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T'rumah 5782 - Speech and Intention in Mishnah T'rumah

Saturday, February 5, 2022

The one who intends to say “terumah” but says, “ma’aser”; “ma’aser” but says, “terumah”; “olah” but says “shlamim”; “shlamim” but says “olah”; [the one who says] “I will not enter into this house,” but says “that house”; “I will not benefit from this person” but says “that person” - has not said anything until her mouth and her heart are in the same place. - Mishnah Terumah 3:8

In the case of the one who means to set aside part of her crop as a specific type of tithe but vocalizes it as another type, who means to designate one category of sacrifice but says another, or who means to make a specific vow but messes up the language, that person has not affected anything in Jewish law. Her tithe, sacrifice, or vow means nothing. 

While Parashat Terumah is the first time the word terumah is mentioned in our Torah, our verse in Exodus is different from the offering about which Mishnah Terumah teaches. In the second verse of our parashah, God tells Moses to tell the people Israel to bring an offering אשר ידבנו לבו, from every person whose heart so moves her (Ex. 25:2). We can also read אשר ידבנו לבו as an offering of whatever objects in whatever quantity each person is moved to bring. In our particular story, these gifts are for the sake of building the mishkan, God’s home in the desert. Later in Torah, as well as in Mishnah, terumah denotes the specific offering of one’s first produce of the year, in any amount, to the kohanim, the priestly class. Whether we see terumah in the broad sense of our parashah or in the narrower sense of our mishnah, in either case, each gift depends on the specific generosity and interests of the person offering. Whatever is most valuable to me, whether the first fruits of my harvest or a bolt of fabric I’ve been saving for a special occasion, is what I give to God. Each offering depends on my particular intention at a particular moment in time. 

When I first learned Mishnah Terumah 3:8, that “a person has not said anything until her heart and mouth are in the same place,” I felt an immense sense of relief. Every day, I worry that I might mix up words or names in a conversation or accidentally say something that sounds hurtful when I mean to be supportive. According to this mishnah, in the world of Jewish ritual, my word does not translate into action until I truly believe and intend what I say. When I forget the words to a blessing and have to start over again, even though modern Jewish law might disagree in some circumstances, this mishnah gives my second, or third more intentional try its full weight. Although vocal slip-ups have real consequences in the outside world, in prayer and Jewish ritual, the modern version of tithing and sacrifice, I can try again if I didn’t get it right the first time.

Along with that relief, however, comes responsibility. In this mishnah’s sense of Jewish ritual, anything done half-heartedly does not count. When I mumble through the words on the page, or when I light the candles but don’t stop to think about what that might mean, I have not enacted any meaningful connection with the Divine. When I would like to be kinder or more observant but do not act on it, it is no different than if I had no wish to improve myself at all. 

That union between intention and speech to enact action does not make Jewish ritual a mere escape from the consequences of reality; rather, it makes Jewish ritual a sheltered opportunity to learn the importance of bringing our whole selves to everything we do and say. In the safe space of Jewish ritual, we can let ourselves experiment with bringing intentionality into action. In ritual, we can feel the disappointment of not-so-spiritual experience, the victory of success in finding Jewish community and Divine connection, and every feeling in between, with only God as our witness. Each time we pray and practice Jewish ritual, we learn something new about what methods and words resonate best for us, so that we can pray or practice with more intention the next time. Ultimately, we can learn how to translate our successes and setbacks in Jewish experience into intentionality in every-day life. When we step into relationships with one another, we can use our ritualized focus on words and body language towards more intentional communication. Through searching for personal meaning in Jewish prayer and ritual, we practice the mindfulness needed in order to speak each word to those we love with the full, focused truth we mean to convey. 

As the terumah offering differs according to who is giving, each of our modes of intentionality will look different. With the trial and error of ritual, and of course, of consequences in real time, we all have the ability to learn how to summon that compassionate focus to which we all have access, in our diverse ways of being.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784