Giving of Yourself Parshat Terumah
Do you know the story of the pig and the cow?
One day the pig and the cow went for a walk and they passed a supermarket. Please note that this was not in a Jewish neighborhood. The cow suggested to the pig,” Why don’t we go inside? After all we could be useful.”
The pig said, “ Oh, no! You can go in there. From you, they only want a contribution. From me, they want total commitment!”
All joking aside and this is really a kosher topic even if the pig made the comment, contributions and commitments have always been an important part of Jewish life. It’s very clearly goes back to our Torah portion of today, Terumah, in which Moses is to ask the people “asher yidveno libo” to give as his or heart wishes to give. The key word here is based on Nadav, which means to give something freely. Moses asks the people to provide the key supplies needed for the building of the sanctuary the desert: cloth, dyes, building supplies. That is in the sense of giving an object. The word also lends itself in the sense of “mitnadev”, volunteering, that is giving of one’s own energy and efforts.
That is very much in line with the ideal of Gemilut Chasadim, deeds of lovingdkindness, in which we give of our actions to others, as opposed to Zedakah where we give of our possessions, usually a nice check.
This idea of giving of ourselves freely, not only of our property, is as old as the hills. Indeed the first reference in the Bible and in Jewish history to people volunteer in mass for a cause takes place in the hills. Deborah, the woman prophet and the judge, as well as political leader, calls out from her hilltop to the people to the length and breadth of the land to rise up voluntarily to meet the challenge of defeating the oppressive Cannanite King and his general Sisera. We read this just three weeks ago at Shabbat Shira.
At the conclusion of the decisive battle when the enemy has been defeated she sings out praise of those who have thrown their lot in with the combatants, “ My heart is for the leaders of Israel and, “hamitnadvim b’Am”, the volunteers among the people. Bless the Lord!”
See this emphasis she places on volunteering, “my heart is with you” and “bless the Lord”.
Why such exuberance? Could it be that volunteers were hard to get in her day?
Look at what she says about those refused to volunteer! She did have problems. For example of the great tribe of Reuben the leader of the tribes at that time she said:
“in the ranks of Reuben, greater resolutions of the heart. Why then did you sit back among your she folds to hear the bleeding of your sheep!?”
Of the tribes of Dan and Asher, she complained “Why are you off sailing your boats? You spend the days by the seashore!”
You see how modern her problems were: too busy, couldn’t break away from sailboats or surfing on the waves.
She then let sit in for the passive bystanders ,” for they did not come to the aid of the Lord to the aid of the Lord against the mighty.”
So it is clear that volunteers are ancient and passive bystanders are just as ancient. No wonder the Devorah is so thrilled when she finally sees her volunteers to say “Boruch Hashem”.
To where would we be without volunteers? Devorah couldn’t do without them and Jewish communities could do without them. One of our ancient prayers is on behalf of just such people, which we chant right after the Torah service, is the Misheberach for the congregation it goes back almost 1500 years ago . In this prayer, we seek Divine protection for those who establish the synagogues of worship, those who provide the light for use in the synagogue and the wine for the Kiddush and Havdalah, those who care of food for the wayfarer and charity for the poor and those involved in the needs of the community. All of these tasks fell not upon government officials or anonymous bureaucrats but on volunteers.
A group of volunteers in Jewish law had a special name, a Chevra, a group of committed friends. To this it was appended the word Kadisha, holy, and then it would be a specialty, like Chevra Kadisha Chayatin, the sacred society of Tailors, for example.
Eventually Chevre Kadisha came to be associated with one voluntary society in particular the burial society. Remember that was a volunteer society that organized the burials, not a business. That’s a new development as we no longer live in tight cohesive communities.
Was very important to see that all these groups considered “ kadisha”, sacred. This embodied the Jewish idea of sanctity is been found not in meditating on one’s navel and not escaping to the hills to avoid the contamination of society. Sanctity means being physically involved in the day-to-day needs of our fellow human being.
So what kind of society’s did our old Jewish news have. They were specialties. Some specialized in davening, praying, so there were societies of those who prayed through the night and societies of those who prayed early in the morning. Keep in mind that it is old Jewish belief that is our prayers that keep the world going especially as we pray for others. There were bikur cholim societies, members visited and look for the ill,Ner Tamid societies whose members made sure the temple lights were lit. There was Chevra Talmud Torah, whose members supported children and adult education.
It is said that in Amsterdam alone the year 1801 man left money in his will for some 210 organizations. Based on the Jewish population in Amsterdam at that time I assume it meant one society for every 40 adult Jews or more probably one society for every 20 adult Jewish males.
Why did our people join up and pay the dues?What was that the club or organization offered its members?
First as I said each was a sacred society. These were religious groups even while they were taking care of mundane matters such as free loans or matchmaking. As a religious group the members frequently prayed together and pray for each other. This was an outstanding source of comfort to the numbers for the sense that the care they receive extended far beyond their mortal lives.
Let’s also be practical. There were benefits to be reaped from belonging to a society: honors prestige of the community, choice Aliyot at the Torah on Shabbat. Finally the societies helped us keep ourselves in shape; they served as an extension of our inner police force.
Keep in mind that we Jews did not have police the lens of our dispersal, the Jews generally followed Jewish law. One of the functions of the societies was to support the average Jew and living up to his personal obligations. It served as a wonderful means of balancing and regulating society as a whole based entirely on volunteer commitment.
It is on this emphasis on voluntary society the Jewish culture and American culture greatly overlapped.
It has long been noted that Americans are society of joiners. It is sometimes said as a put down, yet it is or was at one time the great strength of America. The various fraternities, clubs, social groups and the like in American culture and the nation were its warp and woof that held together over course of two centuries in ways that few other societies have, certainly never before in a society as varied and mixed as ours.
This was remarked upon great amazement by the French scholar Alexis de Tocqueville came to these shores the beginning of our history to see where young nation gained its internal power and forcefulness. This is his description, in short: in no other country in the world has the principal of Association been more sparingly applied to a multitude of different objects than in America.
That this congregation is still stand is an example of that historic spirit of volunteerism of the ancient Jewish communities, of the chevra kadishas, of the example of community built churches, Moose and Elks lodges, and home gardening clubs.
However in the past decades the whole idea volunteerism has been under great attack not by anyone’s dictation or by any official policy. We know however that we come to rely on official government organizations and private companies to do the things that we should ourselves be doing. We also know that this is a world in which our young people find themselves in virtual communities, dealing in virtual realities, and living virtual lives.
The Torah has a lot to say about official giving. We have half shekel, we have the tithing that supported the temple and the priests. Therefore, it is so fitting that we are introduced to the building of the sanctuary by a call for a contribution of the heart. It is so fitting also that Devorah would bless those who volunteer to come to the aid of the people. We need that spirit giving of ourselves to make our country flourish.
I want to close with the story that reflects our need:
A certain man is allowed a visit to the next world. He is taken on a grant to. He comes to an enormous banquet hall which thousands are seated. They are in an elegant and lavish surroundings, he is sumptuous food on the table. There is only one peculiarity, namely that their forks knives and spoons are too long there is no way they can put the food in their mouths with them. However the rules of the banquet that one can only eat with utensils given and no one can use their fingers to hold the food!
The guests are miserable, starting, and that sorts with each other, because no one has been able to have a single bite to eat of all the delicious food. This visitor understands is hell.
He is then taken to another banquet hall. The is the same lavish array of food and drink, the same exquisite décor and in the same stupid oversize utensils. Yet here everyone is smiling and having a good time and eating to their hearts content. How so? They have simply discovered that they can feed each other! They enjoy themselves and feel heavenly because each is helping the other to eat. That is heaven!
If you wish our synagogues, our town squares, and our common shared society to look like Dante’s Inferno then we need only to worry about ourselves and about our own little cubicles. If we wish to find Paradise Regained, then we break out of our cubicles, we break out of our shells and we find the opportunities share and care and pitch in together.