Three Gifts

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, February 16, 2024 / 7 Adar Rishon 5784

Summary: This week’s Torah portion teaches us that gifts can transform our lives for the better, allowing us to experience our connections to God, others, and the flow of life.

Reading Time: Six minutes

When is a material gift spiritual, and when is a spiritual gift material?

I have a vivid recollection of a November sun casting its cold rays onto the front porch of my childhood home as I unwrapped the large cardboard carton that contained an unassembled Big Wheel. The Big Wheel came to market in the 1970s; it was basically what happened when a tricycle died, went to heaven, and came back reincarnated as the coolest set of wheels any five-year-old could dream of owning. I don’t know how long I had been itching for one, but there was nothing I desired more. Nana Pauline and Papa Sam, who lived frugally on their Social Security check, splurged for my fifth birthday. I knew that, probably because my mother would have emphasized what a substantial gift this was.

I sat cross-legged on the wooden porch as my mechanically-challenged father struggled to assemble the pieces. The day was fading; as the sun set, its rays became visible, almost tangible as they caressed my face with the faintest sense of warmth. My butt, in contrast was cold, but it didn’t matter. I felt loved, deeply and impossibly loved. All was right in my world.

It is still possible to revisit that moment with all of its finely etched detail and emotion. In the intervening years, new layers of meaning and memory have attached themselves to that autumn day: the way that Papa’s pacemaker stood proud on his chest, or the half grapefruits whose membranes Nana lovingly removed whenever we ate dinner in their apartment. And, of course, my father’s heartfelt effort to make sure that the cotter pins which held the wheels onto the frame were as secure as possible. The Big Wheel of long ago has been transformed from a toy into a prism of love and loss, youth and maturity.

Certain gifts change our lives; their impact lingers long after the exchange took place. It’s the same with books. One enduring work that continues to resonate for me is The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, by Lewis Hyde. This modern classic plumbed folktales, anthropology, and even economic theories to describe the relationship between creative work, the generosity of those who make it, and the community that ultimately receives and sustains such work. Some key insights that Hyde developed is how creativity is itself a reciprocal gift; in the first place, the capacity to create is a gift given to an artist; afterwards, the artist bestows that gift to others. This highlighted how gifts of creativity remain in motion by inspiring others, thereby fostering further creativity, which in turn strengthens the community in which these spiritual transactions of creativity are given and received.

Stating this thesis more concretely, we readily recognize the importance that creative culture has on a community. Regional theater, art museums and studios, music clubs, and other artistic outlets strengthen communities, bring us together to watch shows or listen to performances, or gather to make art with one another. So too, whenever grandparents are handed scribbled drawings from proud young grandchildren, they understand the reciprocal nature of gift giving, and how easily a material gift carries within it deep spiritual impulses of love and generosity.

All of this helps us comprehend why Moses repeatedly asks the Israelites to bring God gifts in Parshat Terumah, this week’s Torah portion. In Exodus 25:1-8, we read that “Ado-nay spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair, tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod [apron] and for the breastpiece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” (Sefaria, The Contemporary Torah, JPS, 2006)

As the bolded words show, within two sentences “gifts” is repeated three times in our Torah, which is normally quite spare with its language, emphasizing that something unusual and important is occurring. This especially matters because an initial reading might make us wonder why God is demanding gifts from us. Does God really need gifts or sacrifices from humans? More importantly, wouldn’t such a demand imply that what we are bringing is not a gift but a tax?

Such questions only make sense if we are thinking about the transactional nature of a market economy. But as we have seen, the gift giving of creativity operates in a different economy, one of the spirit, where the love that is passed around increases in value, returning to us again and again. When we pause, we know this to be true, for each of us has a Big Wheel moment that changes us. Yet without that lull for reflection, this important insight remains invisible.

Rabbenu Bahya, a 14th century Spanish Bible scholar pushes this lesson further by commenting on our verses:

“The word תרומה (terumah) means something set aside. In other words, the Israelites were to set aside a voluntary contribution for the building of the Tabernacle each out of their own funds. But the concept of the Tabernacle serves as a representational model of Mount Sinai, with one key difference. At Mt. Sinai, God’s presence was visible. At the tabernacle, it was invisible.”1

It’s very easy to enter a synagogue and decide that “God is not here.” Many times, people bemoan that synagogues lack spirituality. After all, at Mt. Sinai, God chooses to become visible, such that the entire nation had a direct experience of divinity. Shouldn’t our houses of worship also provide us such direct access? If they don’t, why bother?

But at Mt. Sinai, we didn’t do anything to earn God’s revelation. We were spiritually immature, so in an act of grace, God gave directly to us. The spirituality happened to us. Yet the role of the Tabernacle was not to ensure that God remained invisible, but to teach us that after Sinai, we are active participants in making God tangible. The mechanism is so obvious that we often overlook it. When we offer up our generosity, our creativity, and our voices in song to one another in this reciprocity of spirit, something profound happens, as those of us who attended last week’s K-6 Shabbat service witnessed. We open the gates of our own hearts, to which only we hold the keys. When we do so, as verse 25:8 reminds us, “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

God follows our lead. We are responsible for our spiritual lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Which gifts that you have received changed your life most profoundly?
  2. Which gifts that you have given changed your life most profoundly?
  3. Most of us have experienced moments of awe, which carry their own form of spirituality. While we can do things to increase the probability of awe, there is still a way in which it can sweep over us, almost unbidden. Can you recount when your own active efforts brought you to a spiritual experience? What was involved? Is it repeatable?

1 My translation.

ולשון תרומה הפרשה כלומר שיפרישו ישראל נדבה מממונם למלאכת המשכן. וענין המשכן היה דוגמת הר סיני, והכבוד ששכן על הר סיניבנגלה הוא ששכן על המשכן בנסתר…,

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