This commentary is entirely based on the Terumah commentary from:
“On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” with Rabbi Rick Jacobs podcast
Tell the people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. (Exodus 25:2)
How can a building project work like this? For those of us involved in any building project, be it a home, a business, or in this case, a sanctuary, after the designs are created, you know where the money for the project is coming from. This desire by God to have the Mikdash in the desert built according to all the very specifications with the assurance that the people’s “gifts of the heart” seems at best crazy!
We know, for synagogues especially that there are very complicated development and philanthropic schemes that have to be created to assure you ask the right people in the correct way and that you honor the donors in a way that befits the size of their donation for all of this to work.
Givers, Takers, & Matchers
This verse from our Torah portion assumes that people will hear about what is being done and say, “I want to be a part of it. I want to contribute my funds,” and those funds collected will be enough to build everything you need, inside and out, for the project. If we were to use this as a model for us today, it would presume we can ask people and they will freely give of themselves. If they do, then you will be able to ask enough people who will respond this way that you will get the project completed according to your schedule.
This does raise the question about the nature of generosity. I do want to make a distinction between this description of generosity we find here in our Torah portion and the value you all are aware of known as Tzedakah. These are different ideas.
The Shulchan Aruch instructs us that everyone is required to give Tzedakah. Each individual is supposed to give according to his or her capacity to give. So, it is clear what the amount is, but isn’t the “spirit” of the Tzedakah an issue. We are aware of Maimonides’ 8 Levels of Giving found in his Mishneh Torah. Only on one level is the issue of giving from the desire of one’s heart raised. That is his admonition that one should not give grudgingly. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch states, even if a person gives a thousand gold pieces – he loses merit for even the gift of such a large amount if it is not given willingly. Nevertheless, our tradition insists through tzedakah that giving becomes a habit. But this is still not the generosity we see in our Torah portion today.
Our Torah portion is not a call for tzedakah. Rather, it is about heart-felt generosity. What is the nature of that great generosity of which this portion speaks? Rabbi Rick Jacobs has suggested that in terms of “giving” and generosity, there are three types of people: Givers, Takers, and Matchers. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, that these are three fundamental styles of interaction.
GIVERS prefer to give more than they get. Helping others is more important than getting anything in return. These people a generous in their time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, as well as money.
TAKERS like to get more than they give. They put their own interests ahead of others’ needs. The world is a dog-eat-dog place and to succeed they need to be better than others.
MATCHERS strive to preserve an equal balance of giving and taking. They operate of the principle of fairness. They seek reciprocity. “If so-and-so gives, then I will give too.”
GIVERS make up the smallest percentage of the three categories. Compared to takers, on average givers earn 14% less money, have twice the risk of becoming victims of violent crimes, and are poorly judged by other elements of society.
The GIVERS are the ones who give the highest percentage of their income to charities and those in need. Why? Because they remember what it was like to be without. They say to themselves, “I want to make sure others do not have the same experience I went through.”
How can we express generosity in our lives like these folks without that background.
Rabbi Shmelke of Nikolsburg was a GIVER. He always gave. Even if he had little to give, he would give it. He was not a TAKER nor a MATCHER. One day there was a knock on the door. Standing on his front stoop was the poorest looking person Rabbi Shmelke had ever seen. His heart was filled with empathy. He had no coins to give this man, but he remembered that his wife had tucked away a ring. He found it hidden in a back room of the house and gave it to the beggar. Later that day, his wife came home and noticed the ring was missing. “What did you do?” “There was a beggar and I gave it to him,” Rabbi Shmelke responded. She scolded her husband, telling him that it was a very valuable ring. He needed to chase after the beggar. So, without argument or hesitation, Rabbi Shmelke ran from the house, searched through the town, and finally found the man. He grabbed the poor man by his shoulders, stared him in the eyes and told him valuable the ring was and to make sure when he sells it, to get a fair price. She sent him to get it back. He practiced a life of giving.
When I meet with a family after a relative has died, this is the quality of the person’s character that I am most interested in. It is the the quality of giving that rises to the top of every eulogy. What we appreciate most in a person is how being a GIVER has taken form in that person’s life. We all know, that it is not just a matter of money given away. It is also the capacity to give of one’s love, support and wisdom.
Terumah, this week’s portion asks the important question for us today: What do we do in a world where there are more TAKERS and MATCHERS than GIVERS? Do we just be like them? This portion is seeking for us to be a person of deep spiritual practice. We can be a GIVER even if we are one of the few GIVERS around us. We should model that. Our Torah portion comes at a time after just leaving Egypt; after just being at Sinai where the people realize their mission, that GIVERS are not only needed, but they are expected to give. There is nothing but the offering of one’s heart that will build this first praying place in the Jewish community.
What would this congregation look like if we were populated more by Givers than by Takers and Matchers? What would our communities look like? What would our nation look like?
We need the heart of Rabbi Shmelke; that man with an open and caring heart. We have distanced ourselves from Pharaoh, whose heart is hard with cruelty and callousness.
Open those hearts. Let those hearts lead you. Let that life of giving be what we are about. Let that action be what we teach our children and grandchildren; that which we model for generations to come.
This portion begs me to open my eyes today to see where I will be more giving today; less focused on what I am going to get for today.
Will it be an expression of gratitude to my parents over the phone for giving me life and an opportunity to serve this congregation?
Will it be to give comfort to members of our community whose loved ones are ailing and struggling to survive another day?
Or will it be to reach in my pocket and write a check to a worthy charitable organization or give to someone I meet on the street?
Giving is done on many levels. Let’s see if you can climb one more rung on that ladder; or two. If each of us were higher up on that ladder, imagine what miracles we could create. We can change one life as was true of the man who knocked on Rebbe Shmelke’s door, or we can build something greater in our communities that are dependent on our generosity of the heart.
It starts with each one of us. And when they stand up to talk about our life when our days are ended, will the speak of us as a TAKER, a MATCHER, or maybe…a GIVER?