by Fred Thomsen

The recent Torah portion, Terumah, is the first of seven devoted to the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary where the Israelites could experience the presence of G-d. It seems particularly fitting to discuss this now, as we have begun this year’s membership pledge drive. Terumah means “gift” or “offering”. In Exodus 25:2 G-d says to Moses, “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.”

I think it’s important to consider what G-d doesn’t do. For one thing, the mishkan isn’t just created miraculously, as one might expect of an all-powerful being. No, the people are expected to build it themselves, from the materials they provide as gifts. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in a recent commentary on this portion, cited the behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely’s study of the “Ikea effect.” Ariely’s experiments demonstrate that we value more the things we build ourselves. The building of the mishkan was the first time G-d didn’t just have the Israelites follow. They were asked to give of themselves, and to build for themselves. In doing so, they were thus more invested. They valued G-d and their relationship with G-d more.

In addition, G-d doesn’t specify the quantities or qualities of any individual’s offering. No, these are to be gifts of the heart, the Israelites providing what they are moved to offer, from whatever they have to offer. Remember, these were people who had recently been slaves and had fled Egypt pretty quickly. Clearly, not everyone had the same means to contribute. It was the very first sustainable pledge!

This is also a reminder of what is so significant about the pledge model. In a sense, we are engaged in the continual construction and renewal of our own mishkan, our own sacred space, and our Terumah, our gifts make that possible. And by giving what we can, rather than have it dictated to us what we owe, we take ownership of that process.