Shabbat Message: Thank You for Your Gifts

Posted on February 19, 2021 by Ed Tolman

This is Shabbat Zachor. The Sabbath of Remembrance. The Sabbath immediately before Purim.  We are enjoined to read a special, additional Torah portion, from the Book of Deuteronomy (chapter 25, verses 17-19) which commands us to remember Amelek and the existential threat to the Israelites as they marched out of Egypt, especially threatening the weakest of the people. While verse 19 says that we should blot out the memory of Amelek, we are also not to forget. We read this on this date as we are about to celebrate Purim, a story in which a descendant of Amalek, Haman, also threatens the Jewish people.

Today we face another existential threat to our being. This one is not directed specifically at the Jewish people, but threatens the well-being of all people, notwithstanding the circumstantial targeting of some specific groups, usually, as with Amelek, the most vulnerable. The virus has destroyed physical, mental, emotional, and financial health and has extracted the ultimate price from far too many. It affects us all. It is a time and an event, that we surely will never forget.

This week’s Torah portion, from the Book of Exodus, is Parashat Terumah. God commands Moses to tell the people Israel to bring gifts for the building of a Mikdash, a sanctuary for God to dwell among them. The gifts are to be gifts given from the heart.And while the portion deals extensively and in detail with the physical structure, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that the Torah tells us that the sanctuary is a place for God to live in them, not in it. Rashi tells us that the sanctuary is a place, which to be a place of God’s holiness. And so, in the giving of gifts from the heart, we build within each of us a place for God’s presence and the Eternal’s holiness.

Our Torah portion also tells us that God’s command on giving gifts informs Moses not only what specific gifts are to be accepted, but only gifts given from the heart are to be accepted. Rabbi Mary Zamore, in her commentary on the URJ website this week, focuses on the repeated reference to the acceptance of gifts. While she refers to Sforno’s interpretation that the repetition tells us that only specified gifts are to be accepted, no substitutions, she also adds her own interpretation. That is that Moses is being reminded that donations/gifts are to be accepted with the same demeanor with which they are given, that is from the heart. Rabbi Zamore concludes that when a gift is given in a whole-hearted manner with good intentions, it deserves open-hearted acceptance.

So, even in these dark days of COVID-19, regardless of the level of impact the pandemic has had on us, weshould, nonetheless, realize or understand that gifts being given to us, that we are receiving. Yes even now! We are receiving gifts.

Think of the gifts we receive from the caregivers, the doctors and nurses and orderlies and hospital custodial staffs, from the first responders who, no matter the peril, even greater than usual now, still go towards and into the fray, from the scientists working diligently to develop vaccines and treatments, from the soldiers around the globe who protect us and are now in greater than usual harm’s way, from the teachers who do their best to keep our children developing as they should, from the people who deliver to us (saving us the danger of leaving our own comfort zones), from the store clerks, from the mask makers and from the helping hands of Temple Beth-El and from so many others who serve us and keep us safe and keep our lives functioning.

And from these tangible gifts of service and caring given from the heart by these selfless people, we also get the more intangible gifts of faith in ourselves and the world around us, and of hope for a better future, and of courage to go on and, above all, of love, the love of humans for humanity.  Just as the tangible gifts are given from the heart, so they should be accepted, as Rabbi Zamore teaches, in that same way, with graciousness and great gratitude. In that way the gifts given and received serve as the sanctuaries in all our hearts, the places within which the holiness of God abides.

I close with the words of an American popular song, whose final lyrics speak of these gifts for which we should be most grateful and gracious in our acceptance of them. The gifts of love and hope and faith and courage.The song was written by Andrea McBroom and made popular by the Jewish American entertainer, Bette Midler.

When the night has been too lonely and the road has been too long
And you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love, in the spring becomes the rose

Shabbat Shalom

Ed Tolman