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  • Writer's pictureMichael Barclay

Terumah: How To Give a Gift

“Tell the children of Israel to bring me gifts”

---Ex. 25:2

The first two lines of this Torah reading teach a valuable lesson we all need to remember in personal relationships: how to give a gift.

This entire portion is about what gifts should be brought for God, and the assemblage of those gifts to create the Tabernacle and its furnishings. Ultimately, the gifts that the people will bring God will be directly used for the benefit of the people, as they transform those gifts of raw materials into the creation of a truly sacred physical space.

But the Hebrew line of “bring me gifts” can also be translated as “take to/for me gifts”, and the implications found here are immense. God is telling the people what gifts to bring, and even implying that those gifts should be “taken”. Is that how gift-giving should be done between people?

Ironically, the simple answer is yes.

A gift is meant to be given with joy and consciousness, not with the expectation of something in return. If the gift is given “tit-for-tat”, then it’s really not a gift at all, but a form of commercial exchange. But for how many people is that their pattern? How often do we see people giving a “gift” and expecting something in return? This attitude transforms a process that can deepen a relationship into a commercial exchange. And the beauties of real giving are lost.

How are Jews encouraged to give gifts? The process is found throughout this portion. We just need to identify it.

The first step is to carefully listen to what the recipient really wants. It is a common habit to give someone a gift that we actually desire. We find this often happens with young siblings. A little sister gets her brother a Barbie doll for his birthday, but that’s really what she wants and it’s not really a gift for him. All too often we just don’t really listen to what is desired.

I am convinced that part of the reason my wife married me is that I listened to her regarding “gifts”. She had told me that she never kept the gifts from her family as they were never anything she liked or wanted. In really listening to her, I strove to get her what she wanted. The first holiday she kept about a third of what I gave her, and by the third holiday with her she was keeping over 90% of her gifts. I had listened and acted based upon her real desires. This parsha is the perfect example of this gift giving practice. God tells us exactly the gifts to bring, and it’s up to us to bring them.

Why is God so forceful about this? The first part of the answer is clear. The gifts we bring to God will ultimately all be used for our direct benefit with the creation of the Tabernacle. But there is a deeper teaching hidden here about the nature of giving and its relationship with love.

Most people believe that if you love someone, then you give to them. Judaism actually believes the exact opposite. The great Mussar master Rabbi Eliyahu Dressler (1892-1953) teaches, “Do we give to the people we love, or do we love the people to whom we give?” Dressler continues, “We usually think it is love which causes giving, because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the person he loves. But there is another side to the argument…A person comes to love the one to whom he gives”. Rabbi Dressler taught (based upon both this parsha and Pirkei Avot) to foster love, be generous: extend what you have in your hands and in your heart toward other human beings. Love will grow along the lines of your giving. “That which a person gives to another is never lost”, he says. “It is an extension of his own being.”

This Jewish concept is straightforward and true, even if it is antithetical to what most people think. The more we give fully to someone, the more our love grows for them. We easily see it in parents who give everything to their new born infant, and suddenly love this new being more than they could have imagined. It is a demonstration of not only this principle in action, but the omniscient wisdom of God that babies are born helpless; forcing us to give to them in order for them to survive, which in turn makes us love them even more.

When someone gives as a tit-for-tat, they never experience this growth in love. They are never able to have the joy of the gift deepening the emotional relationship, and instead, find an emptiness as they are only concerned with an exchange.

Judaism teaches us to emulate God, and give freely and fully. As we do, we find our love for another increases exponentially, and an increasing cycle of gifts and love lead to a deeper sense of fulfillment and joy in our lives.

May we all be blessed to listen and give to others, and to reap the benefits that come with truly giving from our hands and hearts.

Kavannah: Give a gift every day this week that is a reflection of what the person really wants. The gift can be physical, emotional, or of your time; but give it with joy. It can be a financial or volunteer gift to a charity, but give fully. Then see how your feelings toward that recipient grow and blossom, and how your life starts to really become more full.

This commentary is in honor of the Bar Mitzvah of Jake Ryan and his family. May they go from strength to greater strength as Jake achieves this milestone this weekend.

Rabbi Michael Barclay

February 4th, 2022

3rd of Adar 1, 5782


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