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Parashat Terumah

March 1, 2017

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler was a central 20th century figure associated with the musar school of Jewish thought. One of Rabbi Dessler’s most well known essays is Kuntres Ha-hesed, literally, the Booklet of Kindness. It was later published in his collected writings titled Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, a Letter from Eliyahu, and has been studied and taught by students and teachers throughout the Jewish world.

In this essay Rabbi Dessler addressed the relationship between giving and taking. What are the origins of giving and taking? What is the relationship between the two? Can people be described as “givers” or “takers”? If so, what does that say about them. What is the relationship between giving, taking, and love?

As to whether people can be described as “givers” or “takers,” Rabbi Dessler wrote the following:

These two powers—giving and taking—form the roots of all character traits and of all actions. And note: there is no middle way. Every person is devoted, at the deepest level of his personality, to one or the other of the two sides, and in the innermost longing of the heart there are no compromises. It is a basic law that there is no middle path in human interest. In every act, in every word, in every thought…one is always devoted either to lovingkindness and giving or to grasping and taking. (Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, Strive for Truth, trans. Aryeh Carmell)

According to Rabbi Dessler, while people can be divided into “givers” and “takers,” just as important is that “all actions” are characterized by either giving or taking. Every action that we do, everything that we think or say is directed either towards lovingkindness or taking.

Rabbi Dessler not only addressed the relationship between giving and taking, but also the relationship between giving and love. He wrote that most people think that we give to someone because we love them, but this understanding may be mistaken.

Here we come to an interesting question. We see that love and giving always come together. Is the giving a consequence of the love, or is perhaps the reverse true: is the love a result of the giving? We usually think it is love which causes giving because we observe that a person showers gifts and favors on the one he loves. But there is another side to the argument. Giving may bring about love for the same reason that a person loves what he himself has created or nurtured: he recognizes in it part of himself. Whether it is a child he has brought into the world, an animal he has reared, a plant he has tended, or even a thing he has made or a house he has built – a person is bound in love to the work of his hands, for in it he finds himself. (ibid.)

Rabbi Dessler understood the relationship between giving and love to be different than that of most people. We do not give to someone or nurture them because we love them, rather, it is through the act of giving and nurturing that we come to love someone or something.

The Israeli journalist and popular commentator on the weekly parashah, Sivan Rahav Meir, expands Rabbi Dessler’s approach to the relationship between giving and love to also apply to the relationship between human beings and God. Much of this week’s parashah describes the building of the tabernacle by the Children of Israel after many of them contributed to its building. Rahav Meir asks:

Why does God need all of these human actions? Didn’t he split the Reed Sea and give us the Torah at Mount Sinai, so what’s the reason for all of our small actions? Correct, he doesn’t “need” from us silver and gold, but he wants cooperation, involvement, commitment. A giving that leads to love.

God understood that by contributing to the building of the tabernacle the Children of Israel would be able to begin nurturing a relationship with her that was based upon commitment, involvement, and love. That by being givers and not takers, they would be able in some way to see themselves in the holy work that they were doing. Shabbat shalom.


Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the Rabbinic Curriculum Coordinator at AJR.