Rabbi Stephen Kahn

Basic manners teach us that we should never show up to a special occasion empty-handed. For my mother, of blessed memory, both preparing and presenting gifts was an act of gratitude. Picking out the perfect gift came so naturally to her. I remember even as a young child watching her use her unique creativity and panache when preparing a gift to bring to someone’s home the day of a special dinner party or celebration. She would then hand write a card, again choosing words unique to the occasion and place it carefully with the gift.

I believe my mother truly understood the meaning of bringing “gifts” from this week’s parsha, Re’eh, as these memories stirred in my mind when reading the middle passages of the portion. Within these verses God commands our ancestors to bring “free will” gifts (among other sacrifices) to a specific place which God will show them. While the Torah does not explicitly state the location of this place, our tradition knows it will become “The Place” of the Beit ha Mikdash (“The Holy Temple”) in Jerusalem a few centuries later.

Although we are no longer required to bring gifts (sacrifices) to a central location, or Holy Temple, from these verses (and elsewhere in Torah) we learn a fundamental value of Jewish life. That is, bringing gifts to our sacred places is both a tribute to God and a reflection of the Godliness within each one of us.

Our sages take this concept one step further. One of the great medieval sages, Saadia Gaon, teaches that when it comes gifts to every person should offer “what his hand can afford, according to that which God has bestowed upon you.” Earlier, the Talmud states that charitable contributions (“gifts”) may be limited to no more than one-fifth of one’s income. The rabbis were arguably committed to the idea of tzedakah and charitable giving to our Jewish institutions, however, they did not want anyone to become destitute because of their giving.

We live in times when gift-giving can be complex. Dueling charitable causes, the judgment of others (both real and perceived) in our community when we consider our gifts and the very real economic restraints we may face in our lives are all factors in deciding what we should give and to whom we should give our “gifts.” In biblical times, as now, there is a lot more nuance to bringing gifts to our sacred places.

Perhaps our parsha can help ease the anxiety we face when it comes to the idea of when, where and how we bring gifts to the community. The answer may be found in the parsha’s first word, “Re’eh,” or “See.” We should open our eyes and find the places we are most needed, where we can most authentically contribute the best of ourselves — our time, resources or skills — toward building the places we hold most sacred, where we feel God’s light shines brightest.

Most of all, as I learned from my mother, a gift should ultimately be a reflection of our uniqueness. Every person is created in the image of God and therefore, every gift can be a reflection of the divine within us and a sense of the divine in the person or people to whom we present the gifts of our hearts and minds. 

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