A Generous Heart

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We will soon arrive at Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei in the weekly cycle of the public reading of the Torah. In this section of Exodus, Moses instructs the people of Israel with “a generous heart” to bring gifts for the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness. (35:5) The text later describes in vivid detail the material gifts they brought, and how their abundant response overwhelms Moses and the builders. (35:20-29)

Hearing it read aloud each year, I am often left wondering about the true meaning of the phrase “a generous heart.”

Not this year. When I hear the description of my ancestors’ generosity, I will have a particular person in mind.

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A few weeks ago, I attended an alumni retreat of Rabbis Without Borders with colleagues from across North America. We engaged in vigorous debates about issues facing 21st century Jewry, studied with Clal’s world-renowned faculty, prayed, laughed, cried, sang and danced together. The entire program was intellectually invigorating and spiritually uplifting.  But the highlight for me, the moment in which I understood the meaning of generosity, was not on the retreat’s official schedule.

I’d been especially looking forward to seeing one friend, a rabbi who has devoted his entire career to helping others achieve their potential. He’s a chaplain and a real “Rabbis’ Rabbi.” He was the most senior member of our cohort, the one who often provided historical context for the issues we debated. He readily shared his perspective and dispensed advice based upon his years of experience. This is the privilege of an elder, and he was comfortable in this role.

This rabbi has been sick for many months but had anticipated a full recovery by now, and he’d planned to attend the retreat. We’ve been corresponding pretty regularly during his recuperation, and I was disappointed to receive an email from him—just days before the retreat—saying that he wouldn’t be there.  Thinking it might cheer him to hear from us, I scheduled a time with him and began rounding up fellow alumni from our cohort to join me on the call.

Seven of us stood in a huddle around a cell phone with the speaker at highest volume and took turns telling him how much we missed him and hoped to see him soon. But he didn’t really allow us to comfort him, because when the youngest member of our cohort greeted him, he immediately asked how her work was progressing. Her response, which I can’t recall verbatim, invited him to step into his role as the wise elder.

She could have talked about her successes—this young woman is already quite an accomplished rabbi—or could have politely answered “fine, thanks” and passed the phone to the next person. Instead, she recognized our colleague’s need to contribute meaningfully to the conversation, and she honored him by giving him an opportunity to advise and reassure her. A generous heart is open to receive gifts, as well as give them.

From that moment I knew that whenever I hear this passage from Exodus, I’ll summon the image of her smiling as he spoke to her; as she revealed the depth of kindness in her generous heart.

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