Be Yourself

The gifts brought to the Temple for the Pilgrimage festivals teach us the importance of preserving our unique identities.

Commentary on Parashat Re'eh, Deuteronomy 11:26 - 16:17

Commentary on Parshat Re’eh: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

Social pressure to conform is a steady and soul-deadening force. With relentless enticements, cultures seek ways to impose similarity of worldview, of behavior, even of thought upon their members. Even contemporary society, with its laudable commitment to individuality, imposes subtle mandates through the media, through the movies, through advertisements and in countless other ways.

Small wonder, then, that the truly free soul is rare. Indeed, for many who practice religion (and for many who flee religion), that conformity and habit are nowhere more imposing than in the realm of faith and ritual.

Three Festivals

Is it really that hard to be free? Is it really that impossible to be ourselves? Can it be that God wants us to conform?

This week’s Torah portion speaks with great joy of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish calendar: “Three times a year–on the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Passover), on the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot), and on the Feast of Booths (Sukkot)–all your males shall appear before the Holy One your God in the place that God will choose. They shall not appear before the Holy One empty-handed, but each according to their own gift, according to the blessing that the Holy One your God has bestowed upon you.”

The Torah presents a fascinating three-fold series of descriptions of our offerings: 1) We are to appear not empty handed, 2) we are to give according to one’s own gift, 3) our gift is to be according to God’s blessing. What do these three qualifications tell us about our place in society, the place for our personality and distinctiveness in God’s world?

On the surface, these three statements are parallel, reiterating that we are to give in joy, and to give within our means. As the medieval sage, Saadia Gaon reminds us, they teach a person to offer, “what his hand can afford, according to that which God has bestowed upon you.” Similarly, the Talmud insists on limiting our charitable contributions: “If one wishes to spend generously, one should not spend more than one-fifth of one’s income.”

The p’shat (simple meaning) of the Torah, most traditional sources agree, intends to regulate our voluntary religious gifts, so that they are joyously given, and given within our financial capacities. This insight is no small advance. Imagine how differently we might celebrate b’nai mitzvah, wedding parties, and Jewish communal celebrations with these stipulations in mind!

As profound as this contextual reading is, I’d like us to explore a deeper approach. Perhaps these three guidelines are meant not only as synonymous phrases, but as three plateaus, each adding a layer of meaning to extend and complement its partners.

During our joyous celebrations, we must not come empty handed. To celebrate in God’s presence one must not focus only on taking, not only on our own personal joy. To celebrate in the fullest sense is to harness our private triumphs to contribute to the repair of God’s world. Whether that means using a party to feed the hungry, or to link a personal milestone to some communal cause, we transform moments of self-congratulations into occasions to heal wounds and to right wrongs (and to show true gratitude) when we connect our simchas to tzedakah, our parties to justice.

The second biblical qualification is that the offering we bring must be “according to his own gift.” That is to say that no two people may bring precisely the same thing. Each must bring an offering reflective of one’s own special talents and passions, something that illumines our own uniqueness. That gift should be, in the words of the Talmud (Gittin 59a), “in accordance with one’s own acumen.”

The third qualification is that the offering be “according to God’s blessing.” Here one can see the Torah as recognizing that human individuality is a reflection of divine love and bounty. God’s greatness is reflected not in some numbing conformity, but precisely in the stunning diversity of human character, interest, and talent. As the Mishnah affirms:

A single person [Adam] was created to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessing One for when people stamp many coins from the same seal, the coins are all alike. But the Holy Blessed One has stamped every human with the seal of the first person, but no two descendants are alike. Therefore everyone is required to say, “the world was created for my sake.”

Knowing that God wants us to be who we are — unique, special, and distinctive — can provide a desperately needed tool for fighting social conformity and thoughtless habit. We dare not appear before God empty handed, but what we bring must reflect our unique gifts and personalities if it is to reflect God’s blessings, and to bless, in turn, the lives of others.

Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.

 

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