Naomi Graetz

Terumah: The President’s Conference and Volunteering

Wedding Registry List

For the past couple of days, I’ve been thinking about what to write that can connect this week’s parsha, Teruma, with what is going on in my life.  My family and friends always tell me, why do I take my teaching so seriously—after all, I am a volunteer; it is not my career, nor was it in the past before I retired. Not only do I volunteer, but if someone offers to pay me for a lecture or a series, I ask them to contribute to my local congregation. Since this week’s parsha begins with God telling Moses to tell the Israelites that they should bring Him “gifts” terumah, I find it easy to identify, for these gifts are to be given voluntarily, “from every man/person whose heart so moves him” asher yidvenu leebo כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ (Exodus 25:2). The chapter then continues with very detailed descriptions of what these gifts will be (precious stones, metals, expensive yarns etc.) It is almost as if God has a gift registry on Amazon and the people are invited to contribute very specific items on His list:

And let them make Me a holy place/sanctuary that I may dwell shachanti among them וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם  . Exactly as I show you-the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings-so shall you make it (Exodus 25:8-9).

I will avoid asking the obvious, which is why does God need such a fancy abode in which to house His presence (shechina). Instead, I would like to focus on the volunteer aspect (nedava) and then share with you what I get from volunteering. The Etz Hayim Commentary says it very nicely:

The gold, silver, etc.…. were not to be used for personal benefit but for something holy and transcendent. The verb…”bring” [v’yikuh) literally means “take.” One who gives receives something in return—the sense of being generous and making a worthy undertaking possible, the sense of sharing with others in an important venture, the sense of self-worth that comes from knowing that we can give away something of value without feeling diminished (Etz Hayim Commentary, p. 486).

Last week, I had the honor of hosting personal friends of mine, two of whom are presidents of Jewish organizations, and who had come specifically to attend the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations this week in Jerusalem. Being a president of any Jewish organization is a trying task, no matter what the size. It is thankless. One wonders why anyone wants to volunteer for such a job. In fact, one of the presidents who visited with us, told us an anecdotal story of a man who was applying to be the head of a Protestant theological institution, and was told that there were two requirements: one that he be exceedingly smart to even be considered for the task, and the other, that he be exceedingly stupid to take on the thankless job.

I too have served as chairperson of two organizations in the past (the Light Opera Group of the Negev and the Southern branch of the Israel’s Women Network) and know how frustrating it is to head any group. One does not do this because of the kavod (honor), that’s for sure. I also served as a volunteer torah reader in our congregation for many years. In fact, that was what started me on my getting to know the text intimately. I would try to understand the content and then when chanting out loud, while preparing, find myself arguing with the text. This led to my writing modern midrash (or retellings of the narrative tales) on the Torah

For many years I taught in person, and then during the Corona period, switched to zoom. What I find most satisfying teaching today on zoom is the spontaneity and the wider audience (not just local Israelis but also people from across the U.S.).  I encourage open microphones, so that people can contribute—and I learn from the participants as much as I impart to them.  And to be perfectly honest, to paraphrase the Etz Hayim Commentary, what I bring to the text, means that I take something in return: the sense that my “generosity” in sharing, gives me a sense of self-worth. This is definitely worth its weight in gold, not something that I use for my personal benefit. I find that studying our sacred texts with others, lifts me up and motivates me to get up in the morning and renew my acquaintance with our holy tradition. I totally identify with the truism that you only know something after you teach it: Learning is teaching. Teaching is learning. When you’re explaining something, you’re learning.   This is expressed beautifully by the Psalmist:

O how I love Your teaching! It is my study all day long. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies; they always stand by me. I have gained more insight than all my teachers, for Your decrees are my study. I have gained more understanding than my elders, for I observe Your precepts (Psalms: 119:97-100).

This is picked up by Ben Zoma in the Ethics of the Fathers 4:1:

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man, as it is said: “From all who taught me have I gained understanding” מִכָּל־מְלַמְּדַ֥י הִשְׂכַּ֑לְתִּי כִּ֥י עֵ֝דְוֹתֶ֗יךָ שִׂ֣יחָה לִֽי (Psalms 119:99).

Shabbat shalom.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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