Sunday, February 14, 2021

Portion Terumah: Generosity/Nedivut

Make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell within you.     (Exodus 25:8)

Research in the field of positive psychology over the last two decades that it truly is better to give than to receive.  In a study published in the journal Science, psychologist Elisabeth Dunn gave envelopes containing money to her students at the University of British Columbia and told them that by day’s end, they had to either spend the money on something they wanted or purchase a gift for someone else.  When Dunn interviewed the students later, the results were clear: those who gifted others were significantly happier than those who kept the money for themselves.

In this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, God asks the Israelites to donate materials for the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that they will carry through the desert for the next forty years.  God tells Moses: “Accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves them.”  The people respond with extraordinary generosity, bringing forth beautiful fabrics, tanned skins, fine wood, oil for lighting, precious stones and, above all, gold, which will be used to cast the sacred vessels.

Why does God request such offerings?  Lest one think that the Holy One needs a luxurious dwelling place, the Rabbis point to the wording of Exodus 25:8: “Let them make for me a sacred place, so that I may dwell among them.”  God does not ask for a sanctuary in order to dwell in it; instead, God suggests that through the building process—which invokes the people’s generosity—God will dwell among them.

In other words, God asks for our gifts because God knows that the very act of giving opens the heart of the giver and thus creates the possibility of intimacy.  When we share what we have with others, we raise ourselves in holiness, for the name of the portion, Terumah—meaning “a donation”—comes from a Hebrew root for “to lift up.”  Through giving, we draw upon our own higher angels and invite the Divine into our lives.

In other words, it really is better—healthier and holier—to give than to receive.


The character trait of generosity is known in Hebrew as nedivut, which refers to an openness of heart that moves us to share what we have with others.  The cultivation of this quality is an essential Mussar practice.  The founder of the movement, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught that “the spiritual is higher than the physical, but the physical needs of another are an obligation of my spiritual life.”  We heal our own souls by bearing the burden of others and sharing what we have with those who are in need.  As Alan Morinis notes in Every Day, Holy Day:

The heart gives freely when it realizes that it is not a separate and isolated entity, but rather belongs to larger wholes.  Giving comes easily to such a heart because it experiences no rupture between the one who gives and the one who receives.  Generosity by its nature draws closer the giver and the receiver, until ultimately there is neither “me” nor “you,” but only love.


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

Begin each morning with the phrase: The generous heart gives freely

Then try to do three generous acts per day: one with your money, one with your time, one with your caring.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Portion Mishpatim: Order/Seder

These are the rules that you shall set before them.  
                (Exodus 21:1)

Jewish wisdom does not follow a partisan political platform.  While my personal politics incline (mostly) toward progressivism, I recognize that our tradition offers its share of teachings and opinions that echo the ideology of classic conservatism. Judaism is too old and vast to follow any single party line; look closely and within our sacred texts you can find a vast array of views that include radicalism, moderation, socialism, capitalism, and almost everything in between.  

There is, however, one perspective that is noteworthy in its absence: anarchy. This attitude, which asserts that the best government is, essentially, no government at all, is often where the far left and far right meet. We don’t see it in our Jewish tradition because it is anathema to the very foundation of our culture.  Jewish life is built upon the rule of law—a system of mitzvot, of legal and ethical obligations. Long before Thomas Hobbes described life without government as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” our Sages taught: “Pray for the welfare of the government—for without proper respect for governmental authority, people would swallow one another alive.”  It is worth noting that the government under which the Rabbis lived was hardly benign. They endured brutally oppressive Roman rule—yet they still saw this as a better alternative than anarchy.  Our Sages would have been deeply shaken—as we all should be—by the anarchic (and not coincidentally anti-Semitic) takeover of the US Capitol just a few weeks ago.

For Jews, law makes life possible, and, at its best, it raises us up as individuals and communities.  At every level—from families to neighborhoods to synagogues to nations—just laws create and maintain just societies.  In our culture, we insist that belief follows behavior.  To change your beliefs and suppositions, you start by changing what you do in the world.  And the best way to change behavior is to change the law.  To offer an example dear to my heart: If we want to create justice for our state’s LGBTQ community, you don’t say: “We’ll add the words after we teach everyone to love one another.”  Instead, we slowly, imperfectly—but inexorably—teach love by making it the law, even for those who don’t (yet) love.

This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is at heart a collection of laws dealing with an eclectic assortment of topics, civil and criminal and ritual, holy and mundane.  At first, it seems a far cry from the spiritual heights of last week’s parshah, where God speaks to the Israelites from Mount Sinai.  But since, for the Jewish people, law is love and life, these legal matters are of utmost spiritual significance.  


In the Mussar tradition, the opposite of anarchy and chaos is the midah of seder, meaning spiritual order.  The significance of this character trait can be gleaned from the Hebrew word, which lends its name to both the order of the Passover meal and the siddur, the prayer book that contains the “order” of our daily and holiday liturgy.  As Alan Morinis notes in Everyday Holiness, Mussar is a practical discipline that draws upon this trait, and sees it as essential to both functional daily life and divine service.  Chaos is an impediment to a meaningful, intentional life; order helps make this path possible.  Morinis concludes: “Order helps create an inner sense that the things that matter have been properly arranged and tended to and, as a result, that the details of life are under control. Calm and unworried, at that point the channels to the divine will are open and unencumbered as they can get, and the possibility of serving—and happiness---will have become real for you."


Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)
Begin each morning with the phrase: First things first and last things later
Then try to set one thing in order every day this week.