• Teruma


    the first fundraiser

    Any endeavour, however spiritual or lofty, needs practical nuts and bolts to hold it together. This week’s portion describes the building of the Mishkan, the holy tabernacle, but it also deals with the down-to-earth issue of how contributions to the Mishkan were collected. This description of the first fundraising event in Jewish history gives us an insight into how we give and what we get in return…

    God’s instructions to Moses to make a collection to enable the holy Mishkan to be built are worded in a strange manner:

    “Let them take a contribution for me”, commands God, “from every willing person…” (Exodus XXV:)

    Surely the command should say ‘let them give’  and not ‘let them take’, especially since the contributions are not being forced but are coming ‘from every willing person”.

    The continuation of the command is also couched in unusual language:

    “And let them make for me a tabernacle”, says God, “and I will dwell within them.” (Exodus XXV:)

    Surely the sentence should say that God will live within ‘it’ , that is in the tabernacle, rather than within “them”,  that is in the people themselves.

    The unusual wording of these two commandments, the rabbis suggest, is designed to convey two insights about charitable giving.

    The first is that in communal matters, giving is really a kind of taking. That which you give is your only true possession. For this reason the people of Israel are commanded not to give, but to take. The act of giving creates something of value that will remain with them for ever.
    As if to confirm this, the second verse clarifies the aim is not to create a home for godliness in the world, but to create a possibility of godliness within the heart of man. By contributing to the building of a place for God, the people of Israel create a place of holiness within their own hearts.  As the 15th century Portuguese commentator Isaac Abarbanel explained:

    The words “I will dwell within them” are to teach that The Holy One intended that by making the Tabernacle and its furnishings the sanctity of the Divine presence would adhere to the people.”

    Contributions and donations from Jewish communities around the world have played a major role in the development of the Jewish state.  The experience of many donors shows that the lessons of this week’s portion regarding the building of the tabernacle, apply equally well to those who support the building of the Jewish homeland.  First, as many donors can testify, when they have the knowledge and satisfaction of seeing a new school, community center or hospital take root, the feeling of involvement and pride makes it hard indeed to distinguish the feelings of  giving and receiving. And secondly, like the Mishkan, donors give to Israel, but often find that the very act of giving makes Israel live within them and makes the Jewish state a part of their identity.

    One recent initiative which shows how the circle of giving and taking runs though so much of Jewish philanthropy is the remarkable “Birthright” project, in which young men and women from around world rediscover their Jewish identity by visiting Israel. After decades of supporting Israel and helping Israeli society flourish, Diaspora Jewry has discovered the two lessons of building the Mishkan:  that there is little difference between giving and taking, as the society that they helped to build is now playing a role in ensuring its own continuity; and that giving to the distant land of Israel has really been creating a place for Israel in their own hearts.

    In others’ words

    Golda Meir on being sent on a critical fundraising mission in 1948:
    The first appearance I made in 1948 before American Jewry was unscheduled, unrehearsed, and, of course, unannounced… I didn’t speak for long, but I said everything that was in my heart. I described the situation as it had been the day I left Palestine, and then I said: “The Jewish community in Palestine is going to fight to the very end… You cannot decide whether we should fight or not. We will… You can only decide one thing: whether we shall be victorious in this fight or whether the mufti will be victorious. That decision American Jews can make. It has to be made quickly, within hours, within days. And I beg of you – don’t be too late. Don’t be bitterly sorry three months from now for what you failed to do today. The time is now.” They listened, and they wept, and they pledged money in amounts that no community had ever given before…. Ben Gurion said to me: “Someday, when history will be written, it will be said that there was a Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.” But I always knew that these dollars were given not to me, but to Israel.

    Golda Meir, My Life

    On a lighter note

    A delegation of fundraisers for Israel go to visit a wealthy Jew who has never made a donation to Israel.
    “We’ve been checking up on you, Goldstein” says the leader of the group. “We know everything. Not only do you own this house outright, but we also know about your mansion in Palm Springs and the chalet in Switzerland. You drive a Rolls Royce, your wife has a Mercedes, and we know you opened up twelve new stores this year.”
    Goldstein sits through the speech unperturbed; he doesn’t flinch.
    “You think you’ve checked so thoroughly into my background”, he says, “Well, do you know about my mother who has been in hospital for three months with a heart condition? And do you know what round-the-clock nurses cost? Did you find out about my uncle who is in a sanatorium, and with no insurance? And did you check into my sister, who’s married to a bum who can’t keep a job and has five children to support?… And if I don’t give a penny to any of them, you think I’m going to give to you?”

  • Mishpatim


    — fostering leadership

    Of all the 613 commandments in the Bible, which is the least obeyed? There are a number of likely contenders, but a strong bet for first place, perhaps especially in Israel, must be the commandment in this week’s Torah portion not to put down and disparage one’s leaders. (“Do not ridicule your judges and do not curse the leaders of your people” Exodus XXII:27 )

    Complaining about our leaders is almost a national hobby. Why does the Bible view it so seriously?

    As the commentators make clear, this commandment does not require that we accept our leaders without question. Indeed the Bible is full of role models – especially the prophets – who challenge and criticise the rulers of Israel. But at the same time it recognizes that there is a crucial difference between constructive criticism and simply trying to bring our leaders down.

    In particular the commentators focus on three different ways in which cursing our leaders can have negative effects:

    • Maimonides focuses on the personal dimension and sees “cursing” leaders as a form of anger. Anger, in Maimonides’ thought, is the one of the only two emotions (the other is pride) which is wholly negative and cannot be channeled to positive directions. Venting our anger against our leaders and putting them down without any constructive action, is damaging to our own personal development.
    • The 14th century Italian rabbi Menachem Recanati (quoted in The
      Mitzvot by Abraham Chill) focuses on the effect that such criticism can have on the quality of leadership itself.  Hostile criticism, he
      notes, may convince people that leadership is a thankless task and discourage talented people from taking positions of public service.
    • Finally, the 19th century commentator Emek Hadavar (Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), writing in Belarus, suggests that disparaging leaders can have damaging effects on an even wider level. “People have the tendency to try to bring down any leader who fails to satisfy their own interests” he writes, “hence this law. While one is prohibited from deriding any Jew, the leader was singled out because people are more prone to this practice and because this kind of criticism breaks down the essence of society at large”.Leadership – in Israel or among the Jewish People – is no easy task. A famous anecdote recalls a conversation between US President Dwight Eisenhower and Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.  “It is very hard”, said the American President, “to be the President of 170 million people”. Ben Gurion’s response: “Yes, but it’s harder to be the Prime Minister of 170 million prime ministers!”

      This week’s Torah portion reminds us that we too have a role to play in contributing to the success of our leaders. And as our commentators suggest, keeping our criticism constructive and supporting those in positions of responsibility will only bring benefits: to ourselves, to our leaders, and to society as a whole.

      In others’ words

      “I remember that once I took the most distinguished Israeli author that got the Nobel Prize, Agnon, to visit Ben-Gurion on his 75th birthday. And on the way, Agnon was philosophizing and says, you know, I think that while the Jews are afraid of the gentiles, apparently Ben-Gurion is not afraid. That was quite a banal remark. But then he continued and says, you know, maybe Ben-Gurion is even not afraid of the Jews. And that’s a great Jewish leader.”

    Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Remarks to National Jewish Community Advisory Council, Washington, February 1993

    On a lighter note

    A man decided to visit his brother, who was the President of the Jewish community in a distant town. When he arrived in the town he asked the first person he met if he knew where he might find Goldberg, President of the Jewish community.
    “Goldberg, that scoundrel!”, shouted the man. “I wouldn’t have anything to do with him”
    The man tried asking someone else if he knew were Goldberg was. “That fraud”, burst out the second. “He’s been a disaster for the Jewish community”.
    “Goldberg, he should rot in hell”, added the third person. Finally, late at night, the man tracked down his brother who was working hard in the offices of the Jewish community.
    “Tell me”, he asked his brother. “Why do you put so much effort in to such a thankless leadership task?”
    “Why”, responded the brother beaming. “For the honour, of course!”

  • Yitro


    in the eyes of the beholder

    At the end of last week’s Torah reading, the Children of Israel were given the commandment to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the archetype of the vicious and immoral persecutor of the Jews. As if to balance this negative image of the non-Jewish world surrounding us, this week’s portion opens with the arrival of Yitro, Moses’ father in law, and the archetype of the sympathetic supporter of the Jewish people.

    But Yitro is more than simply a supporter. Watching the development of the Jewish people from afar, he is able to see clearly things that the Children of Israel cannot see.
    In particular Yitro has two insights that even Moses does not realize:

    When Yitro arrives at the Israelite camp, he is astonished to discover Moses exhausting himself judging the disputes of the entire people. He gives Moses some basic management consultancy, advising him to create an organizational structure and delegate his responsibilities.  The fact that  Yitro is responsible for the first conscious decision made as how to govern Jewish society prompted the 18th century Moroccan commentator Ohr HaChayim  to observe:

    It seems to me that the reason [that the advice on how to organise a society came from Yitro] is that God wanted to show the Israelites of that generation – and of all generations – that there are among the nations of the world great masters of understanding and intellect.

    It might perhaps be expected that Yitro, with his leadership experience as High Priest of Midian, would have managerial expertise to share with Moses. But the other insight that only he realises is more surprising. When Moses recounts to his father-in-law all the events of the exodus, and the deliverance from Pharaoh, the Bible describes Yitro’s response: “And he rejoiced over all the good that the Lord had done for Israel, saving them from the hand of Egypt. And Yitro said: ‘Blessed is the Lord who has saved you from Egypt and from Pharaoh’.”
    Since the exodus took place, the Children of Israel, who actually witnessed the miraculous rescue themselves and benefited from it directly, have done little but complain about their living conditions in the wilderness. It is Yitro, the outsider, who is the first to recognize the remarkable nature of the events that have befallen the Israelites, and to acknowledge the goodness that God has shown in saving the children of Israel, and to bless Him.  Sometimes, it seems, it takes the perspective of an outsider to appreciate the unique events surrounding the history of the Jewish nation.
    Indeed, while today the phrase “baruch hashem” – (‘blessed is the Lord’) – is regarded as uniquely Jewish, it is striking that the three times the term is used in the Bible, it is always by non-Jews (Noah (Genesis 9:26), Abraham’s servant Eliezer (Genesis 24:27) and, in our portion, Yitro (Exodus 18:10)).
    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his remarkable book “A Letter in the Scroll” tells how a group of Jewish students sent questionnaires to prominent Jews, asking them what being a Jew meant to them. The students were dismayed that out of hundred of questionnaires they received only a few replies and that almost all of these were ambivalent or even hostile. “I am neither proud of it nor embarrassed by it” wrote one. “I have no doubt that I would have felt the same had I been brought up as a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist or Hottentot”, wrote another. While a third, an Israeli, described being Jewish as a “hereditary illness” on the grounds that “you get it from your parents, you pass it along to your children… and not a small number of people have died from it”.
    To find any appreciative description of the history and destiny of the people of Israel, the students had to turn to non-Jewish observers of Jewish history. Like United States President John Adams, who insisted that “the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation”, and the eminent historian Paul Johnson who determined that:  “To the Jews we owe the idea of equality before the law, of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, of peace as an abstract ideal and  love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind…”
    From the time of  Yitro, it seems that we Jewish people have had a strange psychological quirk; we are only prepared to believe positive things about ourselves when we hear them from others. This unusual characteristic is given poetic expression in Psalm  (the Shir Hama’alot song that opens the Shabbat Grace after Meals), which describes how the nations of world comment on the remarkable destiny of the Jews – and how, only then, do the Jews themselves come to appreciate it:

    “Then have the nations declared: ‘the Lord has done greatly with these people’; Indeed the Lord has done greatly with us and we rejoiced!”

    In others’ words

    In the early years of the State, Lova Eliav was responsible for the resettlement of immigrants in the land of Israel. When the noted anthropologist, Dr. Margaret Mead visited Israel, Eliav showed her around the resettlement project.  After showing her around for three days, he asked if he had any suggestions or comments on Israel’s approach. Eliav recounted her response:
    “Well,” she said, “I think you’re proceeding in this matter in a bad, wrong and disorganised fashion.”
    “So,” I said, “perhaps you’ll explain what you mean.”
    “Well Mr. Eliav,” Dr. Mead said, “I’d have had gone about it in the following way: first I’d have appealed to the appropriate U.N. bodies and requested them to investigate all aspects of the subject…
    They’d answer you a few months later that they were acceding to your request, and would be sending a commission for an on-the-spot preliminary study of this weighty subject. At the end of three years of ramified research, the commission would request a year’s extension for writing its report. At the end of the extra year, you’d receive a report – a thick volume containing hundreds of pages. At the end of the book, under ‘Conclusions and Recommendations’, only one line would appear: ‘It cannot be done’”.
    I had gradually caught on to the fact that Dr. Mead was pulling my leg, and now, at the end of her speech, I noticed the mischievous glint in her wise eyes.
    “And so, Mr. Eliav”, Margaret Mead concluded, “you went your own way. You didn’t call on the U.N. and its bodies, nor did you wait for the advice of sociologists and anthropologists such as myself. And a good thing, too. This is a great human adventure, and may God bless you.”

    Lova Eliav, No time for History , quoted in Aryeh Ben David, Around the Shabbat Table

    On a lighter note

    During the war, a Jew travelling on a train reading the Yiddish newspaper was shocked to see a friend of his sitting opposite him reading the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer. “How can you possibly read that terrible paper?” he shouted at his friend in anger. The friend looked up at him calmly. “So what are you reading? In your paper we Jews are in danger, there is widespread persecution, and all our rights have been taken away. Personally I prefer to read the Nazi paper: We own all the banks, we control all the governments…”

  • Beshalach


    taking the first step

    The miraculous exodus from Egypt behind them, almost immediately the Children of Israel run into trouble. Pursued by Pharaoh, they find themselves trapped between the Egyptian army and the impassable Red Sea.  The Israelites are in a state of panic. With wry irony they shout at Moses “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us out here to die?”. Moses promises the Israelites that God will still save them, and prays to God for salvation.

    In response, God gives a surprising, even shocking, reply: “Why are you crying to me!? Tell the children of Israel to get moving!” Only then does God add: “Now raise your staff over the sea and divide it”.  

    Why, if God was going to help split the sea, did he need to shout at Moses to ‘get a move on’ first?

    The strange discrepancy between God’s first and second statement, telling the Children of Israel to move forward, and only then revealing that He will split the sea, has given rise to a famous midrash:

    “When Israel stood at the sea, one tribe said, ‘I will not be first to go down into the sea;’ and another tribe said ‘I will not be first to go down into the sea.’ In the midst of this argument, one individual, Nachshon ben Aminadav, Prince of the tribe of Judah, seized the initiative, and went down first into the sea, inspiring the rest of his tribe to follow…. Therefore, Judah merited to become King of Israel, as it says, ‘Judah sanctified His Name; by this he merited to rule in Israel.’ (Psalms 114:2)” ( Mechilta Beshalach )

    According to the midrash, it was only when Nachshon ben Aminadav showed the courage to walk forward that God determined to split the sea. But it seems strange indeed that the behaviour of Nachshon ben Aminadav should have brought him such praise and glory. Walking into the sea was by no means a rational action, nor was it a plan which could in any logical sense have brought about the delivery of the Israelites. To the contrary, it might be considered a foolhardy and desperate measure.
    But Jewish tradition judges Nachshon otherwise, praising him for having the courage to act when everyone else was stultified into inaction. In praising Nachshon for his action, Jewish tradition is reflecting a profound conviction that, even in apparently impossible situations, miraculous solutions may be found – but only if we make the first move. This indeed is Rashi’s understanding of God’s response to Moses: “Tell the Children of Israel to move onwards”. Rashi’s interpretation is: “If only the Israelites will start to move forward, then the sea will not stand in their way”.
    The short history of Israel, like the long history of the Jewish people is full of remarkable – apparently miraculous – events which salvaged apparently impossible situations. But like the splitting of the Red Sea, the message seems to be that only if we make the first move will the impossible begin to become possible.
    A Chassidic parable conveys the same idea:
    A man is lost in a long dark tunnel and can’t see his way out. Suddenly another man appears: “Can I help?” “I can’t see my way out of this tunnel,” says the first man. “Here,” says the newcomer. “Take my torch. It will help you find your way.” The man takes the torch, but he’s still unhappy. “Look,” he says, “it’s no good. The torch only lights up a few yards. This tunnel must be hundreds of yards long.” “You’re right,” says the man. “The torch only lights up a few yards. But start moving forwards and then it will light up the next few yards. They may seem dark now, but move forward and it will look different. And before you know it, you may not just be further along in the tunnel, you may even be outside in the bright daylight.”

    In others’ words

    To Step Forward…

    Once in a while
    As I progress towards the course’s end,
    I feel a pang of fear.
    Today I felt such fear.
    If the war comes
    When the war comes
    I will have to lead men to die
    But those men were not men a short time ago
    Some don’t even shave yet
    And I will have to have the calm power
    to yell to them
    or to whisper Kadima.
    And, I will have to have the calm power
    to step forward myself.

    From the Diary of Alex Singer. Alex, an American oleh, was a Givati brigade platoon commander. He was killed on his 25th birthday in the security zone in Lebanon, while trying to save his commanding officer.

    On a lighter note

    Like many tragic aspects of Jewish life, the history of the disputations – the cruel public debates conducted against the Jews – has given rise to its fair share of jokes. Here is one of them: In the Middle Ages a cruel priest decided to stage a public disputation against the Jews of his village. The Priest would debate against a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won the debate, the Jews would remain unharmed; but if he lost, the Jew would be killed, and the entire Jewish community would be expelled from the village. As if this were not cruel enough, the Priest added another rule: the debate would be conducted entirely in silence.
    The Jewish community summoned an urgent meeting to select a representative for the debate, but no-one was prepared to undertake the task. Finally, Moishe, the village fool, took a nervous step forward. “Better me than no-one” he said.
    The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the Priest sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Priest raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Priest waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Priest pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. Suddenly the Priest stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”
    An hour later, the Priest’s followers gathered around him to ask what had happened. The Priest said, “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins.
    He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?” Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. “What happened?” they asked. “Well,” said Moishe, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.”
    “Yes, yes,.. and then???” asked the crowd.
    “I don’t know,” said Moishe, “He took out his lunch, and I took out mine.”

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