The Challenges of Giving and Receiving



by Rabbi Bradley Solmsen

I am four-fifths of the way through a 10-month sabbatical in Israel with my family. We have been living in Modi’in, a growing young city half-way between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, for the past eight months. Two more months to go, that is eight weeks or 56 days if you are counting.

As the Passover seder ended (we only celebrate one in Israel) we, the Jewish people, began counting. We count the Omer (a measure of wheat) which helps us appreciate the transition between Passover and Shavuot.Spotlight on IsraelBetween Passover and Shavuot, we commemorate three of the newest holidays in our calendar: Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers) and Yom HaAtzma-ut (Israel’s Independence Day).

Shavuot, our harvest holiday is when we celebrate God giving us the Torah. Shavuot is all about giving and receiving. In the narrative of the Torah, we are on a journey toward the land that we have been promised, perhaps our greatest gift.

In a very short amount of time (some seven weeks), we remember what it means to be enslaved and subsequently a free people, we reflect on the Holocaust, we honor Israel’s fallen soldiers and we celebrate the creation of the State of Israel. We pack in a lot, it’s very intense, it’s a taste of Israel. During these days, we remember so much of what the Jewish people have given and received. We remember relatives and heroes who have died, we remind ourselves of what it means to have nothing and then what it means to be given so much.

Living in Israel with my family for this intense period of time, I often find myself thinking about the challenges of maintaining a Jewish state and maintaining a democratic state.

Hebrew is the language of the country and holidays have their origins in this land. They make sense here. In Israel, you feel Shabbat. It surrounds you.

How do we reconcile these rich elements within a modern day democracy? How do we make sense of the gaps between rich and poor, men and women, different approaches to religious practice and belief, Jews and Arabs?

In theory it feels possible. So much of our texts and our history are devoted to pursuing justice, struggling to forge relationships, remembering what it means to give and to receive.

But the reality of this country can be jarring. The gaps between people here are wide and feel as though they are getting wider and wider. Instead of pursuing opportunities to dialog or build relationships across these divides people are shouting, building walls, throwing stones, launching rockets.

I think individually and collectively we may be underestimating how hard it is to give and receive. Real giving entails a sacrifice, it demands thinking of what the other person needs – not necessarily what you want to give or what might be easiest to give. Receiving requires humility, to acknowledge that do not have everything we need, to admit what we are missing – sometimes publicly. This is never easy. Receiving needs to be acknowledged, often with a thank you.  This can be hard as well.

All of us need to give and receive. It’s human nature. It’s easiest to give and receive with those closest to us, those most like us. Israel – the people Israel and the people living in Israel – need help, need to practice more giving and receiving.

It still feels possible to me. I think people here, deep, deep down inside feel it’s possible too. Maybe during these days of counting our gifts – the gifts we have received and the gifts we are giving -we will consider some small ways of bridging the gaps.

We read the Aleinu at the conclusion of every prayer service. This t’filah ends with words from the book of Zechariah 14:9:

  וְנֶאֱמַר, וְהָיָה יְיָ לְמֶלֶךְ עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ, בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא יִהְיֶה יְיָ אֶחָד, וּשְמוֹ אֶחָד:

And it is said: God will be Sovereign over all the earth – on that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.

The words we read are in the future tense, as if to remind us that this is something we still are working toward. With God’s help, we can reach across the wide divides, we can give a little bit and receive a little bit and take a small step toward “That Day.”

Rabbi Bradley Solmsen was recently appointed to serve as the director of youth engagement for the Union for Reform Judaism. For the past 11 years he served as the director of high school programs at Brandeis University. He will begin his new position in September, four months and one week from now. That is 17 weeks or 119 days, if you are counting.

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4 Responses to “The Challenges of Giving and Receiving”

  1. avatar

    Thank you Rabbi Bradley for writing this article. It is really intriguing and inspiring to me. This article really helps me realize why I like to help people but also need to help myself. This triggers some really positive ideas as well as bringing up a character I created in a fiction story I wrote. Good Luck with your new position in September!

  2. avatar

    Tough times for giving and receiving. Grabbing dominates these days. The first generation of secure kids will grow up to give and receive. Awareness will have to do for now. B’sha’ah tovah.

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