Editor's note: The following four articles were written for Parabola by my son, Joshua Boettiger, who is rabbi of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, Oregon. I include them on Reckonings with pleasure, admiration and pride.
Published in Parabola
Summer 2011 issue
My friend Bene is one of the great gift-givers – not only because of what he brings as a gift when he comes to visit, but because of how he gives it. He smiles broadly, puts his hand on your shoulder, and presents his offering with the other hand: a perfectly ripe mango, a Bucky Dent rookie card, a Japanese chisel. He’ll be hours late sometimes, because, one suspects, he is looking around for the right gift to bring.
We human beings have an innate desire to be given gifts that we feel reflect who we are. Sometimes we ask for a specific gift, and what we had requested is given. Other times, we want our need to be intuited, to receive a gift that feels reflective of who we are, or who we might be. Both models are ultimately about being seen by another, and about how we see ourselves. There is a thrill when we receive the right gift and that is the thrill of being seen.
We might associate these gift-giving models with different developmental stages. For young children, perhaps it is more important that their will be heeded, that a parent give them what they have asked for. We imagine a greater maturity would enable one to risk being given something unknown. And yet we find ourselves in relationships where we desperately want our beloved to see us in the right way, to anticipate our needs without our asking. We think it crass to make a list as a child might, and to name requests outright. Often, we don’t know how to ask. “If you loved me,” we think, “you’d know what I really want.”
The book of Exodus illustrates these two models of gift-giving. The first, and more famous, is the gift of Torah, which appears to be the latter model: a gift God gives the Israelites that they didn’t ask for. Either God sees the people more deeply than they see themselves and gives them something they never dreamed of asking for, or God sees what God wants for the people, rather than what they want for themselves. The people are alternately thrilled and terrified by this gift, running forward towards the mountain to receive it, and then retreating just as quickly. Is this reaction because of the inherent difficulty of receiving, or is it a mixed reaction to the way the gift itself is being offered?
The tradition is split about this. On one hand, there’s a well-known midrash that imagines God holding a mountain over the Israelites’ heads, essentially saying, accept this gift, or accept the mountain crashing down on you. That is hardly a fair choice, and the idea here is that the Torah was hardly what we would traditionally think of as a gift. On the other hand, the Torah records the people, when told that the gift of Torah was forthcoming, responding with brazen and beautiful faith, “Na’aseh v’nishmah,” meaning, “We will do and we will hear.” The tradition interprets this as the people saying, “We will do [whatever this gift requires of us]. Now what does it require?” Essentially they are saying to God, we will trust your seeing of us and we will receive this gift fully – even before we know what it is. From the beginning, the Israelites don’t know quite how to receive this gift. And we are still figuring this out today, alternately rushing to the mountain and retreating back again.
One finds the next model of gift giving soon after the account of the giving of the Torah in Exodus. Here, it is the people who give God a gift, but it is a gift that God has asked for – and it is spelled out by God in painstaking detail. God asks the people to build a mishkan, a sanctuary, so that God will be able to dwell in their midst. God gives detailed instructions about just how many bars of gold, dolphin skins, acacia wood, crimson yarn, and so on, to use in constructing this ark. The details can seem cumbersome and overbearing. One can imagine the Israelites wanting to say, “Let us express our love for you creatively; let us build you a sanctuary that we feel reflects you. Let us put some of ourselves into this gift. Trust us.” And yet the text says that the people’s hearts moved them and they threw themselves behind the task enthusiastically. Miraculously, the possessions of the Hebrew refugees fit perfectly into God’s blueprint. The end result of the building of the mishkan was, remarkably, relationship. God dwelled in their midst. Tradition teaches that the years in the desert, despite seeming at times like torturous wandering, were also years of spellbinding intimacy.
The detailed nature of God’s request for the mishkan always irritated me; that is, I saw it as a lesser form of gift-giving, subservient to the creative, risky model we see with the giving of the Torah. This changed when, early on in our relationship, I heard my wife give a teaching that talked about the mishkan model as the more mature one. That love – and the relationship between God and the Israelites in the desert is nothing if not a love story – is being able to ask for what you need. And a true gift is when someone asks for something specific and is given just that.
One thinks of the Bob Dylan song, “Boots of Spanish Leather.” In it, the narrator’s lover is leaving on a long trip and she asks him if there is something she can bring back. She is told over and over in the succeeding verses just to come home “unspoiled,” just to simply bring herself back – that this will be gift enough. And this is how we always respond, with imagined couth, “Oh, there’s nothing I need. Just come.” Deep down we might hope that a suitable gift would be found, one that reflects us truly, but we lack the language or the courage to ask. And yet she persists – are you sure there is nothing I can bring back? At the end of the song, when it is clear that she is not returning to her lover – “I don’t know when I’ll be comin’ back again / It depends on how I’m feeling” – he is finally able to ask for a specific gift, too late, “And yes, there is something you can bring back to me – Spanish boots of Spanish leather.” Perhaps if we read further into the song, we might surmise that it is the narrator’s refusal to ask for something specific that drives her away in the end. She wants to be able to give him what he needs and is frustrated that he doesn’t know how to ask for it.
When we name what we want and what our needs are, we are making ourselves vulnerable. Asking for just what we want is daring, because we might not receive it. In the mishkan model, God is able to be vulnerable and to ask for just what God needs. In the Torah model, the people are not allowed to ask for what they want, and are not able to be vulnerable. And yet maybe it is not that simple. Is there a way we can save the paradigm of how the Torah is given? In the Biblical account, the gift of Torah comes first and perhaps this is a clue.
What the people and God learn in the giving/receiving of the Torah is that life itself is full of these kind of “gifts” – offerings we didn’t ask for but that are given to us for some mysterious reason that may not be clear to us at first, or ever, and we need ultimately, to learn how to receive them. There is no choice with these “gifts.” Often, they change who we are and it involves tremendous work to learn how to make them our own. A birth, a death, an illness, a powerful transmission that comes out of nowhere and that we are forced – as if a mountain was held over our heads – to receive. What makes this receiving possible is trust; trust that the relationship itself - between God and us - is the most important thing, and the content of the gift is secondary. It is from this place that the Israelites say, before they know what the gift even is - we will receive it. The struggle over learning to see what has been given as a gift will continue. When we feel there is enough trust, that we are at home in the world enough, at home with God, then we are emboldened to ask for what we need, to make ourselves vulnerable. It is after the Torah is given that God is able to ask that the sanctuary be built. It is after the sanctuary is built, that God is able to dwell with the people, that there is true relationship.
There are gifts we have asked for and that are given to us (or not), and gifts that descend upon us and stretch us to receive. And sometimes someone comes to our door with just the right piece of fruit or baseball card. All reflect our core desire to see and be seen. Ultimately, with the Torah or the mishkan, the true gift is closeness.