We each get to decide for ourselves what work we need to do this year: what we need to reflect on, who we yearn to be, how we might bring our actions into better alignment with our aspirations.
This week's Torah portion, Re'eh, concludes with a gem. Deuteronomy 16:16-17 recounts how the ancient Israelites were to appear before God three times a year for the pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, ending with the following instruction: "They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed, but each with their own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord your God has bestowed upon you."
In contrast to so many of the other sacrifices detailed in the Torah, this one isn't quantified at all; there's no list of exactly how many animals (or fruits, grains, etc.) a person has to bring in order for their festival sacrifice to qualify as a sacrifice. In honor of these pilgrimage festivals, people must simply show up and bring their gifts.
Rabbinic tradition notices this, and includes this special pilgrimage sacrifice -- called "ha-re'ayon" (the "appearance" offering) -- on a list of things that cannot be quantified. Mishnah Peah 1:1 is translated as follows (and you can click here to view the Hebrew text on Sefaria):
"These are the things that have no definite quantity: The corners [of the field]; first fruits; [the offerings brought] on appearing [for the three pilgrimage festivals]; the performance of righteous deeds; and the study of Torah. The following are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world while the principle remains for him in the world to come: Honoring one's father and mother; the performance of righteous deeds; and the making of peace between a person and his friend. And the study of Torah is equal to them all."
If the appearance offering can't be quantified, that means that there's no minimum... showing up with any amount of a gift would do! My colleague Rabbi Yonatan Cohen recently wrote about this rabbinic teaching: "It is extremely powerful (some might say, empowering) to realize that certain things don't require much at all in order to make an impact. Learning is learning, no matter the amount. Kindness is kindness no matter the amount. Making a sacrifice is still a sacrifice, no matter the amount. Giving is giving, no matter the amount. While we may sometimes get caught up in questioning whether we did enough of this or that, the Torah's response is clear. Just doing something, anything(!), is quite often all that's needed."
Of course, there's also no set maximum for any of these mitzvot. The fact that they aren't quantified teaches that the world will never be saturated with learning, or honoring, or kindness... there's always room for more. No human being will never reach a point where we've showed up too frequently with our gifts, or made too much peace between friends, or performed too many righteous deeds.
These ideas resonate deeply at Kavana, where we invite community members to become "partners" in our cooperative. Kavana partners make an intentional commitment to support the community and to build meaningful Jewish life and positive identity -- for themselves and for one another. As in the case of Deuteronomy's "appearance" offering, Kavana partners are requested to show up on a regular basis and to bring their own gifts to the table. (This can include financial donations, passions and interests, skills and volunteer time. As in the case of the re'ayon, there are no minimums and no maximums... all gifts are welcome!) If you are not yet a Kavana partner but are interested in learning more about what it means to become one, please click here for more information.
The idea of the re'ayon offering also applies to the process of teshuva we each engage in as we head into our High Holiday season. No matter how many times we've been through this cycle of change before, it is -- by definition -- impossible to have ever fully "arrived" at some final, perfected version of ourselves. There is always more work to be done, and no one else is able to set the bar for us or tell us exactly what we need to do to earn an "A." We each get to decide for ourselves what work we need to do this year: what we need to reflect on, who we yearn to be, how we might bring our actions into better alignment with our aspirations. We must each determine for ourselves what it means to show up with our gifts in hand. Where to begin, then? By reminding ourselves that there is no minimum requirement. It's great to start with a small act of tzedakah, with a little bit of peace-making, or by learning one new piece of Torah. Regardless of what we bring, we are invited to begin by showing up -- literally, just appearing -- with a willingness to engage in the process of teshuva by taking small steps in the right direction.
As each of us begins to tackle the real work of the season, Kavana is here to help, scaffolding a wealth of opportunities where you can appear, gifts in hand, to engage in Jewish life in ways that are meaningful to you. This week alone, that includes tonight's Singing Circle with Chava Mirel, tomorrow evening's Vote Forward letter-writing event, Friday night's Candle-Lighting and our Kabbalat Shabbat service with Traci Marx, and Saturday morning's Shabbat Morning Minyan. Really, you can't go wrong. Just pick a time to show up and bring whatever you have... it'll be just right!
Lastly, as we look ahead to the month of Elul -- the month of spiritual preparation before Rosh Hashanah -- Kavana is preparing multiple pathways to encourage all of us along in our individual practice of teshuva. Details for those plans are beginning to crystallize (see below). Here too, we know that there's always more work to be done -- more learning, more kindness, more gifts we might cultivate and bring. But starting on this path need not be hard... all we ask of you is to show up with what you already have in hand.
Looking forward to seeing you this week, during Elul, and into the future. Thanks for showing up and for sharing your gifts with the Kavana community!
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
The Torah is usually terse and concise, but this week's parasha, Chayei Sarah, centers around a long story that is anything but! All 67 verses of Genesis chapter 24 are devoted to a single narrative: the tale of Abraham sending his servant on a journey to find a wife for his son Isaac, and returning with Rebecca, a woman of great agency, strength and generosity.
We Jews know how to wait. That is, we deeply understand humanity's imperfections, and that the presence of injustice or cruelty in our world cannot undermine our steadfast focus on trying to achieve our vision of a more perfect, more just future. We have lots of historical experience to draw on, and much language for this kind of spiritual resilience. One line that's been swimming through my head this week is from the prayer "Ani Maamin": "v'af al pi she-yitmameah, im kol zeh achakeh lo." Translating loosely here (and transposing what we're waiting for from a messianic figure to a time characterized by messianic ideals), this means: despite the fact that it's taking a long time for the world to change in the ways we believe it should, still, we are undeterred; we will wait - and work - until we arrive at an era of peace and justice.
Yesterday was the second anniversary of the violent attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Its memory casts a long shadow for me, and this year, the anniversary feels like a powerful reminder of the very high stakes of next week’s election.