Saturday, February 27, 2010

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts of the Heart – Sermon for Parshat T’rumah
Rabbi Steve Weisman – February 19, 2010 – Temple Solel, Bowie MD

I start tonight with a dream I think I had last night. I was watching the Olympics late into the evening, after the Board meeting ended, and I am pretty sure an Australian woman won the women’s half-pipe event. I went to sleep imagining the tabloid headlines back home, “Torah Shines Bright, Wins Olympic Gold.” I then imagined the ultra-Orthodox community, seeing this headline on their way to a half-day of work, before preparing to welcome the Sabbath Bride, and the disappointment they all surely felt when they realized it was a SPORTS story!

There is actually some relevance to this daydreaming. The words which our Bat Mitzvah will read from the Sefer Torah tomorrow morning are among the most powerful we read, and also among the more puzzling. They, like my dreamt headline, could easily lead one astray. So, allow me to start with the puzzling elements, so we can find the power of these words.

First, there is the very idea that God would want or need us to bring gifts – for God. If ever the question needed to be asked – What do you get for the Power that has CREATED everything? Taken seriously, this question is far more poignant than the whimsical version based on the old “The one with the most toys when he dies, wins” bumper sticker. Does God NEED our gifts? Of course not!

So then why ask us to bring God gifts? In many ways, this request seems destined to suffer a response very similar to the legendary response of a college football coach years ago, when asked why his offense was so run oriented – “Because, there’s only three things that can happen when you pass the ball, and 2 of them are bad!” We risk the same fate, it seems, when asked to bring God gifts. Either we are going to be negligent and fail to bring gifts; or we are going to be sloppy in choosing what we bring appropriately; or, we will please God by bringing good gifts properly. And only one of those 3 possible outcomes is positive.

It seems clear that God wants us to bring gifts, not because God needs what we bring, but rather, because God needs us to remember from time to time that God exists. God’s wanting is, therefore, really for our benefit, not God’s. And, in truth, most of the other times we are asked to bring gifts, it is not directly to God, but by way of those who really DO need what we are offering them – through the act of tzedakkah and helping others.

But there is also something in the whole concept of sacrifice, a relatively forgotten concept in our modern world. When our ancient texts refer to our gifts as “offerings,” it is clear that the focus is on God’s receiving, more than our giving, which befits the role of this behavior in ancient days as our form of worshipping God. Just as our children and grandchildren often confuse the real gifts we give them – love and support -- with the tangible gifts they receive from us which represent that love and support, it is easy for us to lose sight of the fact that these offerings were not merely gifts for God’s gratification.

Because every offering was also a sacrifice for the person making the gift. We give up something of value when we give a gift to someone else. We no longer have the item we give, or the money we used to purchase it, for our own enjoyment. We have sacrificed it for someone else’s benefit or enjoyment. In truth, we rarely do this, except when we are compelled by others or circumstances to do so, unless we expect to get something of value back in return – whether that something is attention, or love, or other gifts.

And, in our modern world, I would dare to say, most of us pride ourselves on being smart enough to recognize a bad deal when we see one, and avoid it. In the same way, a sacrifice made in which what is given is seen to be far more valuable than what we hope to get back in return is a sacrifice likely not to be made at all.

But there is more. Because after God tells Moses to ask the people to bring the offerings, the gifts, of their hearts – namely, voluntarily – God then gives Moses a specific checklist of gifts to accept. And this list consists mostly of the good stuff! Are we to interpret this to mean that someone who can’t afford the good stuff is likely to have their free-will gift rejected by Moses on God’s behalf? I sure hope not, as this would go against everything I believe Judaism makes clear about the worth of individuals in the community having absolutely nothing to do with what they bring tangibly to the table.

So what then do we do with these verses? We likewise can’t easily see this as an example of God’s predetermination in our world – if we are meant to understand the list given to Moses as being merely a checklist of what God already knows people will bring, then how can we honestly describe these gifts as being “from the heart”?

It is hard to visualize the best answer in the text itself, but with a little application from our own lives, I think we can find a meaningful truth here. I ask you this question – what happens when someone brings US a gift – one that we don’t find nearly as aesthetically pleasing, or useful, or cute, or meaningful, as the giver obviously thought we would?

Do we immediately acknowledge our lack of appreciation? No – we find some way to keep a straight face and say something positive. Do we toss it in the garbage? Rarely! We are far more likely to put it away in a closet, or bury it in the basement. We MIGHT eventually regift it, or donate it to a white elephant or silent auction event – but not right away. And hopefully, not in a way in which the original giver is likely to find out, and be hurt by our actions.

The truth is, even if we are acting out of avoidance rather than respect, we do our best to be thankful for the gift, and appreciate the thought that we know was behind it – even when we can’t for the life of us figure out what that thought might have been! And, whenever possible, we DO try to find an appropriate use or appropriate receiver – so that the gift itself is both used and valued.

So why not read that same reality into our text here. The list which God provided to Moses was a list of those items that would be needed for the building of the Tabernacle and its accessories – those items that should be immediately received and appreciated and used. Any other gifts, given freely, would also be accepted, and an appropriate usage would be found separate from the building project that was about to begin.

And suddenly, a seemingly contradictory set of statements makes sense to us, when we compare it to a reality that we have all experienced. If only ALL of Torah was so easily understood and applied in our day!

Which brings us to the last, and perhaps deepest of the puzzles. After the list of gifts, God commands Moses: V’asu li miqdash, v’shachanti b’tokham. The first clause is pretty straightforward – “Make for Me a sacred place…” We can even get creative, and infer from the list of accepted gifts that we should understand it as “With these gifts that you have collected for Me, fashion them to make for Me a sacred place…”

But that second clause, those last 2 words. And really, it is the last word we get to dive into. V’shachanti here is fairly clearly “…so that I may dwell….” The unanswered question becomes “Where?” And as an answer to that question, the single word b’tokham may be interpreted in three VERY different ways.

Most literally, the word means “in their midst.” In context, the meaning may very well be, especially if we are correct in how to understand the list God gave to Moses of what to accept, “among these items that have been given as gifts for Me.” This would place God in the position of saying: Let Me luxuriate surrounded by the tokens of My people’s affection for Me. This would certainly be an understandably desirable outcome, at least from a human perspective, even if it is somewhat problematic from a theological one.

The most frequent translation of b’tokham is “among them,” with the “them” referring not to the gifts, but to the Children of Israel. “Build Me a holy place, so I might have an address in their neighborhood, so I can be physically close to them, and bring them near to Me,” God is saying here. There is much to be appreciated in this interpretation – particularly in that the sacrificial gifts of the people are immediately turned back into a building which brings obvious value with it for the donors, and for the whole community.

But the word can also be translated as “within them.” As in, inside of each of us. Individually. In which case, we ought to be moved to ask – If we recognize, as we should, that God lives inside each of us as individuals, why do we need to build God a place among us -- especially with the best of our free-will gifts? However, the truth is that this assumption of our recognition represents a huge “if.”

And with this question, we get even further from the physical, and more towards the metaphysical. But, I think, by taking ALL THREE possible understandings together, we actually answer the seemingly contradictory question! God is really saying to us: By building an ostentatious building in your midst for Me, I can have an appropriate address at which you can seek Me, so that I can help you to recognize that I really have lived inside each of you all along.

At which point, each of us will hopefully realize that the gifts we give to God are not really for God, but for us, collectively. That each individual gift given by an “I” helps to make our community and our world, the collective “us,” stronger spiritually, by drawing all of us nearer my God to Thee. And if it takes having a physical location at which we collectively seek God’s presence to remind us of this deeper truth, then this building never risks becoming an example of idolatry, because it draws us nearer to the worship and the truth of our God and what God wants from us!

Pretty powerful stuff indeed – and all from the first 8 verses of the weekly portion. Imagine what other wisdom remains for us to find in the rest of this week’s text!? Oh that’s right – we don’t have to imagine. Because Aly will be sharing HER message tomorrow – and it is very different, but equally powerful! This portion really DOES provide a pretty good foundation for all of us to build upon in our own lives! KYR

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