February 26, 2004
Give and Take
Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19)
Max and Irving went fishing on an overcast afternoon. About two hours into their expedition, a fierce storm developed.
Their small rowboat tossed, turned and finally flipped over in the lake. Max, a strong swimmer, called to save Irving. Inexplicably, Irving did not respond to any plea and drowned. Max swam to shore to break the terrible news to Irving's poor wife.
"What happened?" she screamed. Max recounted the entire episode in full detail.
"But what did you do to try to save my Irving?" she shrieked. Max explained once again. "I kept screaming to your husband, 'Irving, give me your hand, give me your hand, give me your hand.' But Irving just gave me a blank stare and drifted away."
"You fool!" shouted Irving's widow. "You said the wrong thing. You should have said, 'Take my hand.' Irving never gave anything to anybody!".
Do you know Irving? Don't we all know an Irving or two? Unfortunately, the tragedy of the Irving persona is endemic to the human condition. Yet, as Jews, we are the proud bearers of a near 4,000-year tradition of giving. Our creativity, compassion and concern for the needs of others have ignited new vistas of chesed (loving kindness). Certainly, there must be a method behind the madness. How have we succeeded in inculcating such a fundamental value? In short, what creates that giving personality?
Our Torah portion employs an enigmatic turn of phrase that appears quite instructive in this regard. As God commands Moses to solicit the necessary stuff to build the Sanctuary, He demands that the Jews "take for Me a portion."
Are the Jews taking??!! Surely it would have been more complimentary and precise to formulate the act in terms of giving, i.e. that the Jews "should give to Me a portion".
As Jews, we believe that every component of our existence is a gift. We are not entitled -- rather we are endowed. To paraphrase the Department of Motor Vehicles: "Life is a privilege -- not a right" More precisely, we are trustees in God's world. Eventually, all that we are entrusted with must return to its original source.
Return is a dominant theme in Judaism. Every seven days, on the Shabbat -- the Jew returns to God. On the seventh year (shemitta) we return the land to its fallow state. After seven cycles of seven, the Jubilee year marks the return of property and indentured servants to their origins.
After enduring years of barrenness, the great Jewish heroine Chana names her son Shmuel, a Hebrew composite reflecting the notion of her son being "on loan from God." Finally, in death as well as in life, through burial, we "return to the dust." In short, the notion of ultimate possession cannot apply to a human in the realm of the fiscal and the physical.
Seen in this light, the act of giving is akin to a prepayment of sorts. Thus, when the Jews donate to the Sanctuary, they do not give -- they return to God -- who is taking back what always was, is and will be His. At this point, the pensive Jew might fear: What's left? Is there anything we may dare to call our own? Is human imperative merely relegated to the role of grand guardian?
Here we return to the Sanctuary and arrive at one of the great paradoxical truths of Judaism. Ultimate taking can only be achieved through giving! God labels the Sanctuary donors as takers, to signify that the only things we own are our deeds. How aptly do the rabbis describe the true beneficiary of the act of charity as the giver, for only he walks away with a true possession, a deed of eternity and an incredible sense of exhilaration! By contrast, the taker experiences that same ole draining (read: "empty wallet") feeling.
Growing up, I remember that my parents (among many others) would accord a quasi-mystical status to ordinary tables. We were not allowed to walk or rest our feet on them (for a child, this constitutes cruel and unusual punishment).
"The table," says the Talmud, "is like an altar."
Much to my amazement, I recently stumbled upon the comment of the Spanish commentator, Rabbeinu Bechaye (1265-1340) who recorded the stunning custom of the pious Jews of France who used the wood of their dining room table as building materials for their own coffins. It all clicked in. Long after the food has been cleared away, it is the symbolism of the dining room table and its accompanying kindnesses that sustain our people. May we have the clarity of vision to focus our deeds -- they're ours for the taking.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High schools.