By Date

Dear Friends,

This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Re’eh. It begins by telling us we have a choice when it comes to what actions we take, stating, “See, this day, I set before you blessing and curse. Blessing, if you obey the commandments of your God… curse, if you do not…” As we approach the Hebrew month of Elul, the month of preparation leading to the Holy Days, it is an important reminder.

Later in the portion we find this statement:

Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to his own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you.

On the surface, the statement is rather clear. We are not to appear before God empty-handed, we are to give according to our own gifts, and our gifts should reflect the blessings God has given us. As the medieval sage Sa’adia Gaon points out, these three instructions call on each of us to offer “what his hand can afford, according to that which God has bestowed upon you.” The Talmud elaborates on these guidelines stating, “If one wishes to spend generously, one should not spend more than one-fifth of one’s income.”

Thus, on its simplest level, this statement is understood as calling on each of us to give in a manner that ensures that such gifts are given joyously and are within our financial capacities.

It is a powerful and important statement in and of itself. Rabbi Brad Artson, however, digs a bit deeper into these statements and offers the following insights:

“Perhaps,” he writes, “these three guidelines are meant not only as synonymous phrases, but as three plateaus, each adding a layer of meaning to extend and complement its partners.”

He then goes on to identify how each of the three parts might be understood.

During our joyous celebrations, we must not come empty-handed. To celebrate in God’s presence, we must not focus only on taking, on our own personal joy. To celebrate in the fullest sense is to harness our private triumphs to contribute to the repair of God’s world.

The second biblical qualification is that the offering we bring must be according to our own gifts. That is to say that no two people may bring precisely the same thing. Each must bring an offering reflective of his or her own special talents and passions, something that illumines his or her uniqueness.

The third qualification is that the offering be “according to God’s blessing.” Here the Torah recognizes that human individuality is a reflection of divine love and bounty. God’s greatness is reflected not in some numbing conformity, but in the stunning diversity of human character, interest, and talent.

Artson’s interpretation reinforces the Mishnaic statement that teaches, “A single person [Adam] was created to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One, for when people stamp many coins from the same seal, the coins are all alike. But the Holy Blessed One has stamped every human with the seal of the first person, but no two descendants are alike.”

We are living at a time when there are increasing numbers of “religious” people of all flavors who seek to impose their religious worldview on others. They believe they have a lock on “truth.” That is not, nor will it ever be, our approach at TSTI. Of course, I want our community to be knowledgable and engaged. (And we will have more programming than ever planned this year to help achieve that.) But I/we also recognize that each of us will engage with our community in that way the best suits us, our time and our interests. The ancient sages understood the importance of each individual sharing their own gifts to the community. Each of us will offer the gifts we are able to bring to the table. None are better or worse; they are merely different. Ultimately, it is the sum total of those gifts that make our community what it is. And I am truly grateful for that.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen