I have always loved talent shows. A few years ago in Omaha we decided to do a coffee-house talent show after a Havdalah service. I approached various congregants about participating. Often, someone would say, But rabbi, I'm not talented!
There are all sorts of talents. Singing, dancing, gymnastics, the ability to write poetry, amazing mathematical feats, freestyle rapping (which I will attempt next Saturday at Purim) ... these are all different skills or talents. And judging by our inability to do them, or often the unwillingness to do them, some of us toss off that self-deprecating statement, But I’m just not talented.
I do not like this response. You are talented. You are a good friend. A good husband. A good daughter. You have 7 trillion cells that work together to constantly recreate you so that you are even able to say, “I’m not that talented.” If that’s not talent, or magic, I don’t know what is.
This weeks Torah portion forces us to acknowledge and share our talents. This is the Torah portion in which the Israelite community begins to build the Mishkan, the tabernacle that the Israelites will pray in. God promises that if they build it, God will dwell amongst them. This Mishkan is the precursor to our synagogue.
But before it gets built, the Israelites need time, talent and money. They need donations.
Everyone is expected to contribute. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how old you are, or anything else – if you’re a member of the community, you contribute. But there's a kicker ... See if you can spot it in the translation of the verse that begins our Torah portion.
God spoke to Moses, saying 'Speak to the children of Israel that they shall take a donation for me. You shall take my donation from every man whose heart will move him.'
Did you catch it? God only wants donations from people whose hearts are motivated. This is akin to Maimonides admonishing us for giving tzedakah begrudgingly. It's better not to give than to give and not believe in the cause.
It's deeply important that the Torah includes this addendum, whose heart so moves him. These few words also point to a powerful teaching; we do not just provide the gifts ... We are the gifts. ...
T'rumah is not only money. For some segment of the Israelite society, yes, there was a contribution of gold and silver. But, Artisans sewed beautiful threads. Sculptors brought their clay and chiseling tools. Musicians entertained with harp and lyre. Blacksmiths, chefs, dancers – everyone had their role to play. All of us have our roles to play.
A few weeks ago, Caryl and I attended a conference together in Philadelphia. The conference invited synagogues that continue to manage a transition in rabbinic leadership. 19 Reform congregations, including ours were represented.
In one session, the presenter made a tangential aside that I find remarkable in the context of this Torah portion of T'rumah. He was talking about report cards.
In America, what happens if someone comes home and has a report card with two A's, two B's, and one C? Typically, a tutor will be hired to boost up the weakest subject, the one with the C.
He suggested that we learn from India's culture. There in India, the exact opposite is the norm: The same child would get tutored in his or her best subjects, not the weakest!
It seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? In bringing this up, I'm certainly not suggesting that our children's grades should not improved. But there's something to the thought that we should encourage each other to develop our natural strengths, our affinities ... our talents ... our T'rumah. Of course there will weaknesses and growth areas. But I suggest that sometimes, we should play to our strengths, instead of focusing on improving weaknesses.
I think about this when I think about all of the volunteer opportunities in a congregation. Just because someone is willing to do something does not mean that someone should do something. When approaching each other about roles in the congregation, we should ask the same question that God asks: Does their heart move them to do it?
This is exactly what Abraham Tesser and Angela Meltzer have been doing with regard to our Special Programs Committee. They have approached members of our congregation and have asked them to give small, intimate workshops based on their expertise, their passions, their gifts.
I am excited about these workshops, because they help us realize that our congregation is not about programs. It's not about putting various dates and events on a calendar and then hoping that people come. No ... it's about people. It's about engaging all of us so that we can bring our T'rumah, our gifts. When we share our talents and gifts with ourselves and each other, that's the important thing, the most important ingredient, the secret filling I'm the Hamantashen, as it were.
This room is a sanctuary. It is part of a beautiful building that serves as our spiritual home. But when our hearts are moved to bring our T'rumah to our community, we transform the walls, the rooms, the sanctuary. Only with our T'rumah does this room become the Mishkan, the place in which God dwells amongst us.