“A contract is a transaction. A covenant is a relationship. A contract is about interests. A covenant is about identity. That is why contracts benefit, but covenants transform.“
In these terse words of enduring wisdom, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks draws our attention to the covenants we might long have overlooked and the contracts that we mistook for something more (see Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times for additional wisdom).
Such was certainly the case for the Israelites, as becomes evident in this week’s Torah portion, T’rumah (Exodus 25:1 – 27:19). It chronicles the remarkable generosity of the newly freed Israelites when they are asked – rather than commanded – and give more than anyone might have imagined, once they learn that they have something to give.
Like the infant who realizes like they have words to speak or the learner who realizes that they have words to teach, the Israelites realize that they not only have freedom but that they have the freedom to give and wherewithal to do so for a higher purpose.
Commentaries make much of the quantity of gifts, suggesting that people gave so generously that there was more than Moses ever could have needed for the construction of the Tabernacle. Still, more is made of the Tabernacle as a place where God could dwell among the Israelites, and the Israelites could more tangibly sense God’s presence. Still, more is made of the idea that gifts were made “from every person whose heart so moves him” (Exodus 25:2).
It is also worth noting the commentary of the Tur, who affirms that the Israelites gave with generosity and Moses began the construction of the Tabernacle with immediacy so that God could live out the promise of a special relationship with the Israelites and regular communication with them. Citing Exodus 19:5, which affirms that the Israelites will be “My treasured possession among all the people” the Tur notes the inspiring potential of a close, ongoing, loving relationship.
Yet still more may be said about the transformational impact of giving itself. In being asked to give of their own free will, the Israelites came to understand the mutuality of their relationship with God. They knew of their need for God; they knew of God’s immense power; they knew of God’s ability to liberate slaves and institute justice. To that point, they might not have realized that God needed all of them. Nor did they realize their own ability to respond to that need.
Much as the Ten Commandments are seen as a covenantal moment, T’rumah provides a critical counterpart – in legal terms, consideration that the Israelites freely and volitionally entered into an accord with God. Yet it is the enthusiasm of the Israelites and their evident excitement to give and create a meeting space with God that affirms a true covenant. Yes, it was forged with plagues, miracles, and an outstretched arm. But it was blessed by a mutuality that transcended need and transformed the Israelites into a holy people through their use of human agency for a higher purpose. May we reaffirm the covenant through the higher purpose we seek and the zeal with which we pursue notions of the sacred in our lives.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.