Tuesday, February 20, 2024



Our group, in front of the Asma’s Restaurant.

(Credit: Gil Golan)

(Sermon given at The Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, Parshat Terumah, February 17, 2024)

There is a Hasidic tradition that every Torah reading contains hints regarding the events and news of that week. The Lubavitcher Rebbe referred to this idea frequently, and it can be found in Rabbinic writings as early as the 1600’s.  

This morning we read Parshat Terumah, and I would like to share my personal connection to this week’s Torah reading.

I am in Israel as part of a mission of nearly 50 people from Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York. After spending a week here, it was obvious that this verse at the beginning of the Torah reading reflected our experience:

Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring Me an offering. From everyone who gives it willingly from their heart, you shall take My offering.

Now is a time of great distress and difficulty; the agony of the October 7th massacre is compounded by the continuing tragedy of a painful, grinding war.

Yet against this bleak, dark background, there are a myriad of points of light, beautiful acts of courage and kindness. So many have stepped forward and are giving from the heart. 

There is a balagan of courage and kindness. We met a soldier in his 30’s who was living with his family in India, and operated several businesses there. He flew back immediately to join the battle against Hamas and was seriously injured in battle. Yet he was proud of having fought for his country, and spoke passionately about a communal project in Israel he was planning.

In the Galilee we met Asma, a Druze woman whose late husband was an IDF soldier who fell in battle. After the war started, she turned her restaurant Kosher so she could supply Jewish soldiers with meals. She often gives soldiers meals for free, paying for the costs out of her own pocket. 

These acts of kindness are bringing very different people closer together. At Hatzalah, we heard about Yossi, a Chassidic volunteer who, along with two friends, rushed out of synagogue on October 7th and drove an ambulance down to the Nova Festival. After completing several hospital transfers, they were transporting a young woman, who complained that she was very cold in the ambulance. Yossi and his team had already used up all the ambulance’s blankets, so Yossi reached into the front seat, took his Tallit and covered the young woman with it. The Nova Festival is worlds apart from Yossi’s Hasidic shteibel; but on that day they were united as one. 

Never before has a Tallit accomplished such a holy task. 

Despite all the distress and difficulty around us, we were buoyed by the remarkable kindness we saw; and as I reread Parshat Terumah last week, I understood it differently. 

What stood out to me this year was the chronology of the donations mentioned at the beginning of the Parsha; the newly freed slaves offered these gifts just a short time after the Exodus. Moses didn’t need to call for voluntary donations in order to gather the requisite resources for building the sanctuary; the far simpler method of making an assessment, in which each person is taxed, could have accomplished the same thing. (This method would eventually be used with the half-shekel levy in the following Parsha.) 

I would argue that the voluntary donations served a larger purpose. Giving is a critical step on the road to freedom, and these donations were instituted to retrain the former slaves. 

Several Rabbis have made a similar observation about the Passover Haggadah. The Haggadah begins with ha lachma anya, a section that symbolically invites in guests. Why is this the starting point of the Haggadah? Both Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explain that slaves don’t invite guests. Rabbi Soloveitchik simply notes that slaves can’t give to others because they have no property of their own; whatever they have belongs to their master. Rabbi Sacks explains that slaves are self absorbed, overwhelmed by their day-to-day needs. “Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings. Someone who fears tomorrow does not offer their bread to others.” Giving is a milestone of freedom, a clear sign that one is no longer an anxious slave. 

I would take this connection in a different direction, and say that generosity is not just an outcome of freedom; it actually creates the mindset of freedom. A slave is a slave so long that they think like a victim; and a victim cannot figure out how to help themselves, let alone help others. Altruism changes one’s self-image; to help others is heroic behavior. Generosity, no matter what the circumstances, allows one to grab hold of their own destiny.

On our mission, one of the most powerful meetings we had was with Lahav, a special forces veteran who was at the Nova festival with his younger brother. During that day, Lahav nearly lost his life multiple times; his brother was injured. Finally, they managed to escape and get home. The next day, while still in shock, Lahav received a message that he was being called up.

Lahav certainly didn’t have to report for duty; but he did anyway. Lahav told us that he realized he needed to flip the narrative; instead of being the victim, he was going to grab hold of his destiny and serve his country.

The next day Lahav was in Kfar Aza, fighting Hamas. 

Flipping the narrative is precisely why charity is a critical step on the road to freedom; one becomes a giver, and no longer sees themselves as helpless and needy. That is why this act of communal generosity in Parshat Terumah was so critical for the former slaves.

And today, the charity we saw in Israel speaks of a Jewish spirit that refuses to play the victim.

But this verse also hints at a second insight: charity can teach us a great deal about authentic strength and power.

The Torah portion speaks of the nediv lev, one who is giving of their heart; they have a heart that is virtually dripping with goodness. This stands in contrast with Pharaoh’s heart, one which is kaved, hard, and chazak, strong.  

Which heart should triumph? One might think the heartless, like Pharaoh, hold the advantage. Actually, the opposite is true. Strength without solidarity fails in the long term. 

One of the most difficult visits our group made was to the Shurah army base, which had the grim task, of preparing for burial, the bodies of the 1,200 people murdered on October 7th. Here, dedicated volunteers from the Chevra Kaddisha have restored dignity to the dead and offered comfort to their families. Their actions have sanctified this base, which is truly the gates of heaven.  

Noa, the head of the women’s Chevra Kaddisha explained that “I am also fighting Hamas. When we do good we fight Hamas.” 

In this short phrase, Noa offered a powerful insight into this parsha: a giving heart is stronger than a heavy, hardened heart. Hardened hatreds can cause a great deal of destruction in explosive bursts of violence; but long-lasting communities require trust, solidarity, and compassion. The nediv lev will always outlast the hard-hearted.

This will be true of this war as well. Yahya Sinwar hides, (or hid,) in tunnels, safe from the very war he set in motion; he uses his people as human shields, and cares very little for them. What we saw in Israel was the opposite. People putting others first. People giving from the heart. People standing up for each other. 

In Israel we saw that there is nothing as strong as a people united for each other.

And that is the power of the nediv lev.

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