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Parshat Terumah

By: Other

In Parshat Terumah, we are introduced to the mitzvah of building a mishkan, a tabernacle, where the presence of God will rest among Bnei Yisrael.

In order to collect the proper materials for the construction, Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to make donations to the effort.

“Speak to Bnei Yisrael and take for me a donation.”

Rashi notes that an extra word is used in this pasuk: “Li” for me.

Why is this word necessary?  Rashi explains: “Li-L’shmi”- for my sake.  The donation must be for My sake, God says.

Rashi introduces an important concept here- the concept of lishma. Lishma indicates a certain purpose or intention that goes into the donation. It must be specifically for the purpose of the mishkan itself. However, there is an additional aspect to this concept, namely that this purpose is actually an essential component of the donation.


This concept of lishma as an integral part of the mitzvah is not unique to these donations to the mishkan. The tosefta to masechet megilla says that vessels which were originally made for another purpose may not be used in the beit hamikdash, in the temple. For example, one may not take a pitcher or knife from home and donate it to the beit hamikdash.  It is simply not acceptable. Even stones which had been hewn for another purpose may not be used for the construction of the temple.

More common examples are tzitzit, tefillin and sifrei torah.  For any of these to be kosher, they must be made with a particular intention- for the sake of that particular mitzvah. This concept of lishma is so essential that even the strings of the tzitzit must be spun lishma, the leather used to make the boxes of tefillin must be processed specifically for the purpose of tefillin, and the hides used to make the parchment of the sefer torah must be tanned for the explicit purpose of the sefer torah.


While it makes sense that we should have particular intentions regarding mitzvoth, Rav Shimon Schwab points out that this idea of lishma as an essential component of the mitzvah stands in stark contrast to a principle that we generally understand when it comes to mitzvot:


“One should always involve himself in Torah and mitzvoth, even not for their own sake (shelo lishma), for from performing them that way one will come to perform them for their own sake (lishma).”


For example, one is credited with giving tzedaka even if he does so only in order to impress his neighbors with his generosity, even if he does not care about the poor person on the receiving end of his donation. 

A surgeon fulfills the mitzvah of saving a life, even if she performs surgery not out of a sense of idealism, but rather in order to record the results of her innovative techniques as part of a groundbreaking study.

So we have seen that it is preferable to do mitzvoth lishma, but, generally speaking, the lishma aspect is not essential to the fulfillment of those mitzvot.


If so, then when we return to our original point, we have a problem.  We were introduced to the concept of lishma as it pertains to the donations to the building of the mishkan, to the construction and upkeep of the beit hamikdash, and to mitzvoth such as tzitzit, tefillin, and sefer torah.  But in all of these cases we explained that the lishma aspect was not simply an ideal, but rather as an essential ingredient in the proper fulfillment of the mitzvah. 

What is unique about these mitzvoth that transforms the lishma aspect from an ideal to a requirement?!


We can suggest that the gemara’s point about performing mitzvot shelo lishma, not for their own sake, really is about actions.  Actions can be intrinsically valuable, even without the preferred lishma aspect.


But our examples are objects.  What gives these objects their value?

What makes the strings of the tzitzit different from loose threads hanging off of a shirt?

What makes the structure of the beit hamikdash and mishkan fudamentally different from a warehouse buliding?


The difference is in the intent- the lishma.

By spinning thread for the exclusive purpose of use in tzitzit, we infuse this thread with kedusha, sanctity, thus transforming it from mere thread into tzitzit.


This idea of lishma, which is a halachic idea, which is a technical legal aspect of certain mitzvoth, has powerful ramifications as to how we relate to mitzvoth , Judaism, and God Himself..


Lishma teaches us that we have the power to create kedusha in the world.


The paradigm for this power is found in our parsha with the mishkan.  God commands: “they will make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them”.

We usually think of the mishkan, or the beit hamikdash, as a place where we go to experience God, spiritually, in the most intense manner. God comes down to earth, as it were, and infuses our life with meaning and kedusha.

But what is so beautiful about this command to build a mishkan is that we have to build it. We must play an active role in bringing Hashem into the world.


It is our obligation, and our privilege to bring God into our lives. 


This is highlighted by the lishma aspect of building of the mishkan.

If we don’t make this building kadosh, if we don’t make it worthy of Him, then the building is worthless. But when we do, the mishkan, and later the beit hamikdash, becomes the holiest building in the world.  It becomes the house of God. 




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