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Naomi Graetz

The Importance of Volunteering: Parshat Terumah

Wednesday was Valentine’s Day. When I was a little girl, it was a day for celebration in our family.  First, it was my father’s birthday (1900-1974) and second, my father always bought my mother a box of Barton’s Almond Kisses and, if we were lucky my mother let us have a piece or two. In Israel there are usually ads for what is called yom ha-ahava; but this year celebrations were practically non-existent, because the country is in mourning. It is the week when we read in the Torah about volunteering, which reminds me of both my parents, who despite being very busy in their picture framing store, always had time to volunteer and contribute with what little time and money they had.

Volunteering is embedded in the Jewish psyche. We have seen this very clearly in the last four and a half months. The Hamas terrorist invasion into our country galvanized people into action. Besides the call up of reserves into the army (many of whom were not required to serve), the volunteering that we saw was on a scale never seen before.  Part of this was because the government was caught with its pants down, but part of this was because we are a nation that cares for each other. Since October 7th our whole country has been engaged in volunteering. First there are those who were called up to serve in the IDF and who volunteered by putting their lives on the line. Then there are those who took it upon themselves to take care of others by contributing both money, time, professional skills, and household goods to those who have lost everything.

Our citizens take volunteering very seriously. We call this arevut hadadit (עריבות הדדית), which is the responsibility of the community towards each of its members, and of each member of the community towards the whole. In Judaism, a moral and halachic rule was established by the Sages to indicate a mutual guarantee. All of Israel are guarantors to each other. Its original meaning is that each Jew is responsible for his fellow’s ability to fulfil his mitzvah. The most prominent examples of mutual guarantee nowadays are the various volunteer organizations in which assistance is provided to citizens free of charge. The phrase we hear most often with this is kol Yisroel arevim zeh la-zeh:

“And they will stumble, one man by his brother”: It is not written “one man because of his brother” (i.e., in running), but “one man by his brother,” the sin of his brother — whereby we are taught that all of Israel are responsible, one for the other. 

It was clear that our “brothers” the government sinned, yet despite that, all of Israel took its responsibility for the general welfare very seriously until the government finally stepped in. The ordinary person in parshat terumah is asked by God to give Him gifts generously, each according to what s/he can give:

“From every man/person whose heart so moves him” asher yidvenu leebo כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ (Exodus 25:2-8).

Although this is followed by a list of material gifts for decorating the sanctuary. one can understand this to be not only for material items, but also of donations of time and skills and even of our lives. This phrase at the beginning of  parsha terumah is the beginning of philanthropy. And what does the word philanthropy mean? It literally means love of humanity, the desire to promote the welfare of others, the giving of the gifts of time, talent and yes, money,  to help make life better for other people.

 

Herbert Asquith, who was the son of the liberal British Prime Minister of the same name who led Britain from 1910-16, wrote a poem on volunteering. Even though it was written prior to World War I, I believe it still speaks to us today.

 

The Volunteer

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

 

To end this week’s blog on volunteering, I’m sharing with you the following quotations by famous people, each of which is a gem.  Hopefully, they will inspire you to contribute on whatever level you can.

 

    • “Wherever you turn, you can find someone who needs you. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it. Remember, you don’t live in the world all your own.” – Albert Schweitzer
    • “Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t need a college degree to serve… You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
    • “Volunteers do not necessarily have the time; they just have the heart.” – Elizabeth Andrew
    • “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” – Winston Churchill
    • “Volunteers are the only human beings on the face of the earth who reflect this nation’s compassion, unselfish caring, patience, and just plain loving one another.” – Erma Bombeck
    • “The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.” – Oscar Wilde
    • “As you grow older, you will discover that you have two hands — one for helping yourself, and the other for helping others.” – Audrey Hepburn
    • “Volunteering is the very core of being a human. No one has made it through life without someone else’s help.” – Heather French Henry
    • “Volunteerism is the voice of the people put into action. These actions shape and mold the present into a future of which we can all be proud.” – Helen Dyer
    • “Alone, we can do so little. Together, we can do so much” – Helen Keller
    • “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” – Martin Luther King Jr.
    • “Volunteerism is an act of heroism on a grand scale. And it matters profoundly. It does more than help people beat the odds; it changes the odds.” – Bill Clinton
    • “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” – Arthur Ashe

This last quotation exemplifies the concept that appears at the beginning of our parsha “From every man/person whose heart so moves him” asher yidvenu leebo כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ (Exodus 25:2-8). Everyone is capable of volunteering, even those who think they have nothing to offer. It comes down to attitude, what’s in our heart that makes us want to make the world a better place. To stress how important volunteerism has been this year in Israel, two new categories for the prestigious Israel Prize were created especially to mark the conflict:

“Societal Responsibility” for civil efforts and volunteering, and “Citizen Heroism” for civilian acts of bravery in helping others during the crisis. The prize is going to be awarded to six individuals whose actions “inspired unity and kindness, demonstrated extraordinary bravery, inspired enormous hope in Israel and contributed to the recovery after the terrible upheaval we experienced on October 7.”

Given the level of volunteering this past year, it will not be easy to choose only six such individuals. This year almost all citizens of our country deserve this award.

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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