I grew up in New Jersey, and lived a far distance from both sets of grandparents who lived in New England. Back then, travel was a journey, a “big deal” and a great effort. So we only saw my grandparents two or three times a year.
After my maternal grandfather died, my grandmother remarried Willy who worked for Hasbro. When they pulled into our driveway after their long drive to visit us, my four brothers, sister and I would race out to their car, so excited to see them after all the time apart. We exchanged hugs and kisses, and often, the first thing out of our mouths would be: “what gifts did you bring us?”
What gifts did you bring us?! My parents were appalled that the first thing we asked about was “gifts.”
We adored my grandparents, not just for their physical gifts, but for their unbounding love, their sense of unconditional acceptance. We were just children who hadn’t matured enough to express our gratitude for the true gifts my grandparents bestowed: the gifts of themselves and their open loving hearts. We never had the opportunity to fully tell my mother’s mother: she died of metastatic breast cancer just before I turned 16.
In this week’s Torah portion Terumah (literally “gifts”), God tells Moses to ask the Israelites to “bring gifts for the building of the mishkan (portable sanctuary), everyone whose heart so moves them.” (Exodus 25:2) The purpose of asking for these gifts is multifold: everyone will feel they have invested something of themselves in the building of something sacred to bring God’s presence into their midst and to create a common communal bond. The very act of bringing gifts would be an expression of gratitude for God’s benevolence in redeeming the Israelites from Egypt and for the gift of the covenant at Sinai.
We know that God does not need gifts. God does not need a beautiful space to dwell in our midst. The act of bringing gifts was to enable the people themselves to internalize their emotions, to experience what it means to become “Am Yisrael” a united people connected to each other and to God.
For me, one of the messages of Terumah teaches is that that it’s not physical gifts that are important in life. Rather, it’s the people in our lives who are gifts by their very presence, their actions, their open hearts and spirt. This is what makes our lives fulfilling as individuals and as a community.
Life is ephemeral. Just as God honors those who brought gifts for the building of the mishkan, it’s important to remember to thank those in our lives who are there for us each and every day – they are our special gifts and they make our lives truly blessed.
Sharon L. Sobel
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Sholom