Portion of Terumah: Where have All the Volunteers Gone????

As a rabbi, I try to find the good in all people.

For example, when it comes to celebrities, I look beyond the surface and consider the more personal and selfless contributions they make to society.

This past Sunday much of America focused on the Super Bowl; with emphasis on the game itself and the players involved. Before the game, the National Football League held its awards ceremony, honoring the highest achievers from the past season. Frankly, I care little about those awards-except for one. There is an annual award (known as the Walter Payton Man of the Year) given to the football player, whose voluntary and charity work are exceptional. This award highlights an athlete’s significant contribution to humanity; well beyond the parameters of a touchdown. This year’s winner was Chris Long, who was honored for volunteer service you will not read about in the sports pages. Long’s charitable work ranges from assisting the poor in St. Louis, to helping combat veterans, to providing clean water for people of East Africa. Such unique volunteerism impresses me a thousand times more than what an athlete accomplishments on the field.

Volunteerism is central to the Torah portion of Terumah.

The word Terumah refers to making a contribution; generally in a voluntary way. In Terumah we are introduced to the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary which will serves as the spiritual home for the desert Jews. The Mishkan was a project for the entire community. The actual construction was undertaken by skilled artisans, but the furnishings were the peoples’ obligation. When Moses asked for donations, the entire community stepped forward and stepped up. Whatever their daily chores, burdens or responsibilities, everyone volunteered something to the construction. The Mishkan might have been recognized as dwelling place for God, but it constituted the loving work of a nation.

Today, unless we are retired, most of us find little time to volunteer. We devote most of our energies toward work, raising families, and coping with the daily uncertainties of life. Who has discretionary time to volunteer?

The cynics among us might argue that a well-compensated athlete, no matter how impressive his/her voluntary activities, has the means to voluntarily provide what most of us cannot. Yet, as our Torah portion suggests, what matters is not the size of the gift nor the amount of time contributed; what matters is the notion of giving something with a willing heart. Terumah does not devote one word to the size or monetary value of the gifts brought forward. What matters is that everyone offered, no matter how modest the contribution. Cumulatively, the donations made an impressive statement about the dedication of a nation to its new, spiritual home. On display here was not the size of the gift but the size of one’s character. Ultimately, what the Israelites constructed was a holy place that reflected the loftiest values of the people.

Our sanctuaries today are being challenged on many fronts. Aside from declining numbers, they suffer from a lack of esprit de corps. The sense of mission and personal investment so vividly evident in the desert is missing from our contemporary Tabernacles . I hope that-within the limits of our individual time and means-we can rediscover the willing spirit, which can help restore our Sanctuaries to the honorable place in our lives and in our communities.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Klayman