On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - T'rumah: The Right Ways to Give

In Parashat T'rumahGod asks the Israelites for gifts and there are so many different ways and reasons that people give - but is there a best way? Rabbi Rick Jacobs discusses different perspectives on giving in this episode of On the Other Hand.

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Welcome to On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week we're joined by Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, where he shares his thoughts on the Torah portion, some weeks with a guest, and some weeks just on his own. This week Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat T’rumah. He asks what kind of giver you are, and what kind of giver you could become.

This week we focus our attention on Parashat T’rumah from the Book of Exodus. And with Parashat T’rumah we actually have four parashiyot that explore both the exact materials and dimensions of the ancient praying place that our ancestors built in the desert as they were wandering for forty years, and carried with them along the way. It becomes the template, of course, for the two temples that stood in Jerusalem, and in so many ways inspire us about what communal work could be.

So it's amazing that, actually, this wasn't built by a contractor, it wasn't built by, you know, one or two very talented Israelites. It was really the project of a whole people as they wandered. And the materials that they brought were from them. The craftsmanship that they were able to exert was from their own skill. And the opening phrase kind of gives us the whole thing.

Chapter 25 of Exodus says, “The eternal spoke to Moses saying, tell the Israelite people to bring me gifts (t’rumot). You shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves them.”

So it tells us that they're all to bring gifts and to offer freely from their heart. Now, the great Hasidic master Rabbi Simcha Bunim, he said there are actually three different things we discern from this opening verse about tzedakah, the act of giving to the to benefit an individual or a community or cause. He says, the first type of tzedakah is the person who gives because it's a commandment, it's an obligation. The second type is the person who gives because their heart is moved. It's empathy, they feel what is needed. And the third type is the person that is resistant, doesn't even feel the obligation of the commandment. And from that person you simply have to take their money.

It's all from that first verse, right? “Bring for me gifts,” that's the commandment. “Those whose heart is so moved,” hat's the one who empathizes. And the very last phrase, tikchu et t’rumati, “take for me the gift.”

So here you have Simcha Bunim giving us three frames, and I want to bring the frame of one of the most celebrated professors at the University of Pennsylvania, Adam Grant. You may have heard me mention Adam Grant before. He’s the author of a number of books, and the book that I’m particularly going to focus on is his book called Give and Take. You maybe have seen that he did, actually, a TED talk that I think has somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 million watches. He was also on another podcast. I actually do listen to other podcasts keep that secret between us, if you would. When Krista Tippett interviewed him for On Being I was also taken by him.

So he has this frame, not like Simcha Bunim, of the three types of tzedakah. He has a frame of those who are givers and those who are takers. And then his third category, those who are matchers. The giver—you can all figure out who that giver is, right? It's your family member or friend who's just always doing for others. The taker is always interested in what's in it for me, and what am I going to get out of it. The matcher is someone who kind of goes—they’re a chameleon—they kind of go with the way the crowd's going, so if they're around generous, giving people, they'll tend to be givers. But they always are givers in the sense: I'll give to you if you give to me. It's not from that pure place.

So he reflects on, kind of, the nature of this. And he studies also how this affects behavior in offices and in companies and in communities. It turns out that givers are people you really love to be around. You love to have them as a friend because they're going to always be there for you. But some givers are actually not very successful because they're so busy giving. They lose track of their own life's purpose. He says, the most effective givers are those that actually give to others but they also keep the thread of their own commitments. He talks about this one individual who came up with the idea of a five-minute favor, right? I can I can do something for you, but I can't let it take over my whole day or my whole week. Those people are extra ordinarily successful and can be great influencers in a community.

Now, the people, you all know these people too, who are always busy, you know what's in it for me, taking, taking, taking. They also can be very influential. So, two examples that Grant gives that are just, I think, priceless. So, I don't know about you, but I get these calls at home from my undergraduate university. It's always a student and it's always at dinnertime. And I'm always trying to be respectful but it's like, annoying. So I pick up the phone. You know, you get caller ID so I know it's them, and I go, okay. And they say, “Hey, Rick. How are you? You know, this is so-and-so from.” And you know, “Hi, hi. Good. How come you're not studying?” I said. “No, because I'm calling you.”

But turns out that I'm not the only one who gets those calls. Pretty much every university is busy calling their alumni to ask for money. And I always give, I want that to be known. But there are times where I really don't feel it. Well, Adam Grant studied those who are in call centers, a pretty tough way to make some money for an organization. What they found is, that if that person making the call has had a chance to experience that the money that they're raising is going to go for scholarships to help people who otherwise couldn’t go to school, it dramatically boosts their ability to make the case and their desire to make the call. So when they understand that this is about giving and who is going to benefit, it raises the whole endeavor. Which I think agrees with our own experience, right?

To be a giver is obviously, maybe, a gene that you have or an example that somebody in your family set for you. But the idea is that if we can connect with the one in need, then the giving is absolutely free flowing. And it's true for even the person who's solicited.

The other great example he gives is, you've all been to a hospital or to a doctor's office and there's a little sign that says, “Make sure to use the hand sanitizer to prevent you from getting an illness.” Well it turns out those signs are not very effective, determines Adam Grant. And they tried to study, why is that sign not effective? I mean if I'm in a hospital—the reason people are in hospitals often is because people are sick. So you want to actually prevent getting illness. They changed the sign: Please use the hand sanitizer so you don't spread and give people who are trying to recover illness, germs, disease. And you know, that change in the verbiage makes the doctors and the nurses and the visitors dramatically more inclined to use the hand sanitizer. When it's not about them but about others, they actually are compelled to do the right thing.

I think these are all examples of how giving to others can really be transformative. And you know, one of the questions is if a person is a born taker can they actually turn themselves into a giver? Can they make generosity their default setting, not their hoarding or their taking. And I think the answer is in the Jewish tradition, we believe people can be so transformed.

And some of the ways that we're transformed—and this is me, not Adam Grant, who is I think still the most popular professor at the University of Pennsylvania because he's always giving to his students. And by the way, the New York Times did a feature on him and said he's the most giving and help-seeking professor. And after the New York Times wrote that, thousands of people reached out and said oh can you help me with this, can you help with that?

So it's his nature, but it's also what he experienced growing up with teachers and even his diving coach. So I would ask, you know, for us, can we be those who influence others? Again the goal is not necessarily to be our version of Mother Teresa, which means that we'll drop everything every day for others in need, random people. But can we actually stay focused? Do the things that are most important, and at the same time be open to do for others and not just so we get a favor back, but just so we make the world better?

In conclusion, the Parashat T’rumah is all about the community being a community of givers, people who gave so freely from the goodness of their heart that they actually gave more than was needed for the building of the tabernacle. But that reservoir of goodness, that reservoir of generosity made our ancestors privy to a kind of community that I think all of us long to be a part of today. And it can actually start with us. It can start with how we choose to live, how we choose to be there for others.

And so Reb Simcha Bunim said there are three ways to give tzedakah. I think the key one is to be that one who can empathize. That's a giver who really fuels and is motivated. That's what Adam Grant found, those people. Very, very compelling, and they helped to shape the world around them. So let's each of us, if we're born givers, let's keep it. If we're born matchers, let's see if we can give with a little bit more of the goodness of our heart. And if we're takers or we're surrounded by takers, let's not lose our path. And let's see if we can't bring our community to be in that generosity.

And what's the possible result of such a community of givers? If you've ever been in such a community, it is absolutely the blessing of blessings to be enveloped with people who do good and do good for others willingly, regularly and from the heart. I know for me, I long every day to help create such a community. Let's make a pact, a brit, all of us on the podcast today, that we’ll do whatever we can, wherever we are in this trilogy of give or take or matcher or Reb Simcha’s trilogy.

Let's try and recreate what was in Parashat T’rumah, a community of givers building a world of wholeness, a world of compassion, a world of justice.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including ritual, culture, holidays, and more. On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot.