The following incident occurred in 12th century France. A person sold tin roofing materials to his neighbor. When the neighbor examined the tin sheets, he discovered a layer of pure silver under the tin coating. The seller claimed the silver was his because the buyer had only intended to purchase a tin sheet; that’s all he paid for. Therefore, claimed the seller, even though money changed hands and the buyer took his purchase home, the (unknown) silver remained in the buyer’s possession. The question was brought to Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, one of the most acknowledged Talmudic legal scholars of the day. He ruled that the buyer may keep the silver. The seller, he reasoned, never owned the silver because one cannot acquire legal possession of an object without being aware of its existence. This ruling is codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law.
How does this apply to this week’s Parsha? Until now, each week when we read Parsha in shul, it relays either a story or practical laws relating to interpersonal relationships between friends, neighbors, and urban inhabitants. This week begins a series of Torah readings relating to the construction and maintenance of the Mishkan, portable synagogue that accompanied the Jews throughout their desert sojourn and even after they entered the Land of Israel. It was dismantled hundreds of years later when Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem.
And let them take for Me a portion…(Exodus 25:1)
Everyone was obligated to participate in giving money to build the Mishkan and, therefore, everyone had a portion in it. Instead of saying that the Jewish people should give a portion, it says take a portion. Many explanations are given to explain this peculiar word choice, one of which suggests that it shares the same (Hebrew) root as acquire. In a homiletical way, that means that when one takes a part of Torah-i.e. studies it or performs a mitzvah-(s)he should view it as an acquisition. The Torah, the source of everything Jewish, contains many levels of general knowledge and profound wisdom. If one is not aware of its profundity, then, like the tin and silver, (s)he does not own it. In practical terms, if a person is born Jewish but is unaware of the vast knowledge of the written Torah and Talmud, (s)he is not obtaining a precious possession that is his or her birthright. People with little or no exposure to Judaism might view the limitless wisdom of the Torah as ancient lore and customs, no different than Aesop’s fables but that is a tragedy.
John Adams, Second President of the United States, viewed it differently. He once wrote the following about Jews in a letter he penned to his friend:
I will insist the Hebrews have [contributed] more to civilize men than any other nation. If I was an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations …
They are the most glorious nation that ever inhabited this Earth. The Romans and their empire were but a bubble in comparison to the Jews. They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern.” (letter to F. A. Van der Kemp [Feb. 16, 1808] Pennsylvania Historical Society)
Even if one has not learned much, still (s)he should realize how deep and insightful the Torah is. No one chooses has (s)he was raised or what (s)he was taught as a youth, but as adults it is a tragedy if we think we just have “tin” (fables, culture, ethnic food, etc.) when in reality we possess “silver.” The more we acquire-i.e. the more we learn and follow its directive-the more we benefit.
At some point in life, most people will ask Who am I; who is the real me? Is the real me my job? Is it my house or estate? Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief Rabbi of England, said that the most fateful moment in his life came when he asked that question.
“I am a Jew (and) this is why…
I am a Jew because, being a child of my people, I have heard the call to add my chapter to its unfinished story. I am a stage on its journey, a connecting link between the generations. The dreams and hopes of my ancestors live on in me, and I am the guardian of their trust, now and for the future.
I am a Jew because our ancestors were the first to see that the world is driven by a moral purpose, that reality is not a ceaseless war of the elements, to be worshipped as gods, nor history a battle in which might is right and power is to be appeased. The Judaic tradition shaped the moral civilization of the West, teaching for the first time that human life is sacred, that the individual may never be sacrificed for the mass, and that rich and poor, great and small, are all equal before God…
I am a Jew because of Shabbat, the world’s greatest religious institution, a time in which there is no manipulation of nature or our fellow human beings, in which we come together in freedom and equality to create, every week, an anticipation of the messianic age.
I am a Jew because our nation, though at times it suffered the deepest poverty, never gave up on its commitment to helping the poor, or rescuing Jews from other lands, or fighting for justice for the oppressed, and did so without self-congratulation, because it was a mitzvah, because a Jew could do no less.
I am a Jew because I cherish the Torah, knowing that G-d is to be found not just in natural forces but in moral meanings, in words, texts, teachings and commands, and because Jews, though they lacked all else, never ceased to value education as a sacred task, endowing the individual with dignity and depth.
I am a Jew because of our people’s passionate faith in freedom, holding that each of us is a moral agent, and that in this lies our unique dignity as human beings; and because Judaism never left its ideals at the level of lofty aspirations, but instead translated them into deeds which we call mitzvot, and a way, which we call the halakhah, and thus brought heaven down to earth…
I am proud to belong to the people Israel, whose name means “one who wrestles with G-d and with man and prevails.” For though we have loved humanity, we have never stopped wrestling with it, challenging the idols of every age. And though we have loved G-d with an everlasting love, we have never stopped wrestling with Him nor He with us.
I admire other civilizations and traditions, and believe each has brought something special into the world, Aval zeh shelanu, “but this is ours.” This is my people, my heritage, my faith. In our uniqueness lies our universality. Through being what we alone are, we give to humanity what only we can give.
I want to say to Jews around the world: Take it, cherish it, learn to understand and to love it. Carry it and it will carry you. And may you in turn pass it on to future generations. For you are a member of an eternal people, a letter in their scroll. Let their eternity live on in you.”
May we all acquire our rightful portion in the Torah and allow eternity to live on is us. It is never too late to begin.
Midrash Raba Shemos/Exodus
33, Kleinman Edition; Ohr Gedalyahu, Trumah, Likkutim 1; Choshen Mishpat 232:18; Hagohos Ashri Bava Metzia 2:9; Why I am a Jew by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)by