Rabbi’s Corner

Gifts from the heart

Rabbi Helen T. Cohn

Tzedakah is usually translated as “charity” but a distinction is often made between the meanings of these two words. “Tzedakah” comes from the Hebrew root that means righteousness or justice.  Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue” — is often quoted in support of financial contributions that should be made because it is the right thing to do, not based on whether we feel like it. (Deuteronomy 16:20)

In contrast, the word “charity” entered our language through Old French and Old English with Christian overtones of generosity based on love of one’s fellow.

I have been satisfied with this distinction between tzedakah and charity — between giving because it is a matter of justice or giving when one is moved to do so — but the opening words of the week’s Torah portion added a third dimension to my thinking about the act of generosity. “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites, that they take for me a donation from every person, as their hearts may urge them, so you shall take my donation.’” (Exodus 25:1-2) 

Consider the Hebrew word used here for “donation,” terumah. This word is based on the idea of lifting up, of elevating. What is lifted up? One might think it is the gift itself, but more important is that we ourselves are lifted up through the act of giving.

The Torah is speaking of a donation to help build the desert sanctuary, the place where the Israelites will most keenly feel God’s presence. “They shall make me a sanctuary that I may abide in their midst.” (Exodus 25:8) In our own lives we donate to causes and organizations that may have less obvious religious connections, but their work might be holy in its own way. A friend confided that she had made what was for her a generous donation to a favorite non-profit and she felt uplifted for weeks. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “You lift it up, then it lifts you up.”

The verse also teaches us about motivation. Yes, tzedakah is righteous giving because it is the fair, just thing to do.  But the Torah also recognizes that our hearts can guide us as well. The motivation is not instead of tzedakah, but in addition to it. 

Perhaps we could think of terumah as our heartfelt gifts beyond tzedakah, gifts not financial but material.  After all, the Israelites were instructed to bring material gifts for constructing the sanctuary such as cloth, precious stones, and incense.

Here’s an example of contemporary terumah: our congregation learned that asylum seekers had their belts and shoelaces taken by ICE when they entered temporary shelters. These items were not returned when the seekers left. Our congregation responded to this small but critical need by providing these items for adults and children. The belts were our own personal donations, the shoelaces (some in neon colors for the children) were purchased with our tzedakah.

A central Jewish value is tzedakah, financial assistance because it is the just thing to do. But the Torah also teaches us to offer terumah, material gifts prompted by the heart because our compassion is stirred by the plight of others.