- Posted by Matt Soffer
- On March 16, 2016
- 1 Comments
Pekudei 5776: Finishing Exodus by Examining Our Practice of Giving
(This blog was originally delivered as a sermon to the Riverway Project during Soul Food Friday on March 11, 2016)
You know the feeling when you love a book so much that as the pages in your right hand get fewer and fewer, you begin getting a bit sad? So you slow down…. but eventually you know the end is here. And if it’s a powerful book, once you read that final page, you remain in place for a moment or two, taking a breath, and just thinking. That moment after you finish a book, you’re somewhere in between worlds. Your head is back in the real world, but your heart is still in the story. This moment of liminality is what distinguishes great art from the mundane.
In the history of Western Civilization, there is no single story more critical to social movements than the Exodus. Which if you think about it is quite remarkable—it’s a particular story about a particular people, who are particularly preferred by the most powerful of Gods. Yet, as Michael Walzer points out in his seminal work, Exodus and Revolutions, Exodus posits an “idea [that] can be repeated, and it invites people to imitate it, to do it again [and again].
All of this narrative profundity, however, is marginal in its final portion, Parashat Pekudei. This portion is devoted entirely to one and only one thing: the Tabernacle. To be more specific, money: the gems and jewels that everyone pools together to construct this portable sanctuary that the Israelites take with them through the Wilderness.
Unlike the modern novel, there is no moment of reflection, summarizing the journey of the past—we had that moment already several portions ago. No, this is a moment entirely devoted to material and spiritual “house keeping.”
It begins, “eileh pekudei hamishkan—these are the records of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’s bidding.
The text goes on to describe the professional staff and their contributions. And then a relentless title wave of the goods that went into its construction, including, in no particular order: Colorful yarns, Fine linen, Gold, Copper, Lapis Lazuli, Stones of remembrance, Carnelian, Chrysolite, Emerald, Turquoise, Sapphire, Amethyst, Jacinth, Agate, Crystal, Beryl, Jasper, a nice robe, turbans, clasps, planks, bars, posts, sockets, tanned ram skin, dolphin skin (don’t ask), lamps, oil, incense…. and last but not least: a half-shekel of silver per head.
You know the feeling, when you love a book so much that as the pages in your right hand get fewer and fewer, you begin getting a bit sad? Well, here’s the good news: when ending Exodus, you’re probably not going to be as sad as you were with, say, Eat, Pray, Love. Or Fifty Shades of Grey (not that I….). Or Good Night Moon –which, by the way, is the dumbest book I have ever loved.
No, Exodus ends in a way that is so boring you find yourself excited to begin Leviticus. Which is actually pretty brilliant, if you think about it.
In truth, the ending of Exodus is brilliant, particularly because it doesn’t look back, and it can’t look ahead—all that’s ahead an unknown Wilderness. Instead it compels us, the readers, to examine our own sanctuary, and what we are putting into it.
I’ve never spoken at Soul Food Friday about Riverway’s budget. The reason for that, to be honest, is- as many of you know- I’m emphatically opposed to transactional Judaism. When people approach me and ask me to officiate at their wedding, without any desire to meet anyone in our community, I decline. That’s because my job—what Temple Israel pays me to do—is help people connect to each other and to community through this rich tradition of ours, the wonderments of which were dormant for so many of our childhood experiences of synagogues.
I’d like to talk about our Riverway budget and sustainability in a non-transactional way. The purpose of which is not to solicit donations, but rather to be honest about how we function, about the life of our Project. I do this now, in our teaching slot, because Exodus tells us: don’t finish the book without talking about how you’re going to keep this thing in tip-top shape.
For the last 16 years we’ve run this project on just a few large, loving contributions from a few mensches, who were deeply concerned about the fact that no synagogue, not a single one in the country, was well populated with folks in their 20’s and 30’s. And they knew that the only way that young adults would find relevance in synagogues is if synagogues invested in them. And that meant creating space for a ground-up approach to community, on our own terms, so that we can become owners of our own Jewish identities. And that meant funding rabbinic and staff leadership to be devoted to this cause.
Our budget’s around $110,000/year. The great majority of our funding goes to staff and food, in that order. (Our staff eats a lot of food)
Why am I raising this now? Two reasons. First: Next year is the first year in which we will no longer be running our budget out of a separate fund, as opposed to the main operating budget of the Temple. Next year our funding will come from the same sources as every other program of Temple Israel—from Temple member dues, donations, and a few other important revenue streams.
The second reason why I raise this on the Shabbat when we read about how a community sustains its sanctuary is this: we have, over the last 4 years, tripled our engagement size. This is an awesome problem. A lot of factors go into this. We developed a dynamic lay leadership team, which hadn’t existed prior to 4 years ago. We have a talented, devoted workhorse as our coordinator. Another reason: TI landed an awesome rabbi in Suzie Jacobson, who is much friendlier than I am. And there is a 4th reason, more nebulous but perhaps as impactful as any other: we reached a word-of-mouth tipping point. Our community is growing itself now.
Whatever the reason, we’ve now tripled our size. Our Soul Foods used to be around 100 or so people; now we have as many as 300. Our Soul Food costs went from about $1,500 a pop to $4,000. We’ve tripled, and we’re about to go on the TI budget. So we as a community need to develop a strategy that engages gifts from our participants. And that’s cultural. We need to develop a culture of giving.
Here’s a contradiction: I love that we don’t charge for our events, we just say “show up.” But I also don’t believe it’s good for anyone to pretend that things are “free.” There is no shortage of “free stuff” for our generation: There’s Birthright, there’s Birthright Next, there’s Hillel… Lots of donors love funding millennial projects, assuming 20’s and 30’s are all estranged from Judaism and won’t give a dime.
This room is an amazing site. It contradicts every study on Jewish millenials’ relationship to religion. And I know that we all contribute to things that matter—that actually make life fun or meaningful: from Netflix to gym membership to Spotify to the Boston Globe to a mid-day $4 cup of coffee worth every penny…to Birch Box (even though I have no idea what that is…Andrew told me to include it so ask him.)… people are willing to give—if it matters.
Now we are going to be opening the doors to giving, asking our folks who show up and enjoy this community to contribute from their hearts. For Soul Food, we’re asking for a suggested donation of anywhere between $5-$18 dollars. There will be a limit on donation size—and that limit is $100,000,000.
You may have seen this in our language for this event, with a link to give online. And those for whom its your custom to carry money on Shabbat also will have a chance, if you want, to part with some of it when you show up – we’ll have a tzedakah box out during dinner. We don’t yet have a fixed plan, and we have no intention of enacting a fee of admission—“easy of entry” has been our “A game” from the get-go, and that can never change.
But our attitude toward building community, toward building the Tabernacle can change.
You know the feeling, when you love a book so much that as the pages in your right hand get fewer and fewer, you begin getting a bit sad. Our tradition has known that feeling for more than a thousand years. And our ancestors knew that our text may give us inspiration, but our strength, our vitality, our ability to sustain ourselves into tomorrow, comes from our people. So they created a custom of concluding every book by chanting in a call-response manner, the words chazak, chazak v’nitchazeik. This translates to: be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen each other. That’s how we finish books; that’s how we are still here; that’s how we’ll continue for years to come.
Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik.