Parenting By Parsha: Terumah

Nearly 100 verses (96 to be precise). That’s how many lines of Torah are dedicated, in this week’s parsha, to describing the exact way in which the ark of the covenant should be designed. The text reads like a cross between an instruction manual (“The length of each cloth shall be twenty-eight cubits, and the width of each cloth shall be four cubits, all the cloths to have the same measurements.” Exodus 26:2) and a bridezilla describing her centerpieces and floral arrangements (“As for the Tabernacle,make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, with a design of cherubim worked into them.” Exodus 26:1). Not that I’m comparing God to a contestant from Say Yes to the Dress, but, well, God does seem very particular about how things should look.

I happen to live with someone who is also very particular about how things should be. 

This morning, during breakfast, my little one explained to me (in limited words) that the bib I’d given him really wasn’t right. Instead, he gestured, can you tuck that kitchen towel into my shirt? Not that one. The big red towel. 

Any other towel would have made the scrambled eggs and cucumbers inedible, I guess. 

All day, my wife and I navigate the fine line between encouraging individuality and personal agency and not losing our minds. How many bibs can one change in the course of a meal, before one tears one’s hair out completely? At what point are these just whims that allow our kiddo to boss us around, instead of choices that express a valuable individuality?

These are the questions we ask ourselves all the time. 

Of course, parenthood doesn’t really allow for a whole lot of quiet reflection on these quandaries. A lot of the decision-making happens on the fly, as we try to simultaneously sweep up one mess while nipping another in the bud. More often than not, we succumb to our little one’s request just because we’re too tired to argue again. Still, at the end of the day, when we collapse on the couch with some pizza, we wonder aloud if the path of least resistance is the wisest one. 

Here’s the part that has me confused. I think being really particular about what you like and how you like it is a great quality. I see friends and loved ones struggling to make choices as adults, and I think that being over-opinionated would really be helpful sometimes. Furthermore, I think that our society, at large, doesn’t encourage us to demand what we want and need. I, for one, am notorious for putting my needs aside in order to fulfill other needs (a deadline, a meeting, a phone call, and the like) until I collapse on the couch, often crying. Cue the pizza. 

When my kid grows up, I want him to feel empowered to express his wants and needs, no matter how outrageous. How different the world would look if we all described our needs in detail! But I also want him to understand that people will not always drop everything they’re doing to fulfill his wishes. For example, just today I wanted to sleep until noon and then eat waffles, and my responsibilities did not bend to meet those wishes. 

Of course, there’s a difference between craving waffles and putting yourself first, but the two are related. How can I strike this balance when parenting?

I think one clue is in the second verse of our Parsha. “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him,” says Exodus 25:2. In other words, you can ask for something very precise, but be prepared to receive only from people who are willing to give. Without these five words, God really sounds like a bridezilla giving orders to a wedding planner. With them, God sounds like someone with a detailed Amazon registry. 

For this reason, it matters that the Parsha is called Terumah — Hebrew for donation. Yes, the request is made in meticulous terms (acacia wood, copper, gold, silver, and various other opulent materials are to be used on various elements of the ark), but it is a request, not a demand. The Torah accepts that these donations may not be made, and is very upfront about that. There’s a hopefulness in this as well; God believes that the goodwill of the people will result in the materials being acquired.

That’s the kind of spirit I hope to imbue my toddler with. An understanding that it is perfectly fine to request what you need or want, and even to believe that your wish will be carried out. But this must be tempered by an understanding that we are part of an intricate web of other people’s wishes as well, and that means that you don’t always get what you want. Maybe if I can explain this to him, I’ll be able to better embody this spirit myself.