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The greatest gift
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The greatest gift

Tetzaveh | Exodus 27:20-30:10

Sometimes lessons are learned in the most unusual places. 

I was in the White House during George W. Bush’s presidency as part of a delegation of rabbis who had come to thank him for expediting emergency funds for religious parochial schools. We were also there to inform the president of some of the political concerns of the American-Jewish community.

President Bush is a devoutly religious man, so one group member felt it was appropriate to recite a prayer, explaining that it was one traditionally reserved for kings and heads of state.

The president bowed his head as my colleague said: “Blessed art Thou, Hashem, our Lord and Master of the universe, who has granted some of His glory to a creature of flesh and blood.” 

The president responded, “Amen,” lifted his head, and said, “I thank you for those sacred words, rabbi — but I noticed you blessed the Almighty. You didn’t bless me! Don’t you think I could use a blessing or two?”

Most of those present laughed. One rabbi swiftly recited an alternate prayer, one recited long ago in Russia for the royal family — with “George W. Bush” substituted for “Czar Alexander II.”

For a moment, I was lost in thought, reflecting upon the theological significance of the president’s keen insight. The meeting brought me out of myself, but later, I consulted a verse near the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion.

It reads: “And they shall know that I am the Lord their God who has taken them from the land of Egypt so that I might abide among them.” (Exodus 29:46) Rashi renders that last phrase: “…in order for Me to abide among them.” Two major medieval commentators, Ramban and Rabbeinu Bahya, expand upon Rashi’s translation, asserting that the verse conveys an astonishing message, one that on first blush sounds like nothing short of heresy. They understand that the Almighty proclaimed that He took the nation of Israel out of slavery not letzorech hediot, for the sake of ordinary humans, but rather letzorech gavoha, for the need of the Most High.

We may well ask: “Does the Almighty need man? Does the Master of the Universe have selfish motives for His divine actions? Did He free Israel from bondage for His own satisfaction, and not for the sake of His people?”

These questions are also asked by one of the most sophisticated Jewish thinkers of the past generation, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broyda, dean of the Hebron Yeshiva in Jerusalem. The main argument of his answer, recorded in his Vesam Derech, is as follows:

A gift can be given in two ways: One is simple: “X” gives “Y” a precious object. But if “Y” is a person of great prestige and stature and accepts a gift from “X,” he has in effect given to “X.” Why? “X” is so honored that “Y” has deigned to accept his paltry gift that he feels as if he is the recipient. 

To illustrate: Our group at the White House had presented a token gift to the president. He received the ritual item and thanked us profusely. But we felt as if he gave us a far greater gift by accepting it from us with such sincere enthusiasm.

Rabbi Broyda argues that when we worship the Almighty, He accepts our gifts of worshipful acts as if He needs them for His own sake. But we feel that we have been the recipients!

Let us recognize that when the Almighty accepts our blessings, we receive His blessing, and that is, by far, the greatest gift of all. 

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