friends meet again, the angel is immediately resurrected, triggering the blessing.  

This week’s parshah teaches us how to create holy objects, and ultimately, to create holy space.  But we are always warned that holiness is powerful and extreme holiness is dangerous. The Cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Covenant are keeping Israel at a distance from the power of such holiness.  The fierceness of their appearance is protecting us and they stare at the Ark, directing our focus. By spreading their wings to almost touch, they create the void in which to hear God’s Voice. Like an older sibling, they teach us about the world and how sometimes it is the spaces of silence that carry the greatest of revelations.