Gift Giving and Community Building—by Ayala Emmett

Coming out of Egypt for the Israelites was a social/religious transformational journey to become a unified, covenantal, ethical community. Beyond the physical/geographic details of the move, the book of Exodus pays close attention to the Israelites’ social journey away from an unformed crowd of former slaves toward becoming a people. No one act sealed the deal of peoplehood, not the dramatic exodus from Egypt, nor the miraculous parting of the sea, not even receiving the Ten Commandments; yet each act constituted and provided a rich layer in the process of becoming one people. This was a tough road for the Israelites, a massive social change that required constant and steadfast commitment that was guarded by God and guided by Moses.

How does this layered process to become a unified community manifest itself? Last week’s Torah portion (Exodus 21-24) offered a signature act in the making of peoplehood: entering a covenantal relationship with God when the Israelites said in one voice “we will do.” In that historic moment the people affirmed their relationship with God and agreed to be an ethical community, to follow a set of rules and laws that would structure their personal and collective life. The laws that they agreed to follow were infused by a reminder that they were strangers in the land of Egypt; this reminder would become foundational for ethical conduct of treating with fairness and compassion the stranger, the orphan, the widow and by extension the marginalized, refugees, people with disabilities and all those who are victimized and powerless.

At first glance this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 25-27) does not seem to fit into a narrative of forging community and peoplehood. The narrative offers a detailed architectural blueprint for building the Tabernacle, Mishkan, with instructions for the materials to be used, the furniture it will contain and the exact measurements of every sacred object, paying attention to the smallest detail of how to connect the parts and hold them together, “the rings shall be next to the rim as holders for poles to carry the table.”

Yet, the narrative of building the Tabernacle provides another layer of the need to pay attention to details in the process of community building. One key detail here is the giving and receiving of gifts. This week’s Parshat Trumah opens with a call for gift giving, “God spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts, trumah, you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (25:1-2).

God instructs Moses to ask the people for a trumah, for each person to give a gift of the heart. The call to give was not to pay a tax, a levy or any required or specified amount. It was a request for a gift and as some commentators note,  “the Hebrew word trumah refers specifically to that which is set aside by its owner and dedicated for sacred use.” Moreover trumah has the distinct feature of a gift exchange in which “one who gives receives something in return.”

To locate the appeal for trumah in the broader narrative of community building it would be helpful to draw on Marcel Mauss’ classic book The Gift. Mauss suggests that “to give something is to give a part of oneself” and that the recipient “receives a part of someone’s spiritual essence” (12. ) Mauss’ observation of the gift as containing a part of the giver’s spiritual essence echoes the Exodus phrase as God tells Moses, “you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves him” (25:2). Moreover Mauss proposes that, “the obligation attached to a gift itself is not inert. Even when abandoned by the giver, it still forms a part of him (12). Mauss concludes that gifts function to create enduring social bonds between giver and receiver.

In Parshat Trumah we have a special case of Mauss’ concept of a gift -exchange that functions as added layer in the Israelites process of community building. Each gift that a person offers forges two sets of relations, the first is clearly with God and the second is with all other contributors. The second relationship while not immediately obvious is highly significant in community building since the people essentially give to each other the materials to build the Tabernacle and are the receivers since the space as the Torah narrative notes belongs to the people. “And let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (25:8). The people will each give a spiritual essence of themselves and God the receiver of the trumah will dwell among them. As Matia Kam notes the choice of words indicates that God’s dwelling is not “in it” but among the people; the space itself is the people’s place, which is wherever the people create a sanctuary that contains a spiritual essence of the giver; God will dwell among them (the givers) as guardian and protector.

The Tabernacle in this Exodus narrative is a sanctuary and a material sign of community building. Each Israelite’s gift is not a stand-alone; it becomes part of the sanctuary resembling a quilt that is whole yet is made of parts that come from different people and contains their spiritual essence. God’s part of the exchange is to dwell among the people, a promise/assurance that is beyond space, building, geography and across time. This Exodus narrative of Trumah offers a way to understand gift giving as a key feature in community building.