Between the Lines—Hanukkah

Weekly Midrash Learning with Rabbi Abigail Treu

Hanukkah usually falls in December, and on the very nights we burn our festive lights, our evenings are spent, checkbook in hand, doling out tzedakah for tax-year-end.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Yochanan Muffs, professor emeritus of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary—a renowned scholar and beloved professor—passed away (a podcast of his memorial service can be heard here). In deference to his passing, we pause this week from this column's usual attention to midrash hashavua' to remember him by way of a short passage from one of his best known works, Love and Joy:

We have seen from a wide range of midrashim, all dealing with gifts to the tabernacle, the crucial juristic significance of the inner will of the donors. Furthermore, we have seen that absence of inner joy, whether caused by outward coercion, by lack of inner conviction, or by the overzealousness that causes a man to donate more than he ought—thereby suffering rather than rejoicing in his gift giving, if not actually invalidating the gift—at least greatly depreciates its significance and value. (p. 171)

Gifts to the tabernacle were mandatory. Our ancestors did it because they had to in order to be counted as part of the community. Generations later, the giving of tzedakah to Jewish causes continues to be one way in which Jews "count themselves in" and express their commitment to the community. As such, it is not obvious that this giving should carry an emotional valence. One might give grudgingly and still count; one might wish one didn't have to give, or regret one's gift after the fact.

But is giving in order to be counted the only reason they gave? Didn't giving to the tabernacle, to God's Sanctuary, fulfill a deep spiritual need too? It is this that Muffs picks up. He teaches us that, in fact, the "inner will of the donors" matters, because giving is an opportunity for spiritual expression. If we only give because of "outward coercion" (which in our day we might read as social pressure) or if we give too much and are adversely affected by the lost income, then our gift does not count: the inner will of the donor carries "crucial juristic significance."

As we sit down to write those rushed end-of-year checks, sifting through the piles of mail from organizations that need our support to determine which ones merit our tzedakah this year, and as we grapple with how generous we can afford to be, I am struck with a crucial lack in Jewish liturgy. To my knowledge, there is no blessing to be recited when writing a check to charity. Rabbi Dov Elkins once advised in a sermon that we should write "thank you" in the memo field of the checks we write as a way of expressing the gratitude and joy we feel in giving tzedakah. To which I add, we might recite a prayer of thanksgiving too. And precisely because there is no formula in tradition to recite, we are each free to say it in our own words, in our own way. In this way, as we give tzedakah during the same time of year that our ancestors were rededicating the Temple and lighting those first Hanukkah lights, we can feel the joy that ought to drive our giving and do what we can to keep the foundational institutions of our communities filled with light.