Terumah: Elevating our intentions – The Jewish Standard

Posted By on February 19, 2021

Her motivations were corrupt!

The precocious student continued: Thats why she didnt get extra points for doing charity. Its like we read about the Shma if you dont say it with the right kavanah (intention), the mitzvah doesnt count.

We were in the middle of a discussion of NBCs The Good Place, which we had begun watching as part of a Jewish ethics elective I had created for my middle school students.

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As you may know, there is no program on television that covers moral philosophy quite as well as The Good Place. To quote a New York Times review, ethics is not some kind of moralistic byproduct; its baked into the premise. Specifically, the premise is that the protagonist, Eleanor, wakes up in the afterlife and finds herself in the proverbial Good Place. But it turns out that Eleanor was a comically awful person on earth, and is only in the Good Place due to a celestial mishap. Now she must learn to become a good person, or risk being expelled and moving downward.

In my elective class that day, the question was why Eleanors heavenly point total hadnt gone up, despite her having performed several generous acts. Was she acting with pure intentions, or was she motivated only by her own well-being? My students were catching on doing the right thing for the wrong reason doesnt always count.

Purity of motives is alluded to several times in Parshat Terumah. One example is the symbolism of the ark being constructed in the new tabernacle: Cover it with pure gold, from within and without you shall cover it. A question is raised in the Talmud about this seemingly innocuous detail of the Tabernacles construction why must the inside be inlaid with gold if it was to be closed shut and never seen by anyone? It seems unnecessary to cover the inside with gold; what can the Torah be teaching us? One interpretation is that this is a manifestation of the Talmudic dictum that one must be consistent inside and out (tocho kvaro). If the outer gold covering refers to those mitzvot or other deeds we perform publicly, then the inner gold covering signifies the acts we do in private, when no one else can see.

In our personal lives, we can probably think of a time when we or someone we know has engaged in virtue signaling, perhaps by sharing a post on social media about a trending topic or current cause, while remaining apathetic to the issue in private.

In the political arena, likewise, it is noteworthy to see the difference between what some officials say in front of the cameras versus how they vote in closed sessions. Our parsha, through the example of the golden ark, reminds us to act with integrity both privately and publicly.

A related idea is evident in the parshas opening verses: Take for me a contribution ( vyikchu li terumah)and I will dwell in their midst (Exodus 25:1-8).

Many commentators question the use of the word li (for me). What does Hashem mean by saying to take it for me? What could the worlds Creator possibly need?

According to Rashi, li should really be understood as for my sake (lishmi). That is to say, when giving a contribution, do it for Hashems sake, for something greater than yourself. A gift that is meant to burnish your reputation, or that comes as a result of some other external pressure, is not really the kind that Hashem is looking for.

On the other hand, it has always seemed to me that here is a case where a little bit of yetzer hara (the so-called evil impulse) might not be such a bad thing. After all, if my yetzer hara inclines me to desire fame or honor, why not attain it through giving tzedakah? As a result, I will receive the desired recognition, and the needy party will receive a vital donation; everybody wins! (It is also certainly the case that giving in a public manner, whatever ones motivations, can be very positive indeed, to the extent that it spreads awareness of a cause or inspires others to give as well). As the Talmud says, mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma doing a mitzvah with imperfect intentions can habituate us into doing it with appropriate intentions.

Still, while giving with less than perfect motives may be a positive stepping stone, it is not the highest level. Perhaps this is hinted at in the very name of our parsha, Terumah. Within this word we find the root for leharim, to lift up or elevate. As Eleanor sought to elevate her spiritual stature (no spoilers here), so can we. By checking our motivations, eschewing the egotistical incentives that so often drive our choices, and acting with true generosity of spirit, we can ultimately elevate both ourselves and those with whom we interact. It is in this elevated atmosphere where Gods presence will reside.

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Terumah: Elevating our intentions - The Jewish Standard

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