Running With the Weight of Gold — Letters to a young man
19: Generous of Heart
Jerusalem — 10 February 2019
Dear D –
In this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 25:1–27:19) God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to bring contributions for the building of the Tabernacle — “… from each person whose heart makes them generous, you shall take my contribution” (25:2.) These contributions — gold, silver and copper, precious and semi-precious stones, spices, dyes, oil, animal skins and wool — shall be used for the furnishings and fittings of the Tabernacle. Thus begins the project of creating God’s sacred dwelling within the sacred space of the desert, a sacred emptiness surrounding Israel’s relationship to God.
It was into the emptiness of the wilderness that God led the Israelites from Egypt. In this emptiness God gave the Manna and the Sabbath, and here God descended to give the Torah on Mt. Sinai. (Note the Hebrew word Ba-Midbar, meaning “in the wilderness,” can also be read: “B’medaber — “by means of speaking.” It is indeed in the wilderness that God speaks the words of Torah.) Now God ordains that a structure shall be erected. An address for God (25:8) “They shall make a sanctuary for me, and I shall dwell in their midst.” The Torah connects us to the reality of living in the physical world — the world of space, time, and motion. Yet the heart of the Tabernacle, the very purpose of this structure, a sacred emptiness. And it is there, at the emptiness that lies at its heart, that God will communicate with us.
Why “each person whose heart makes them generous”? Shouldn’t everyone pay taxes? Those who have gold should bring gold, the poor should bring wool, but everyone should bring something. Why does God specifically ask that contributions for God’s earthly dwelling be taken only from those who are moved to generosity? Isn’t the construction of the Tabernacle precisely the teachable setting in which all members of society should be encouraged to give according to their means?
The construction of the Tabernacle is a metaphor of the Creation. We are put on Earth to be God’s partners, and because we are both spirit and body, we think our part is spiritual. That is, because we don’t experience God physically, we believe our God-like part is the intangible. Thus, we strive to hold proper attitudes, we seek justice, we give charity and help the widow, the orphan, the sick, the poor, the stranger. The Tabernacle teaches us that God’s work proceeds not purely from the spiritual, but that we begin by transforming the physical world. Creation is not a one-time event. The deistic concept of a God who made the universe and then walked away and let it run on its own is foreign to the Torah. God did not create the universe; God does create the universe. God creates perpetually; at every instant, all of Creation is new, because the flow of God’s creative aspect is ceaseless. God constantly renews Creation. As God’s partners, the Torah instructs us to create too, with nothing left out from the lowest physical level, to the highest spiritual plane.
Embedded in the Tabernacle is a paradigm for creating a just society. God requires contributions of gold, silver and copper (25:3.) To the modern Western mind this evokes the Makers, Auxiliaries and Protectors, the three social classes in Plato’s “Republic,” represented by gold, silver and bronze. The Torah requires not a rigidly stratified society — though there are designated groups with unique access to parts of the community and unique permission to perform certain parts of the divine service — but a society in which each individual is encouraged to identify their specific gift and to realize their unique potential. To contribute their unique ability to the greater good — something they can only accomplish if they are aware of who they are, if they are motivated to dig within and then make a gift of what they have mined from their soul. Generosity of heart.
At the beginning of the section (25:17–22) God describes the covering of the Ark of the Covenant, topped with pure gold statuettes of cherubim. Recall that, immediately after the giving of the Ten Sayings (Ex. 20:19–20) God commands “You shall not make with me gods of silver and gods of gold…” And so we read this week: true generosity doesn’t require a commemorative plaque. Generosity resides not in the giving, but in the realization of the outcome for which the gift is designated. It is far more praiseworthy — indeed, more God-like — to give freely and anonymously. The purpose of this gift is to create a dwelling place for God. Insisting that my name be added, because I wrote a check, is the ultimate of “making with Me gods of silver, gods of gold…”
At the very heart of the Tabernacle will stand the Ark of the Covenant. Atop the ark, the statues of the cherubim stand in a precisely described stance: their bodies turned away, their faces turned back to look at one another, and their wings arched back over their heads, creating an empty oval or round space. And it is here that God will speak to Moses (25:22.) God does not speak from the gold, the silver, or the precious stones. God speaks from the emptiness framed by the wings of the cherubim. Though we live in the physical world, it is in the emptiness that we must seek God. In the spaces between our giving and taking, our earning and spending. The Torah is telling us that the physical world in which we live is the framework within which we seek the Divine. It is not “merely” a framework. It is the framework. To quote Wallace Stevens: “The real is only the base. But it is the base. Life cannot be based on a thesis…”
One of the twentieth century’s greatest Torah teachers, describes his experience of seeing the world through the eyes of God’s law. When he sees the sun setting, he sees not merely the beauty of God’s creation, but also that the fruit trees and fields over which the sun is setting are subject to laws of harvest and planting and of bringing as offerings, and that the position of the sun in the sky regulates the required times of morning, afternoon and evening prayer, corresponding to the daily ritual of sacrifices and offerings in the days of the Temple.
The generosity of heart God seeks is not merely a willingness to write a check — to part with a prized bit of gold jewelry or a bag of silver coins. It is the ongoing commitment of each human being to work to find their true inner self; to work ceaselessly to express that unique self, making it the very best it can be; and to apply the unique capacities of that inner self for the ongoing betterment of the world and society.
We said last week that merely obeying God’s negative commandments — thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not murder, and the 365 categories of negative commandments codified by the rabbis — does not make us good people. In general, it merely makes us not actively bad people. But from the Hassidic perspective, there is also an active way to observe negative commandments, which is to identify our own inner appetites and desires. No, I have never killed another human being. But I recall moments when it was tempting. Moments when I was in a rage and out of control. I am not fully honest with myself if I refuse to identify with people who commit horrible acts — and if I fail the test of self-examination, self-honesty, then I can be of no use to others. There is every reason to believe that, if I had been part of the majority at any of the most horrific periods in history, I would have behaved the same as the others. I would have sent my friends and family to the concentration camps, to the Gulag. I would have fingered my next door neighbors as being of the wrong ethnic group. I would have chopped them to death myself. Why do I believe this? Because the overwhelming majority of humans — in all societies, and at every point in recorded history — have done the same. How dare I believe that I, alone, am different?
We are all a product of our environment. We intellectually subscribe to certain values today, but why should we believe we would live by those same values if born in a different place and time? And in the face of the opposition of the entire society? Why would we think for a moment that we, and we alone, would be the ones to stand up to the Terror of the French Revolution? To Hitler or to Mao? People who tell you they would have behaved differently from the majority have never truly looked into themselves.
By exploring what is darkest within ourselves, we activate tremendous power for good. If I know how badly I want to take what is not mine, to abuse other people physically or sexually or financially, to subjugate them for my own lust for power, then my restraint becomes a positive act full of spiritual force. Before, I was too passive to defy God. Too lazy, too much of a coward. Now, I have converted my passivity into active service of God.
This is the deep reading of the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (2:13) translated as “I realized that there is an advantage of wisdom over folly, like the advantage of light over darkness.” This superficial reading is certainly true: light has advantages over darkness, and wisdom has advantages over folly. But in the Hebrew, the grammatical structure of comparison uses the word “from.” Thus, the deeper reading is “I saw that there I an advantage of wisdom coking from folly, like the advantage of light coming from darkness.” Suddenly a whole new world opens before us: the truest form of wisdom is that which comes from a fearless examination of our own folly. When we believe that we know who we are, that is precisely the time to pause and look deep within. We are right to fear what we may find; but we should fear far more if we refuse to take that plunge. For why did God put us here, if not to perfect ourselves? Put differently: we think we’re unique — who are we kidding???
How do I make my heart generous? When the gold I give becomes part of the Tabernacle, I will never get it back. It will be melted down and no longer be recognizable. But with my desire to serve God, my contribution becomes eternally part of God’s dwelling place. With my self-awareness and my openness to others, my drive to reach out and do the right thing, I become forever a driving part of the society in which I live.
From the willingness to give up the things I have, I make of myself the greatest gift of all.
Yours for a better world –