Art illustrating the Tabernacle. (Photo/Wikicommons)
Art illustrating the Tabernacle. (Photo/Wikicommons)

Giving to those in need can be hard. Mussar can help

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 25:1–27:19

“Now what?”

Camped at the base of Mount Sinai, the people wait again as Moses sits in deep conclave with God. The Revelation and the Reed Sea are physically behind them, though the reverberations of those miracles surely echoed in their waking thoughts and vivid dreams. They must have been exhilarated, and exhausted.

But this was a people accustomed to work. And work they shall. Instead of forced labor under the whip of the Egyptian taskmasters, this will be an altogether different sort of effort. This will be work with sacred intention — volitional, devotional and generous.

We’ll never know the conditions under which our ancestors were compelled to accept the Torah, but in Parashat Terumah, God invites each and every one of them to help build the portable Sanctuary or Tabernacle, the Mishkan, with gifts brought by “every person whose heart is moved [yidvenu] to do so.” (Exodus 25:2)

The enumerated gifts are sumptuous — precious metals and gemstones, animal skins, fine linens and the choicest of oils and spices. After centuries of owning nothing, the ragtag former slaves must have been thrilled with their haul.

And yet, in order to “make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8), they will have to clear out some essential space.

Nedivut HaLev (generosity of the heart) is a crucial element of these gifts for the Sanctuary. Nedivut shares its root with “yidvenu” of 25:2 — a “moved” heart (Rashi) — and emphasizes the free will nature of the offerings.

The detail in this and subsequent chapters is extensive, and the instructions for the Tabernacle are repeated and long.

But the giving must begin with mind and heart focused, in order for the Divine Presence to descend.

In our excessively materialistic culture, we often associate generosity instinctively with money. Yet there are so many ways to be generous — with time, food, friendship, extra clothing or household items, kindness, prayer, forgiveness, compassion, space for another person to be the way they need to be.

The list, thankfully, is expansive and limitless.

Mussar is a centuries-old Jewish practice of soul development. In it, we are bidden to look within, examine our habits, tendencies and personal history, and apply middot — literally “measurements” but generally translated as “soul-traits” — to infuse balance and harmony into our lives.

Alan Morinis’ “Everyday Holiness” (2007) is a foundational Mussar primer that many practitioners, myself included,  consult continually.

In his chapter on generosity, Morinis tells of encountering unthinkable numbers of people in need while traveling in India, and the heart-sinking feeling of knowing he could never help all of them.

We can all relate, and far closer to home. Even and especially in our cities of plenty, the terrible reality of uncountable people who are destitute hits us in the gut every time we venture out. Even if we never left our homes, our real and virtual mailboxes send wave after wave of solicitations for worthy people and causes all around the world.

How can we find generosity in the face of so much unrelenting want? Morinis references his teacher, Richard Alpert (aka Ram Dass), who also felt utterly overwhelmed by the burden of aiding his fellow humans, animals and the planet. Leaning on rationality and a hierarchy of need did not help, as there was simply too much to do, and not enough of him (or any of us on our own) to go around. Instead, he cultivated the practice of following his inner voice, and giving “as his heart moved him.” (From “Everyday Holiness”)

I’ve found this deceptively simple teaching to be profoundly impactful.

How could any of us possibly choose the most deserving hospital, research project, animal sanctuary, environmental organization, relief work, religious or justice-seeking group, from the infinite worthy choices?

By slowly learning to give as my heart moves me, I’ve also (mostly) stopped punishing myself about the size of the gifts, or the boundless number of good people and concerns to whom and to which I can only offer a prayer and a wish for better times ahead.

It’s natural to have what the Mussar teachers call timtum h’alev, a blocked or barricaded heart. That’s the feeling that we just can’t give any more, usually out of fear that if we give too much away, we’ll be somehow diminished.

Hebrew can be very helpful here. The word venatnu (and they gave) is a palindrome in Hebrew. Embedded in the ancient holy language is the lesson that giving generously enhances both the giver and the receiver in a circle of reciprocal benefit.

And that is as it should be.

We’ve all known people about whom it’s said they are “generous to a fault.” Mussar acknowledges that, too. Every middah (soul-trait) can be taken to extremes. Some people do not give enough; others give too much and neglect their own health and well-being.

This is not a virtue. As in all of Mussar, the goal is to strike an artful, delicate balance. It is called a “practice” because it takes quite a lot of it — a lifetime, in fact.

The Israelites saw God’s wonders and heard the Divine Word. They committed as one to following the mitzvot and are ready for the next steps.

Now they will get to work.

They will part with valuable items as raised offerings (terumah) for holy purpose, leaving us with one of Judaism’s most enduring and wise teachings, to live modestly, give generously and do so with a generous heart.


Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].