Friday, March 3, 2017

Random Musing Before Shabbat–T’rumah 5777-You Still Gotta Wanna

Revisiting this musing from a decade ago (written as a follow-up to one written 16 years ago.)

Sixteen years ago, my musing for parashat T'rumah was entitled "You Gotta Wanna." It was focused on the words of Shemot (Exodus) chapter 25, verse 2:

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרֽוּמָתִֽי:

"Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts from any person whose heart so moves him. (Shemot 25:2, JPS)

I argued, at that time, that it while it was somewhat unnecessary for G"d to state that the gifts being collected for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) were voluntary, we were (and still are) a stubborn and recalcitrant people, often reluctant to part with what we have, even for G"d. As Rashi explained, G"d wanted to insure that the people's giving was born out of love for G"d, and not any selfish desires or goals. (And, I added, not out of an unhealthy fear, or simple peer pressure.)

Then, I reminded us that Rambam (Maimonides) taught us that, ultimately, giving is giving. Whether motivated by altruism or love of G"d, or given selfishly, even begrudgingly, one is fulfilling a mitzvah. Yes, the Rambam believed there were relative levels of virtue in how one gave charity, and that begrudging or selfish giving ranked lower than unselfish, joyful giving.

What about coerced giving? Well, even G"d didn't resort to that (or at least gave an appearance that there was no coercion involved. A good lawyer might argue otherwise simply on the basis of the power dynamics of the relationship between G"d and the people.)

[2017 – OK. Let’s follow the threads. G”d “favorably disposed” the Egyptians, in their already worn-down state after suffering all ten plagues, to give up to the departing Israelites the spoils of Egypt. The text is somewhat specific, noting they gave up gold, silver, and clothing,. Actually, it doesn’t even say that. It says the Israelites “asked” (or, according to the JPS, “borrowed” but I think that’s a leap too far)  of the Egyptians vessels/implements of gold and silver, and clothing. Following the thread back further to Ex. 11:2, it only mentions vessels/implements of gold and silver – no clothing. Then later, out in the wilderness during the time of parashat Mishkan, all of a sudden the list has grown, and Moses asks the people to bring as gifts for the building of the Mishkan – gold, silver, copper/bronze; blue, purple and crimson yarn, fine linens, goat’s hair, ram skins, tachash skins acacia wood; oil, spices; lapis lazuli and other precious stones. The rabbis and commentators generally assume these items to be gifted all came from the spoils of Egypt - surely slaves would not have accumulated these things on their own. And let’s talk about this acacia wood. Were the Israelites hauling around hunks and planks of wood? Maybe a carving or two, at most. Isn’t it more likely they simply cut down nearby Acacia and other trees, bushes, and lianas? If that’s the case, I might suggest that the time and effort to cut down and haul the wood from a nearby acacia tree is a far more meaningful gift than giving up jewelry handed over to you by Egyptians in their hurry to get you out of their country.]

What I didn't reflect upon sixteen years ago, but noted ten years ago, is the fact that G"d created what was, in effect, a "gift registry." Basically, G"d said "each person shall give as they are moved" and then went on to say "this is what they shall give" and "this is what you are building and these are the ingredients you will need to build it."

Is there a difference between G"d telling us what is needed, and an engaged couple doing the same through a registry? Of that, I am not certain. What I can tell you is that, in both cases, it does make our job a little easier-we don't have to think as much or put as much effort into the process as we might have if we weren't given some clues, or simply a blatant "we need this" list.

[2017 – online stores are gathering the data needed to help them suggest other items which might interest us. How much longer before there are services that use other people’s data to help us decide what to gift them? (To some extent, Amazon is already capable of this with its “Wish-Lists” features already.) Will stores give this away, or will they charge us a fee to see what our friends/relatives/neighbors might want as a gift? We know that our charitable giving is already being targeted by the sharing of data between organizations. Where do these realities fit on the Rambam’s ladder? ]

Now, gift-giving is on my mind nowadays not only because of parashat T'rumah, but also the approaching holiday of Purim, with its mitzvot of mishloakh manot (sending of gifts) and matanot l'evyonim (gifts for the poor.) Gift giving is a becoming a funny thing in our society. Values are changing and shifting (much of it due to the pressure of advertising.)

We have taken gift-giving, a value we embrace, and turned it into a process, a procedure, and not an act or action. Yes, we still cherish a crayon-written birthday card from a child, or a hand-knit or custom-created (by the giver) gift. But we see fewer and fewer of those. And even the process of giving a gift with meaning has become a process. "Tell us what this person is like and we'll help you choose the perfect gift." Why is this something we should need help with? (Yes, in the case of a gift for G"d, the situation is a little different. More on that in a second.) And now returning and exchanging gifts is as organized a process as shopping for them. What does that tell us?

Imagine this scene: an angel approaches an Israelite in the camp with a handful of jewelry. The angel says to the Israelite

"I'd like to return this."

The Israelite recognizes them as jewelry he had contributed for the building of the Mishkan and asks "Why does G"d want to return them to me? Are my gifts not good enough?"

The angel says "No, my good man, G"d appreciates your gifts very much. It's just that, well, people were so generous, we wound up with more than we needed."

The Israelite says "Well, that was a pretty big list of things that were needed that G"d told Moshe."

The angel says "Well, given your people's once and future history, we weren't anticipating such generosity. Please take them back and give us a refund."

The Israelite says "I understand. OK, I'll take them back. Just put them in my hand. My wives will be thrilled." The Israelite takes the jewelry and begins to walk away.

The angel says "Um, excuse me, but there's the matter of G"d’s refund."

The Israelite says "What? A refund? But they were a gift. G"d didn't pay me anything for them."

The angel replies "that's what you think. What would you call all those plagues on the Egyptians and all that stuff at the reed sea."

The Israelite says "Those were miracles! You mean I was expected to pay for them?"

The angel replies "Well, in a way, yes. You were expected to pay for them by worshipping only G"d, by loving G"d, and following G"d's commandments."

The Israelite says "I've been pretty good at that. Tell ya what. You tell G"d that I'll be extra loving, extra careful to do all those whatchamacallits, er, commandments, and I won't allow any idols in the house. How's that?"

The angel says "I'm afraid you don't understand. These weren't yours to begin with. G"d wants you to give them back to the Egyptian that you 'borrowed' them from. That's G"d's refund."

But I digress. Let's get back to nowadays, and parashat T'rumah, and Purim, and gift registries, and all that jazz. We now, of course, have the ultimate cop-out, as some suggest, or the ultimate solution to finding the right gift - the gift card. Instead of worrying about finding just the right gift, we just give people plastic money. On the one hand it seems impersonal, on the other hand, it makes sense.

Can you imagine all the Israelites giving gift cards for the building of the Mishkan? After all, G"d really did give them a big list, and instead of having to try and coordinate it amongst themselves, they all figured it was best to just give G"d the money and G"d would spend it. Or Moshe would have taken care of it. And what would have happened? We would have wound up with a Mishkan built of little plastic cards!

It wasn't about the money, or the value of the goods, it was about the goods themselves. They were what was needed to build the Mishkan (though I've little doubt that, even though the Torah does not mention it, some of the collected contributions of the Israelites were used to exchange in trade for some of the building materials needed at the neighborhood Mishkan Depot.)

So what have we learned here? Well, G"d apparently approves of gift registries. Sort of. That giving money isn't always the answer or the best solution.

And that takes us back to the same place I wound up sixteen years ago. G"d doesn't want or need gift cards from us. Nor do any of our friends. (On the other hand, giving gift cards to the poor isn't such a bad idea. The western world’s history of charitable giving is replete with far too many examples of our giving the needy what we thought they needed, and not what they thought they needed. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? We are, ever so slowly, starting to grow past that attitude, but we still have a long way to go.)

G"d is looking for us to find the gifts that we must give. That we are compelled internally and unthinkingly to give. As I wrote back in 5761:

But when was the last time you actually gave something that was of great value to yourself as a gift to G"d, t'rumah, as it were, solely because you heart moved you to do so? Don't count the gift if, at any time, you thought "as a Jew I am obligated..." because that is a motivation of the head, not the heart. The true gift of the heart is given without thought. That is what it means to take G"d's commandments into your heart. To give t'rumah not because you thought about it, but because your internal makeup simply compels you to do so. I suspect that for G"d, that could be the greatest gift of all, for through it G"d knows that G"d's creation of humanity isn't as flawed as it might appear.

Still, the reality is that we often require motivation. We understand that the gift we have to give is love for all of G"d's creation and love of G"d. Yet we are imperfect in our execution of that understanding. And we are left, as I said in 5761:

"The same place Torah always takes us. With impossible goals that we must continually strive toward. And to get there-you gotta wanna."

Shabbat Shalom

©2017 (portions ©2007 and 2001) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

T'rumah 5776 - Gift Cards for G"d
T'rumah 5775 - Dis Legonmenon Driving Me Crazy, Mon!
T'rumah 5774 - Dollhouse
T'rumah 5773 - Virtual Reality, Real Virtuality, or Really Virtual?
T'rumah 5772-When Wool and Linen Together Are Not Shatnez
T'rumah 5771 - TorahLeaks
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna

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