Recently, my young daughter received an invitation to a birthday party. That is nothing novel. She gets at least one a week. Not a testament to her popularity rather a statement about the regularity in which these parties occur. Each party is fun for her and her friends; they are a bit of a headache, however, for the parents. The carpools, the junk food, and the way these parties seem to wind them up just in time to go home and release all of their energy. And then there are the presents. What to give? How much to spend? Will this kid like this particular toy? Do they have younger siblings for whom such a present could be dangerous? All the while knowing whatever we buy will end up in a pile alongside the other presents from previous birthdays and relatives’ visits, rarely used or appreciated. I know this because the same applies to many of the gifts my children receive.
And then this past week, my hope in humanity was restored.
My daughter received another invitation to a birthday party for a young girl in her class, but this one was very different. In the invitation was a simple note that read, “I (written by the birthday girl) am very lucky with lots of friends and stuff to play. Please help celebrate my birthday in a special way. Instead of bringing presents to my party, please bring small boxes of crayons and coloring books to donate” to a specific charity for less fortunate children.
Even as I pen this d’var Torah, I am smiling inside and out at the very thought that at a very young age this child is learning and demonstrating that the value of giving trumps the benefit of receiving. A priceless message! Undoubtedly, this is an ethic native to her parents and a value that she will pass on to her peers.
Immediately after seeing the invitation, I explained to my daughter what her classmate had chosen to do. We then went to the store where she picked out the coloring books and crayons that she would donate. I explained the great mitzvah that she and her classmates were doing and how proud I was of her choice and exuberance in picking out the very best crayons and coloring books for those who do not have.
I loved it not because of the savings of money on underappreciated toys, but rather because of the values being invested in our shared future.
This week, we read in Parshat Terumah of the Jewish people’s first fund-raising campaign. We learn that EVERY Israelite, regardless of status, wealth, or role is obligated to give contributions to the needs of the Mishkan. Gifts should include gold, silver, copper, blue and crimson yarns all to beautify the Mishkan, and so that God may dwell amongst us inside of it.
The word that is used in the parasha for donating is v’natnu (vav, nun, tav, nun, vav), meaning “and you shall give.” The word v’natnu, like its root – natan meaning “give” -is a palindrome, something that spells the same thing forward and backward. Commentators take note of the play on the words teaching us that just like the word v’natnu works in both directions, so does philanthropy. By giving and living generously we help others while enriching our lives in the process.
This is an important and timeless lesson from Parshat Terumah that applies equally today. Permit me to propose two things we can do that will help include Terumah’s lesson that we get a lot by giving.
First, step up to the plate. The Jewish people in some ways have become the victims of their own success. Countless Jewish organizations have blossomed over the past generation and they always seem to be sending some mail or calling on the phone asking for support. That creates more competition. To complicate matters, Jewish dollars are supporting non-Jewish causes in an unprecedented manner. Jewish names adorn secular hospitals, museums, and concert halls when a generation ago they were not welcome.
I celebrate our inclusion to the larger community and strongly believe we need to support these institutions, but not at the cost of the Jewish community. It cannot be either-or; it must be both. We cannot forsake the Jewish community and its needs. Simply put, we need generosity to make it work. So answer the call and earmark funds in your annual budget to help a Jewish organization. It really does not matter which organization, as long as it is meaningful to you. Terumah teaches that every person has a responsibility to support the Mishkan. Everyone must step up to the proverbial plate.
Second, we need to model tzedakah as an activity that is much larger than writing a check. Support the UJA, but dedicate a few hours to call friends or random fellow New Jerseyans on Super Sunday. Take a site visit to the one of literally hundreds of organizations the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey touches. Donate to the Rockleigh Home, and spend a Sunday visiting someone you know or don’t know who is a resident there. Bring your kids. Give a resident a manicure (with their permission, of course). Play bingo with any of the wonderful people who call it home. Contribute to AIPAC, but also call your congressperson and thank them for a bill they personally voted on that supported Israel or encourage them to support something that is meaningful to the security of the Jewish state.
You can even throw a birthday party and ask the guests to bring presents for kids less fortunate.
By doing any of these things, we do more than give tzedakah; we do tzedakah. We model giving in its best fashion, with our resources and with our hands. It might pinch our pocketbooks or hold back that extra something we have had our eye on for the past months, but isn’t our shared Jewish future worth that pinch? Isn’t that what God taught us in Parshat Terumah: regardless of our wealth or role, we need to be a contributor to our community? And, the reward for doing so is enriching.
May that reward be an inspiration and may our work and generosity increase our spiritual portfolios in the months and years ahead. May we all give and do acts of tzedakah for our community and its houses of worship, and, as we read in Parshat Terumah, may we merit having God dwell amongst us.