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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