Rabbi Weinreb's Parasha Column, Tetzaveh

"Receiving is Giving"

There are lessons that one learns in life in the most unusual places. This certainly holds true for practical worldly matters. What is surprising is that even quite lofty spiritual lessons can be learned in settings far removed from the religious school classroom or the yeshiva study hall.

Let me tell you about a lesson I learned in a most unusual setting—a small meeting room in the White House, just outside the door to the Oval Office of George W. Bush, who was President of the United States of America at the time. I was part of a delegation of rabbis who had come to thank the President for expediting emergency disaster relief funds to be delivered to religious parochial schools. We had several other items on our agenda, hoping to inform the president of some of the political concerns of the American Jewish community.

President Bush is a devoutly religious man, so it was no wonder that one member of our group felt that it was perfectly appropriate to recite a prayer in his presence. He explained to the President that he would be reciting a prayer traditionally reserved for kings and heads of state.

The President bowed his head and listened very reverentially as my colleague pronounced these words: "Blessed art Thou, Hashem, our Lord and Master of the universe, who has granted some of His glory to a creature of flesh and blood." The President, his head still bowed, fervently responded, "Amen."

The President then did something most extraordinary. He opened his eyes, lifted his head, and squarely faced the rabbi who had pronounced the prayer. "I thank you for those sacred words, Rabbi," he said. "But," he objected, "I noticed that you blessed the Almighty. You didn't bless me! Don't you think that I could use a blessing or two?"

Most of the group, both the rabbis present and the President's staff, laughed. One member of our group swiftly recited an alternate prayer, one which did indeed bless the President and not the Almighty. It was the prayer which was recited in Russia, long ago, for the royal family. Of course, he substituted the name of George W. Bush for Czar Alexander II.

I found myself withdrawing momentarily from this spirited interaction. I was lost in thought, pondering the President's keen insight and reflecting upon its theological significance. At that moment, I could not allow myself to remain distracted from the meeting’s agenda, which focused upon some of the critical needs of our Jewish community. But soon afterwards, I had the luxury of some "quiet time" in my personal library. It was then and there that I found myself consulting a verse near the conclusion of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Tezaveh (Exodus 27:20 – 30:10).

The verse reads: "And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who has taken them from the land of Egypt so that I might abide among them" (Exodus 29:46). Rashi renders that last phrase a bit more sharply: "…in order for Me to abide among them." Two major medieval commentators expand upon Rashi's translation. Ramban and, even more emphatically, Rabbeinu Bahya assert that our verse is conveying an astonishing message, one that on first blush sounds like nothing short of heresy. They understand that the Almighty proclaimed that He took the nation of Israel out of slavery not letzorech hedyot, for the sake of ordinary humans, but rather letzorech gavoha, for His own sake, for the need of the Most High.

Even a rank religious amateur will find this assertion shocking. He will ask, "Does the Almighty need man? Are we to believe that the Master of the Universe has selfish motives for His divine actions? Did He free the nation of Israel from bondage for His own satisfaction, and not for the sake of His people?"

These very questions are also asked, albeit in a more erudite fashion, by one of the most sophisticated Jewish thinkers of the past generation, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broyda, the Dean of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Regular readers of this column will remember that I was once briefly privileged to "sit at the feet" of this sage.

His answer, which is recorded in a remarkable essay found in his masterpiece Vesam Derech, is a lengthy one. But his main argument can be paraphrased as follows:

There are two ways in which a gift can be given. One is simple and direct. "X," the donor, gives "Y," the recipient, a precious object. But there is another way. If "Y," the recipient, is a person of great prestige and unusual stature, and he consents to accept a gift from "X,” he has in effect given to "X." "X" is so pleased and honored that "Y" has deigned to accept his paltry gift that he feels as if he is the recipient and not the donor. When a great man accepts my gift, he has given me a gift.

For an excellent illustration of this dynamic, permit me to return to the meeting in the White House with which this column opened. Our group had presented a token gift, a ritual object of insignificant monetary value, to the President. He received the gift graciously, assured us that he would cherish it, and thanked us profusely. But from our perspective, we did not feel that we gave him a gift. We felt as if he gave us a far greater gift by accepting it from us with such sincere enthusiasm.

Rabbi Broyda argues that this is the way it is with the Almighty. He accepts our gifts of worshipful acts as if He needs them for His own sake, as if He "personally" can benefit from them. When we worship Him, and He accepts our worship, we do not feel that we have given Him. We feel that we have received!

Thus, in the verse from this week's Torah portion, the Almighty tells us that He delivered us from Egypt for His own sake so that "I might abide among you," as if He needed to abide among us. But we naturally feel that by expressing His eagerness to accept our companionship, He has given us His greatest gift.

These thoughts led me to formulate a response to the President's remarks, although I admittedly have not had the opportunity to share it with him (yet!). The Almighty permits us to bless Him in our prayers, for He knows full well that by blessing Him, we will feel blessed—nay, we will be blessed!

As we recite any of the many blessings which are part of the daily routine of every observant Jew, we would do well to recall this interpretation of the blessings we recite. Yes, we bless God for our bread, our water, our health, and our wisdom. But let us recognize that when He accepts our puny blessings, we receive His blessing, and that is, by far, the greatest gift of all.