At the end of Re'eh, we read: "They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, 17 but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you." (JPS)
The context of these words is the commandment that three times a year, on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, all the (males) shall appear before Gd at the designated place (i.e. the holy Temple in Jerusalem.) It is not simply enough that they appear-they must also bring a gift. Yet, even in that agrarian society, and even though the Torah in other places is rather specific about gifts and sacrifices to be presented, in this place it says "each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you."
That's pretty trusting-allowing us each to individually assess how Gd has blessed us, and present a gift commensurate with that amount. By what scale are we to judge? If this year's crop was 50% better than last year's crop, do we up our "gift" by 50%? But what if this year that crop did worse, but another crop did better? Do we adjust our gift accordingly? In a year of blight when no crops were successful, what gift do we bring? Is our mere presence, having survived the blight, enough to thank Gd for that very survival? Does the silversmith bring silver, the baker bread, the hunter some of his prey? Does an apparently infertile couple that miraculously has a child bring the child as a gift? (Let's not get in to the question of the akedah just now, OK?) Does Gd want money? Praise? Sacrifices? Is that what this is all about? Is this how we are to measure the gifts bestowed upon us?
Even today, without the holy Temple, how do we offer these gifts, and which gifts do we offer? Shall a singer offer song, a poet a poem, a good cook a delicious dish? Would it be appropriate for someone not blessed with a good voice to offer a gift of song, or someone not a good cook to offer a gift of food? The obvious answer would be yes, for ultimately only we ourselves know what things in our lives appear to be blessings bestowed upon us. And the concepts of good voice and good food are somewhat subjective.
Many of us offer our gifts to Gd through our gifts and services to our community. If Gd has blessed you with a beautiful voice, then why not make a gift of song to Gd? All over the world people do that every day-cantors, soloists, choir members, songleaders. If Gd has blessed you with the skills of a teacher, then teaching in religious school can be your gift. Are you a computer nerd? Offer your gift to Gd through service to your congregation's web presence.
But directly returning a gift of the blessing Gd has bestowed is not the only way. The text doesn't say "give back as a gift to Gd some of exactly that which Gd has blessed you with." No, it says "according the blessing that Gd has bestowed upon you." What if the blessing Gd gave you was sparing your life in a dangerous situation? Would you repay with your life? And how could you spare Gd's life? (well, actually, there is some possibility here, since we read on Yom Kippur that Gd says "if you are my witnesses, then I am Gd, and if you are not my witnesses then I am not Gd." So, in a way, by being faithful to the covenant, you might be insuring Gd's survival. Hmmm.) And we can complicate this situation. What if the blessing is that your life was spared, but in the process hundreds of others died, or perhaps even close relatives were killed? If our gift is to be "according to the blessing bestowed..."
What about the someone who, in subjective opinion, is not blessed with a good voice, but feels blessed to be able to sing? Then surely their gift of song would be welcomed by Gd.
I think there are many ways we can offer gifts to Gd in return for the blessings bestowed upon us. And they need not be quid pro quo. Every time we observe a mitzvah, that is a gift to Gd. Every time we offer Gd praise and thanks, those are gifts.
But here's the catch. As a species, we seem predisposed to not really see many of the blessings, the good things, in our lives. As a result, we're probably rather stingy with the gifts we give to Gd in return. So my challenge to you this Shabbat is to really consider the words "each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you." Dwell on the blessings in your life. I'll bet you'll discover many you hadn't given much though to. And the second part of the challenge-to find an appropriate way to offer a gift to Gd according to those blessings. A remember to not appear before Gd "empty-handed,", i.e., without those gifts, however tangible or intangible they may be.
©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
P.S. Next year at this time, I want to take on this particular pasuk from parashat Re'eh. I offer it to you know for your serious consideration, I know it would take me far more than the time I have devoted to writing this musing to do that particular pasuk justice. So let's all start thinking about it now, and we can talk about it next year!
D'varim 13:1 Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it.
(Note-I didn't take on 13:1 until 2006 - 5766)
Some other musings on this parasha:
Toseif V'lo Tigra
Re'eh 5765--Revised 5759-Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5760/5763--B'lo l'sav'a
Re'eh 5759--Open Your Hand
Re'eh 5757/5758--How To Tell Prophet From Profit
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