May 26, 2024
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A ‘Tradition’ of Giving

“Tevyeh der Milchiker” is the beloved fictional protagonist series of short stories by Sholem Aleichem, including the most well known of them, “Fiddler on the Roof.” The patriarch of a family of seven daughters, “Reb Tevyeh” is a pious, hard-working dairyman from the Ukranian village of Anatevka (or Boyberik, in the original written story).

As the endearing Tevyeh narrates the tales of his family life, he tells a story of his struggles and joys, disappointments and celebrations. He relates his difficulties of making a parnassah and maintaining shalom bayis, the stress of finding shidduchim for his children, and the ever-present threat of antisemitism—which ultimately leads to the expulsion of his community from their beloved shtetl. But most significant perhaps is Tevyeh’s portrayal of tension and challenge in maintaining the mesorah, “tradition,” in the face of modernity and turbulent, changing times. The poignant monolog unfolds…

A fiddler on the roof… Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: tradition!

***

דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ־לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כּל־אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי׃

“Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me a terumah, an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering.” (Shemos, 25:2)

Our sedra details the construction of the Mishkan, describing the materials, the design and building process, of the sanctuary. The source of the materials is the contributions of each member of klal Yisrael.

Our sedra focuses attention on our responsibility to give of our resources and selves, and it honors the “minor” contributions of each individual. In his commentary on Navi, Professor Abraham J. Heschel points out how the abstract concept of justice is meaningless unless it is translated into the life of every citizen in the form of a personal obligation, a mitzvah. While philosophers like Plato and Aristotle pontificated about the value of fairness and the theoretical elements of a just society and definition of equality, the Torah demands action and achrayus, responsibility from, and for, individuals.

Tevyeh goes on to describe some of the “special types” of characters in “the circle” of their shtetl, including the matchmaker, shoemaker, and the rabbi, as well as “Nachum the Beggar.” Another short, poignant scene from the opening monolog is instructive.

Nachum, dressed in rags, is holding a pushkeh and calling out to passersby:

“Alms for the poor, alms for the poor….”

Reb Laizer hands the poor fellow a kopek.

“One kopek? But just last week you gave me two kopeks!”

“I had a bad week,” answers Reb Laizer.

“So, if you had a bad week,” counters Nachum, “why should I suffer?”

Our sedra introduces a term of dedication: “Take for Me a terumah.” This takes the idea of supporting the community and others and reframes it as a religious obligation—not just an act of charity, goodwill and service. We are instructed to make a contribution, ideally motivated by nedivas lev, but regardless, this contribution is to be “taken” from us as an expression of mitzvah, commandment. Every person is responsible to participate and give, even a little bit, regardless of their current circumstances: תִּקְחוּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִי, “Take for me a contribution…” Targum Onkelos translates this verse as follows:

וְיַפְרְשׁוּן קֳדָמַי אַפְרָשׁוּתָא: מִן כָּל גְּבַר דְּיִתְרְעֵי לִבֵּיהּ, תִּסְּבוּן יָת אַפְרָשׁוּתִי.

(Speak with the Children of Israel), that they set apart before Me a separated portion: from every man who is willing in his heart you shall receive that which is set apart.

The Pe’er Yisrael of Bohush, Rebbe Yisrael Shalom Yosef (a scion of the Rhizner dynasty), provides an expansive interpretation and insight on this Targum. In obliging us to “set apart” our money and be “separated” from it, Torah calls upon us to consider the role of materialism in our lives and the transient nature of this world. In light of our parsha’s emphasis on precious materials—gold, copper, silver, animal skins, wood, olive oil, spices and gems—we are invited to contemplate the hefresh, the “separation” or difference between what is temporal and what is eternal. We are also drawn to investigate the delicate balance we need to maintain between our physical lives and our spiritual lives.

***

The walls of the Mishkan were surrounded by an enclosure of linen hangings, supported by wooden posts and reinforced by יתדות, stakes made of copper (27:19). Rashi notes that the curtains and hangings for the tent and courtyard were tied with cords all around them at the bases of these stakes, כדי שלא תהא הרוח מגביהתן, “so that the wind would not lift them up.” Rebbe Yaakov Yitzchak, the Divrei Binah of Biala, tells us that these copper pegs serve as a reminder that we must tether ourselves at our foundations when the winds of change blow. Just like the curtains fastened securely with pegs, we need to remain tied to our heritage and holy way of life.

As Tevyeh muses, “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka we have traditions for everything… how to eat, how to sleep, even how to wear clothes… Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

May we always remember who we are and have the desire and ability to do what the Ribbono shel Olam expects of us. May we have many kopeks in our pockets and may we always be ready and willing to have them “separated” from us!


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpia of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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