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The Art of Giving

February 15, 2002

In this week’s Torah Portion, we read about gifts which led to the establishment of the first Jewish communal structure: the tabernacle. In the words of the Torah, this portable sanctuary was the combined effort of “every person whose heart so moved him” {Exodus 25:2}.

Here is a different version of the art of giving. There was a small shtetl in the Polish countryside where the villagers consulted the rabbi in all matters, large and small. It was with great joy that they looked forward to the marriage of the rabbi’s only son. In just two weeks, the young man would stand beneath the chuppah with the tailor’s daughter. In order to guarantee a truly joyous wedding, the mayor instructed the village carpenter to construct a barrel the size of a small water tower in the middle of the town square. It was so high that one had to use a ladder to reach the top. When the barrel was finished, the mayor decreed that the villagers had two weeks to bring a bucket full of the best red wine from his or her cellar to the town square and empty it into the tall barrel. On the evening of the wedding, the barrel would be tapped and from it would flow the most delicious wine the town had ever known. Everyone would drink, sing, dance and praise God.

Every day for two weeks, there was a steady stream of villagers walking to the town square with pails in hand. Each one climbed the ladder to the very top, lifted the pail over the edge, and poured the contents into the massive vessel. Finally, the much awaited evening arrived. During the wedding ceremony, there were tears of joy for the bride and groom, now joined together for life. Soon after, the mayor decided the time had come to tap the barrel and to celebrate as the town had never celebrated before. The villagers crowded around him, holding empty mugs in their eager hands. With a smile reflecting his pride, he climbed the ladder, pounded in the tap and placed his hand on the spigot, ready to welcome a torrent of rich, red wine. “Mazal tov and praised be God for this wonderful day in the history of our village and of our People!” the mayor exclaimed as he turned the spigot and waited for his mug to fill.

Suddenly the entire village fell silent, for as the mayor turned the spigot, out of it flowed nothing but water. Looking into each other’s eyes, the villagers knew exactly what had happened. Each person thought that everyone else would do their fair share, and so a few villagers could get by with adding water instead of wine to the barrel. After all, what difference would a few pails of water make in all of that wine? Little did any of them think that everyone else would also bring pails of water! After standing silently in the square for what seemed like hours, each returned to his or her home, filled with shame and despair. It was the saddest wedding celebration the town had ever seen.

Giving is not always easy, but it becomes easier when it is “from the heart,” habitual and communal. How many of us remember being told, “Share it with your brother!” or “Give your sister some of that!” The earliest lessons in life occur when, as children, we are asked to share something we value so that someone else might enjoy it or benefit from it. What is the lesson that we teach through the example of tzedakah? “When you give, you gain.” You derive pleasure from helping others and from making people happy.

The first act of giving wasn’t voluntary. Asleep, Adam gave up a rib and Eve was born. Why a rib? “God blew into his nostrils nishmaht chayyim/the breath of life, and the man became a nefesh chayah/ a living being” {Genesis 2:7}. Lungs filled with the breath of life, and the ribs protected them. Later, God took one of those ribs to create Adam’s partner. Giving up something gave life to another.

The word for “rib” is tzay’lah, consisting of the letters tzadee/lamed/ayin. Those letters appear again when Jacob wrestled with the angel. Though Jacob prevailed, he limped away/tzo’lay’ah {Genesis 32:32}. Why was the muscle torn in his thigh? Touching it sealed a promise, just as Abraham sealed an agreement with his servant, Eliezer. Placing one’s hand on another’s thigh implied agreement and trust. Jacob, who had proven himself on several occasions to be less than trustworthy, was wrenched in that place. He limped away, tzo’lay’ah, in which we find the same letters as the word for rib. Diminished, he would in time gain more awareness of himself than he had previously known.

Adam lost a rib and gained a mate. Jacob struggled, then limped and, through the experience, grew. Both stories are about spiritual gain. The letters tzadee/lamed/ayin appear in this week’s Torah Portion, in which we read the details for the construction of the ark of the tablets of testimony, the Ten Commandments. We were instructed, “Make poles of acacia wood… insert the poles into the rings on the tzalote/side walls of the ark, for carrying the ark” {Exodus 25:13-14}. Why do the sides/tzalote of the ark share the same letters as the word for “rib”/tzai’lah? Are we to be reminded of Adam’s rib, or Jacob’s limp/tzo’lay’ah, when we look at the ark that embraces the tablets?

This Torah Portion commences with these words, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelite people to bring Me a terumah/a gift. You shall accept a terumah for Me from every person whose heart so moves him’ {Exodus 25:1-2}. A terumah is literally an “elevated offering,” one that must be lifted up with great effort. `To give’ is to be ‘uplifted.’ Every fundraiser knows that the initial thought that precedes the gift that one intends to give is not what the gift should be. The first number offered is a relatively easy gift. There is no doubt that it is meaningful, but it is not yet `uplifting’ because it does not require too much of us. When we think again of what we can give and make the effort to ‘lift up’ the amount and, at the same time, ‘uplift’ ourselves in doing so, we arrive at terumah: an ‘uplifting’ gift which reflects the “[heart] of every person [who is] so mov[ed].”

A terumah – an ‘elevated offering’, an ‘uplifting gift’ – is not tzedakah. Tzedakah is an obligation. It is collected from everyone to meet the needs of those who are poor, hungry, homeless, and helpless. Throughout Jewish history, Jewish communities ‘taxed’ Jewish adults to ensure that those needs would be met. The kehillah – the Ashkenazic Jewish communal structure that existed in European villages, shteds and ghettos – conducted and enforced laws of observance. But with emancipation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, individuals were free to make choices, one of which was to leave the community. We are obligated by our tradition to give, but there was no longer a communal body to enforce that requirement. It is our tradition that compels giving. It asks us to extend ourselves above the level of obligation – tzedakah – to that of ‘elevation’ – terumah – or ‘uplifting’ behavior.

When people are asked to serve on a Board of Directors, or on a fund­raising arm of an organization, one of the expectations is that they will not only devote volunteer hours but that they will also donate some of their largesse to the organization. Another important goal is to reach out to those who might not be inclined to give and ask them to achieve terumah: to ‘uplift’ themselves by giving so that others might benefit. The ‘asker’ must also be a ‘giver.’ We must lead by example.

What was the explicit purpose for which God said, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me a terumah/a gift… from every person whose heart so moves him”? {Exodus 25:2}. It was, in the words of the Torah, to “make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” {Exodus 25:8}. The tabernacle that we constructed contained the ark, upon which God’s Presence descended and over which it hovered. The word for the side walls/tzal’ote of the ark, has letters which are found in the words for Adam’s rib/tzai’lah and Jacob’s limp/tzo’lay’ah. The message is that God’s covenant is more fully realized when we give up something of ourselves: when we struggle to ascend to heights of awareness and goodness that elevate us through the mitzvot we perform and by every terumah/gift when “[our] heart [truly] moves [us].” When we behave in ways that reflect our most beneficent “heartfelt” desires through tzedakah and terumah, we expand the sanctuary of God’s domain here on earth.

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin