By Larry Herman, February 25, 2023 (5783)

Terumah Trauma

Shabbat Shalom.

I have a confession to make.

I suffer from a personality disorder.

It’s not all that debilitating. But it does cause me anxiety.

In truth, I’ll bet that many of you are also afflicted by it.

It’s called TTSD.

Never heard of it? I’ll spell it out. Terumah Trauma Stress Disorder.

Like most stress related disorders, the recommended treatment is to avoid the triggering events and environments. The problem is, that would pretty much mean not opening my mailbox or my email. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get at least one physical solicitation and several emails asking me to contribute to a wide range of worthy causes. In just the past couple of weeks I’ve received letters and emails from:

  • National Kidney Foundation
  • Natan Relief
  • PLeDGE
  • PBS
  • YimbiAction
  • Wikipedia
  • Schecter
  • Center Theater
  • Cedars Sinai
  • Sierra Club
  • City of Hope
  • Friends of the IDF
  • The Self Help Home
  • The LA Phil
  • Hirsch Mental Health Services
  • Alzheimers LA
  • HIAS
  • Searchlight
  • Children’s hospital (with a nickel)
  • Midnight Mission
  • LA Police Protective League
  • Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center
  • Peace Now
  • Kline Galland
  • Jewish Free Loan
  • New Israel Fund
  • Wags & Walks
  • Jewish Family Services

I open Sefaria and they ask for a donation even though I make automatic monthly contributions. I open Wikipedia and they want money even though I already give generously every year. Doesn’t matter. Their systems are designed for asking. In fact, the more you give the more they ask.

Give to most charitable organizations even once, however modestly and you’ve a pen pal for life.

And now there’s this thing called Giving Tuesday, which follows Black Friday and Cyber Monday. It is the self-described global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world. My description? It’s Shnor-zilla

And then there are the myriad other opportunities to contribute or at least be asked. I go shopping and they ask me if I want to make a contribution. On the way to shop there are several hands stretched out awaiting my generosity. Take a flight and I’m asked to donate my spare change. Turn on the television and someone is pitching me for a heart rendering cause.

[Pause] And I haven’t mentioned TBA. Annually there are dues, the facility fee, the security fee, and the building assessment. And you can add on sisterhood, Masorti, names for the memorial book. If you want to make a donation as a memorial or honorary gift there are 36 possible designations. Not to mention numerous special giving opportunities through the year.

It can be traumatizing. Am I giving enough? Which causes are most worthy of more and which are worthy of anything? Should I give a little to them all or concentrate my giving on just a few? What about this idea of effective altruism?

I want to do the right thing. I’m sure that many of you also wrestle with this question.

I thought that this week’s parsha might help. It’s the first time the term תרומה is used. It appears just three times in the second and third verses.

2  Speak to the Israelites, that they take Me a donation from every man, as his heart may urge him you shall take My donation.

3  And this is the donation that you shall take from them;

I took my translation from Robert Alter who translates תרומה as donation. But the JPS uses gifts. Aryeh Kaplan uses the word offering. Everett Fox uses the awkward term raised contribution the first time it’s used and then shortens it to contribution afterwards. Some other translations use tithe, voluntary gift, heave offering. The Art Scroll’s Stone Ḥumash has the most perplexing translation of all, portion. Not very helpful.

I know, or at least I think that I know what תרומה means in modern Hebrew. It’s a donation. In Israel it’s what the person who comes to your door asking you to give 20 shekels wants you to give. They even have a receipt with the word תרומה printed on it. It’s charity. צדקה. Or is it?

Terumah in the context of our parsha specifically refers to the voluntary contributions made by members of the entire community to support the construction of the Mishkan. A building fund.

From its shorash Terumah means something that is raised up or taken to a higher level. This giving helps to lift us up. Or as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “giving confers dignity”. Terumah should be for a sacred or at least uplifting purpose. And it must be voluntary. Does that mean that our synagogue dues should be voluntary?

But Terumah is not exactly charity or Tzedakah. We confuse the words Terumah and Tzedakah. We think of each as a form of charity, perhaps as payments that are tax deductible, if you can actually take a tax deduction.

But they are not really the same at all.

As one should do when struggling with questions like this I went Rabbi Elliot Dorff and he both helped and complicated my problem. He reminded me that Tzedakah comes from the word meaning justice, implying that caring for the poor is not an unusually good act, but rather simply what is expected of you.

Donating to the poor and to other social needs is not a [voluntary] act of especially generous people, but an expected act of each and every Jew. [Elliot Dorf as quoted by Mark Greenspan]

In other words, Tzedakah, unlike Terumah, is not voluntary. As Rabbi Mark Wildes puts it:

If we contribute to those who are less fortunate only when we feel like it, what happens when we’re not feeling like it? [Rabbi Mark Wildes, https://www.jta.org/2016/02/16/ny/religious-obligations-mandatory-or-voluntary]

So I have been confusing Terumah with Tzedakah. Terumot are voluntary acts of giving that benefit a sacred purpose of the community. Tzedakah are obligatory acts of justice. The act is obligatory; the beneficiary and amounts can be discretionary.

Rabbi Dorff encourages us to make our own lists of why we should give Tzedakah, to whom and how we should allocate our Tzedakah spending.

And I’m thinking that my list ought to include both Tzedakah and Terumah.

So with the proviso that this is a personal list and a work in progress, I will share with you my own rules for giving, version 1.0.

  1. Distinguish between Terumah and Tzedakah. Tzedakah helps the poor and needy. Terumah includes shul dues (in all their various forms). And perhaps there should also be a category of secular Terumah includes support for the arts, educational institutions, medical research, etc. I think that Tzedakah should be at least as large as Terumah.
  2. Giving close to home is important – but so is helping others who are distant. Look for a balance.
  3. Try to maximize the effectiveness of your giving, but don’t sweat it.
  4. If your friends are committed to something it’s probably worth helping them. A three-way win.
  5. Giving shouldn’t just be monetary. For most of us, giving money is easy; giving time, caring and compassion is harder but important.
  6. Forget about taxes; give as if taxes don’t matter (then deal with your taxes as if giving doesn’t matter). Helping friends and family members in need may not be tax deductible but it is surely Tzedakah.
  7. Throw away and delete all solicitations. Make the effort to examine and select the causes you want to give to. [Take out those nickels!]
  8. Make giving a habit, an everyday habit. Easy if one is a daily davener.

That’s a start. I’ll let  you know if it helps with the trauma.

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