Parashat Terumah 5780

Rabbi Janet Burden – 28 February 2020

A reminder that we all have gifts to give

With my retirement from the congregational rabbinate looming later this year, I have begun to reflect on my rabbinic practice over the last 18 years. Many of my memories are warm ones, evoking pride in my achievements and real pleasure in knowing that I was able, at least on occasions, to make a positive difference in the lives of others. For these opportunities and the joy they have brought me, I will always be grateful.

More enlightening, however, has been recalling the mistakes I have made, particularly the mistakes I have made over and over again. Recognising these has forced me to acknowledge how little my approach to congregational work has been shaped by my formal training and how much has been the product of earlier social and cultural conditioning.

Many of the people reading this will know that I was raised in the United States. America is the land of the ‘can do’ attitude. The upside of this approach to life is that Americans rarely wait around for ‘someone else’ to do a job that needs doing. We get on with it, whatever ‘it’ is. My father drilled that ‘can do’ attitude into my sister and me with pithy sayings such as “If you want to get something done, you’re better off doing it yourself”.

This social conditioning, combined with a strong desire to please, has led me to spend too many years doing a lot of things myself, even when to do so wasn’t the best use of my time. I would tell myself that I was ‘leading by example’ but really, I was taking the easy way out. It takes so much longer to inspire and recruit volunteers than it does to do most things yourself. Moreover, people are always so grateful when someone else takes responsibility for setting out the chairs, putting up the seasonal decorations, shopping for ritual foods and even cooking Shabbat meals. Ticks on the list and gold stars on the chart: another bit of our programming delivered, hooray….

This brings me to the downside of the ‘can do’ attitude. By its very nature, it tends to focus on concrete, short-term objectives rather than on more nebulous aims and utterly neglected processes. ‘Getting X done’ (whatever X might be) too often eclipses all other concerns, including what our higher purpose is in coming together as a Jewish community.

We recently read of Moses’s father-in-law, Yitro, rightly admonishing him for taking too much on himself. The elder man’s suggestion of creating hierarchies was a good one for adjudicating disputes, but the model isn’t right for working towards the somewhat amorphous aim of building a community. That task requires a more co-operative structure, in which every person’s unique gift, their t’rumah, can find its place in the bigger picture.

Let’s share ideas for new ways of combining our individual gifts as part of ‘Collaboratory’ at Biennial! I, for one, still have a lot to learn.

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