Eleven years ago I wrote a musing entitled Keeping Me On My Toes for parashat Naso. This year, while I am at the annual Hava Nashira workshop, I revisit this musing with a few additions and observations.
Torah has a way of challenging us. For someone like myself, who is somewhat of a gadfly, it's a good thing that, once in a while, the Torah itself serves as my own gadfly. As a gadfly I often advocate for looking an an issue or question from multiple viewpoints, including those viewpoints which might not necessarily be popular. Standing, as we gadfly-types often do, as a sort of stand-in for Toto pulling aside the curtain to reveal the real Wizard in Oz, we become so enamored of our own role that we forget to examine ourselves for the very trait of narrow vision that we call out in others. This week's Torah portion provides just such a reminder for me.
I come from a fairly poor, working class background. My political and economic leanings are definitely not favorable to unbridled capitalism. I do admit to some prejudice against those better off than myself, especially those much better off than myself or any of the rest of us 98-percenters. I've railed before against the high-cost of being Jewish, and its underlying assumption that most Jews in this country are economic well-off. (A recent tangent to this topic is related to how the iPad and iPhone are getting preferential treatment for first releases and forays into the world of electronic siddurs and the like, not necessarily because the creators of these things believe iOS is a better platform, but because they assume more Jews, being well-off, own Apple products as opposed to other devices. There's a corollary to this effect in that it runs counter to the old mythos of the Jew as cheap and miserly, and thus they will buy the better and more expensive product. While I won;t argue that Jews as a general rule are better off these days in the U.S. than they were decades ago, there is still a significant, overlooked Jewish population that is working class or even in poverty, and even relatively well-off Jews are struggling in today's economic climate.)
So, as an admitted member of the "hey you guys, there are plenty of not-so-well-off Jews out here" club, and, admittedly, a bit of a socialist, I easily buy-in to the pretty popular, almost politically correct tendency of folks to decry and denounce the plethoric presence of plaques placed prominently in shuls, synagogues, sanctuaries and other centers of Jewish life, living and worship. After all, we are taught that giving anonymously is a higher virtue. Yet Jewish buildings abound with dedicatory inscriptions. Some building are even named for their major benefactors. Federations and synagogues send out their yearly acknowledgements listing all the contributors, sometimes egalitarian and sometimes defined by "levels" of giving. There are synagogues and other institutions out there who have "sold" naming rights in honor of big donors in perpetuity, and then later resold them when a bigger donor came along. Oy.
I hate walking into a synagogue only to be confronted by plaques on every little item recognizing a donor. Drives me absolutely bonkers. Some synagogues do a better job at being discrete about this, but even there I am discomforted. I'll admit it. I am one of those who scorns at the practice. Maybe it's because I know I'll never really be able to afford it myself except on a very limited scale, but mostly it seems so ostentatious and vain.
Well, I love it when Torah challenges one of my cherished values. And challenge it parashat Naso certainly does. We have here a complete description of the gifts brought by the heads of the tribes and clans to the dedication of the mishkan.
77 verses of this parasha are dedicated to a description of the gifts and offering brought by the clan chieftains and Nachshon (who alone is not called chieftain, perhaps, as the rabbis tell us, so he would not be overly prideful at being the first to be assigned that honor.) The offerings are effectively identical, so why, one wonders, does the Torah painstakingly recount each chieftain's presentation? Scholars suggest a literary device, while the rabbis and other sages offer a range of more mystical or psychological explanations. That's a discussion I might yet take up at some future time.
My focus is not on the fact that each chieftain's identical gift is carefully described in details, but rather that the description of the gifts are there at all. It just brought me up short and made me rethink my automatic rejection of the idea of public recognition for support so prominent in our society, and in Judaism nowadays.
Perhaps, the Torah is teaching us that some types of recognition may be appropriate. That it is OK to name donors. After all, the Torah itself names donors right here in this parasha!
And that, for me, is the joy of reading Torah. If I read Torah regularly, it won't allow me to become complacent and dogmatic in my views, for each time I open it and turn its pages something new will reveal itself and challenge some belief or perception of mine.
I'm still troubled by the prevalence of plaques and other forms of recognition that adorn our institutions and houses of worship, but I can no longer accept a blanket condemnation, or simply assume they are a bad and ostentatious thing. I must temper my judgment with these insights from Torah. I know I'll be devoting time this Shabbat thinking about it. The place where I am today, the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute Camp in Oconomowoc, WI, participating in the annual Hava Nashira Workshop certainly isn;t over-abundant in recognition plaques, but it has its share. Each time I see one (or enter a named building) I know I'll be thinking about this. As this challenges me, I encourage you to be similarly challenged. How can we reconcile our concerns for ostentation and over-abundance of recognition plaques, our understanding of what Judaism teaches about the value of charity, and what we read right here in Naso?
Thanks, G"d, for this gift to keep me mentally on my toes at all times.
©2012, portions 2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parashah:
Naso 5771 - The Nazarite Conundrum
Nasso 5770 - Cherubic Puzzles
Naso 5768 - G"d's Roadies
Naso 5767 (Redux 5759) - The Fourth Fold
Naso 5765-Northeast Gaza-Side Story
Naso 5763--Lemon Pledge
Naso 5759-The Fourth Fold
Naso 5760-Bitter Waters
Naso 5762-Wondrous Names (Haftarah Naso from Judges)