D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
You can only keep what you have by giving it away
The expression “pay it forward,” is believed to have been coined by author Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 novel, In the Garden of Delight when she wrote: “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.” When someone pays it forward it means they respond to one act of kindness by performing another act of kindness for someone else rather than repay the original good deed. That single act of kindness has the power to create a cascade of charitable deeds and positively impact how we interact with each other. In the words of Winston Churchill, “we make a living by what we get, we make a life by what we give.”
In this week’s Torah portion Terumah, God directs the Israelites through Moses to build a Mishkan, a portable tabernacle where God can dwell among them and where they can offer sacrifices to God. To help fund the building of the Mishkan, God instructs the people to give of themselves-- to pay it forward by offering gifts given to them by the Egyptians as they the Israelites, left Egypt. These possessions include: זָהָב וָכֶסֶף וּנְחֹֽשֶׁת וּתְכֵלֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן וְתוֹלַעַת שָׁנִי וְשֵׁשׁ וְעִזִּֽים – gold, silver, and copper, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair. (Ex. 25:3-4)
After living their lives as slaves the Israelites are now being shown a path that will move them closer to God. In order to navigate that path, they will need to give of themselves and their possessions. In so doing the Israelites will not only create a space for God to dwell among them, but they will come to appreciate how You can only keep what you have by giving it away.
You are not required to like it you’re only required to DO IT
Step three of the 12 Steps says: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God. In other words, it is God’s will that guides us toward our highest purpose. The opposite of God’s will would be self-will, where we rebel against God’s will and focus not on a Higher Power but on ourselves and the pursuit of pleasure and/or what feels good in the moment.
In this week’s Torah portion Mishpatim, the Israelites having just received the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Commandments, are presented with a series of additional commandments-- laws that will facilitate the creation of a just society. Topics include rules concerning indentured servants, the mistreatment of foreigners, the prohibition against cooking meat with milk, and as in the example below, legal redress of damages:
רֵעֵהוּ וְנִשְׁבַּר אוֹ־מֵת בְּעָלָיו אֵין־עִמּוֹ שַׁלֵּם יְשַׁלֵּֽם וְכִֽי־יִשְׁאַל אִישׁ מֵעִם
When a man borrows [an animal] from his neighbor and it dies or is injured, its owner not being with it [the animal], he must make restitution (Ex. 22:13).
Following these laws isn’t necessarily easy for any of us, especially when we are guided by self-will. In accepting the covenant at Sinai the Israelites responded with נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע . One way of translating this phrase is: We will do and we will understand (Ex. 24:7). As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: There are certain things we only understand by doing. We only understand leadership by leading… we only understand music by listening….So it is with faith. We only truly understand Judaism by living in accordance with its commands.
Doing leads to understanding. Or to put it another way: We are not required to like it, we are only required to do it.
Learn to listen and listen to learn
It isn’t easy being an active listener in our fast-paced 21st century world. Besieged by all kinds of noise and distractions, it’s difficult for many of us to empty our minds and really hear what someone is trying to communicate. It is often hard to listen because we may be focused on our response or because we are preoccupied with our own unrelated concerns that include an endless catalog of daily obligations. However, when we really listen to another person, empty our minds and hear what someone is saying, we are better able to process information being conveyed to us; increase others’ trust in us; reduce conflict; and better understand how to inspire others.
In the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, Moses is reunited with his family. Traveling from their home in Midian, his wife Tzipporah, sons Gershom and Eliezer, and father-in-law Jethro (Yitro), arrive at the Israelites’ camp in the wilderness. According to the Midrash all of the other nations heard about the splitting of the Red Sea and the Israelite victory over Amalek, but only one man-- Jethro, really listened to these reports and grasped their meaning. As Moses recounts the story of how God delivered the Israelites from the Egyptians, Jethro offers a blessing: בָּרוּךְ ה אֲשֶׁר הִצִּיל אֶתְכֶם מִיַּד מִצְרַיִם וּמִיַּד פַּרְעה , Blessed be God who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh. Jethro then offers a sacrifice to God.
Having settled in to life in the wilderness, Jethro now turns his attention to a typical day in the life of Moses and the Israelites. He notices how his son-in-law meets with the people all day long, listening and responding to their questions and concerns. Observing the great pressure Moses is under, and perhaps understanding how hard it is for Moses as the sole adjudicator of the people to really listen for so long a time, Jethro is concerned about the negative impact this could have on Moses and the entire community. He approaches his son-in-law and says: שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי --listen to me – if you continue to take on this undertaking by yourself, you will burn out. Find capable men among the people who can help you in your task.
Following his father-in-law’s advice, Moses appoints a group of men to help him settle the concerns of each Israelite, ensuring that all in need of help will be given an opportunity to really be heard. In so doing, Moses the greatest prophet in Israel, not only learned how to listen but how to listen in order to learn.
Powerless does not mean helpless or hopeless.
Just because you feel helpless or hopeless doesn’t mean it’s true. We all experience moments of despair that keep us from moving forward in our lives. But no matter how helpless or hopeless we might feel, there is always something we can do to lift our mood such as talking with a friend, making dinner or performing a deed of loving kindness. All of those actions help jumpstart us out of our despair and provide an antidote to feeling helpless and hopeless. As Teddy Roosevelt once said: When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’Shalach Pharaoh has given the Israelites permission to leave Egypt. The Israelites hastily depart, but not long after their exodus Pharaoh once again changes his mind declaring,
מַה־זֹּ֣את עָשִׂ֔ינוּ כִּֽי־שִׁלַּ֥חְנוּ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵֽעָבְדֵֽנוּ
What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?
Pharaoh then instructs his army to go after Moses and the Israelites.
As the people catch site of Pharaoh and his army, they find themselves fenced in by the sea in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them. Trapped in this way, it would have been easy for the Israelites to feel hopeless and helpless. But God encourages them to seize the moment and take one small step forward into the sea. If they can do that their despair will be lifted. God will part the waters allowing them to cross over on dry land and escape the Egyptians. It is in that moment the Israelites come to understand that powerless does not mean helpless or hopeless.