At the end of Re’eh, we read:
וְלֹ֧א יֵֽרָאֶ֛ה אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה רֵיקָֽם: אִישׁ כְּמַתְּנַת יָדוֹ כְּבִרְכַּת יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר נָֽתַן־לָֽךְ
“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 G”d at the designated place (which eventually meant 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 simply 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 G”d 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 G”d 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 G”d want money? Praise? Sacrifices? Is that what this is all about? Is this how we are to measure the gifts bestowed upon us?
Do we apply some “tipping ettiquette” here? Though it seems we can’t all agree on how much (or even when) to tip someone (server, waiter, valet, taxi driver, service person, etc.) there are at least some situations where tipping is de rigueur. Waiters and certain others are dependent on their tips as part of their wages, and most (though not all) members of society, understanding this, try to tip fairly. (There are still many who operate from the philosophy of not rewarding anyone for doing what it is they are paid to do – and I include some bosses in this category. I find this a particularly heartless attitude, and even more so when applied to people who, through no fault of their own, work in an industry that underpays them and expects clients to make up the difference through tipping.) It is easy to make an argument that the whole idea of tipping, and occupations that depend upon it, are just plain wrong, and we should restructure society so that every person can earn enough without relying upon tips as anything other than as a supplement, a reward for extra hard work. Yes, it seems odd to apply the whole idea of tipping to thanking G”d, but there you have it. Through our behaviors and our failures, we surely make things harder for G”d, so maybe G”d is truly deserving of our “tips?” Tips are a way of saying thank you, and if you really think about it, a tithe isn’t much different than when a restaurant adds the gratuity into the bill, is it? This whole idea, of thinking of our gifts to G”d as tips is fascinating, and I could go on at length about it, but it does feel a little awkward, so I won’t pursue it at this time. Though I will be thinking about it.
So back to the topic at hand. 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 G”d through our gifts and services to our community. If G”d has blessed you with a beautiful voice, then why not make a gift of song to G”d? All over the world people do that every day-cantors, soloists, choir members, songleaders. If G”d 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 G”d through service to your congregation’s web presence.
But directly returning a gift of the blessing G”d has bestowed is not the only way. The text doesn’t say “give back as a gift to G”d some of exactly that which G”d has blessed you with.” No, it says “according the blessing that G”d has bestowed upon you.” What if the blessing G”d gave you was sparing your life in a dangerous situation? Would you repay with your life? And how could you spare G”d’s life? (well, actually, there is some possibility here. Some maintain G”d’s continued existence is dependent upon us, as in the quote “if you are my witnesses, then I am G”d, and if you are not my witnesses then I am not G”d” found in Gates of Repentance, the Reform HH makhzor, and attributed to a former chief rabbi of Great Britain. So, in a way, by being faithful to the covenant, you might be insuring G”d’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 G”d.
I think there are many ways we can offer gifts to G”d 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 G”d. Every time we offer G”d praise and thanks, those are gifts. Every time we remember G”d, even question G”d, or get angry with G”d, by merely acknowledging G”d’s presence and involvement in our lives, we are giving G”d a gift.
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 G”d 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 thought to. And the second part of the challenge-to find an appropriate way to offer a gift to G”d according to those blessings. Remember to not appear before G”d “empty-handed,”, i.e., without those gifts, however tangible or intangible they may be.
©2013, portions ©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Re’eh 5772 – Think Marx, Act Rashi? Think Rashi, Act Marx?
Re’eh 5771 – Revisiting B’lo L’sav’a
Re’eh 5770 Meating Urges
Re’eh 5766-Lo 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