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February 12, 2016

Hidden Gifts (Parashat Terumah)

Rabbi Nicole Auerbach

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What does it take to create an environment where God could dwell among us?  Some tzedakah.  Some love. 

But what if what you’re asked to give is something that you don’t think you have?  What if God asks you to hand over the magical rainbow unicorn in your back pocket?

In parashat Terumah, God instructs Moses to collect gifts from the Israelites in order to build a sanctuary, so that God may dwell among them.  God says, “You shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves him.”

Our commentator Rashbam says that the use of the word terumah or “gift” here means that this is something each person is to set aside from their own belongings.  But as much as these gifts are supposed to come from the heart, it is not only the thought that counts here.  God is very specific about a long list of gifts that are required.  And according to the JPS translation, “these are the gifts that you shall accept. Gold, and silver, and copper; (4) blue, and purple, and crimson yarns; fine linen, and goat’s hair; (5) tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia-wood, [along with oil, and spices, and incense].”

Did you hear what I heard?  Dolphin skins?  Where on earth are the Israelites supposed to find dolphin skins in the middle of the desert?  And there’s a footnote in here that addresses this, and it says, “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.” 

Now, the word that is translated as “dolphin” here is tachash. Rashi says the tachash is a sort of multicolored animal.  It’s called a “joy-color” in one ancient translation because it’s so proud of its many colors.  According to the Talmud, the tachash has one horn on its forehead, and it comes to Moses’s hand just for the occasion, and then it disappears.

So apparently we need not worry about where the Israelites are to find dolphin skins in the middle of the desert.  Because they aren’t looking for a dolphin at all.  Instead, it is a multicolored, one horned animal, which appears just for the making of the Mishkan, and then just as magically disappears. 

In other words, it is something like this [shows rainbow unicorn plush toy].

So, seriously?  Can you imagine the Israelites standing there and saying, “OK, we’re all good on the copper and the goat’s hair, but if you think we’re going unicorn hunting, you have got to be kidding.”

But remember, our commentators tell us that the Israelites’ gifts are supposed to be from their own belongings.  They aren’t supposed to go hunt for the unicorn.  They are being told that they already have it.  And all they have to do is to willingly hand it over to God.

When I realized this, I immediately thought of my mother.  Because like a lot of us, my mother does not part with things easily.  She is convinced that this ribbon, or button, or copy of Arizona Highways magazine is going to be just the thing that we need some day.  So I know that if my mom were there when God made this request for the tachash, she would get this gleam in her eye, and run off and come back with a rainbow unicorn that she had been keeping in her purse, just in case.

This is exactly how Irwin Keller pictures the Israelites in the desert.  He imagines “these poor children of Israel, carrying with them not only obviously precious items, but also odd and awkward items, which at the time they were packed were of no particular use.  Hidden gifts, schlepped through the wilderness.  Or not quite gifts, but gifts in potentia.  Bric-a-brac, awaiting the chance to become holy regalia.”

We all have gifts, of course.  Some of us here have talents of music or art, or a knack for spreadsheets.  These gifts are our gold and silver. “But remember,” Keller says, “the Mishkan was not only built out of gold and silver.  There is also acacia wood, and unicorn skins, that have been lugged around, awaiting the opportunity to be useful.”

So he challenges us to look beyond our obvious gifts and says, “What’s the one gift that you have not offered yet?  The one no one knows you carry.  The one you might not even have thought of as a gift.  The one that’s just been waiting.  And ask yourself, ‘When will I offer it?’  When will you use it to build a Mishkan, to make this world a holier place?”

I would take Keller’s suggestion one step further, and say that we can’t always identify our gifts on our own.  I’m thinking of one of our members here, Sandy, who is leading a Mussar study group this year.  Sandy is a lawyer by training, and she probably could have told you before this year that her gifts included organization and a commitment to follow through.  But what we’ve discovered this year is that she has a gift for seeing the beauty in the souls of the people who are in her group, and in helping them to tap into their best selves.  She didn’t know she had this [holding up stuffed unicorn]. 

And when we think of the gifts we bring, let’s not be confused and think only of our vocational skills.  We are not just a community of lawyers, and teachers, and nurses and accountants.  We’re a community with gifts of deep listening, of imagination and curiosity, and passion for justice.  But we discover these gifts best in one another.  So to find them we need to spend some time together, and then to be on the lookout for unicorns.  And as it says on the subway, “If you see something, say something.”  Because nothing feels better than someone else pointing out a gift that you didn’t know you had.

As we leave here tonight, let us be aware that we are always already in possession of untold gifts that would bring our community closer to God.  So open your eyes, see the tachash, and offer it to God and our community, with a full and generous heart.