Thursday, February 24, 2011

PROCRASTINATION: PARASHAT VA-YAKHEL 5771/2011


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT VA-YAKHEL:  2011/5771

PROCRASTINATION



And the Princes [ha-nesi’im] brought the onyx stones, and the stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate. (Ex. 35:27)

The Hebrew word nesi’im is written defectively.  The letter yud, which is a characteristic of the Hebrew masculine plural, is omitted.  For Rashi, the omission is significant.  It is not merely a scribal peculiarity. Rather, it hints at an act of omission on the part of the Princes, indicating an aspect of spiritual dereliction by the tribal leaders.   What was that dereliction?  What was the wrongdoing of which they were guilty?  Why was it serious enough to be hinted at in the Torah? Citing Rabbi Natan, Rashi makes the following suggestion:

 What insight led the Princes to initiate the voluntary contributions for the construction of the altar?   In the case of  [contributions required for] the sanctuary they were not the first to make voluntary contributions!   Surely their reasoning at that time must have been: “ let the community masses [first] contribute whatever they contribute and we shall then make up for any shortfall in their contributions.”  But, when the members of the community had reached their goal in entirety, the Princes must have thought: “ What is there left for us to do?”  [Accordingly], “they brought the onyx stones and the stones to be set for the ephod and for the breastplate].”   This is why they made the first contributions for the construction of the altar.   It was because they had been initially neglectful [hitatzlu]  [in the sanctuary project] that a letter was omitted from their names, and the word ha nesi’im was written defectively, without the customary letter yud. 

In answering his question about the missing yud, Rashi essentially makes the following points:

1.    The princely gift of precious stones for the ephod and breastplate is reported after the entire campaign for the sanctuary materials was concluded.
2.    The Princes should not have waited so long to make their contribution.
3.    Their tardiness is memorialized in the defectively written word, indicating that slothfulness was a character defect.
4.    The Princes learned their lesson.  In the construction of the altar they were the first to come forward, refusing to stand back and wait for others to expend the initial effort.


However, Rashi’s solution to the puzzle of the missing yud raises bigger questions than it answers. What was wrong with the Princes’ motivation?  Their attitude was openhearted and open-ended commitment.  They were prepared to make up the shortfall in contributions, no matter how large. “Let the masses contribute whatever they contribute and we shall cover whatever is still required”. By no stretch of the imagination does this reasoning reflect a slothful attitude.  The nature of the Princes’ contribution confirms their sincere commitment and generosity.  The precious stones they provided were not only expensive, but also the most crucial component of the breastplate, transforming an article of clothing into an instrument for divine oracles.  The importance of their gift is a reflection of anything but a character defect.  Why should they be punished for doing something so good?  Was this a rabbinic example of the truth of the popular adage that no good deed goes unpunished?

According to the author of Menachem Zion, Rashi’s citation of Rabbi Natan’s dictum was to communicate an entirely different but extremely important teaching:  “Ein machmitzim et ha-mitzvot, ela im ba le-yadekha, aseh otah miyad” [Do not put off the performance of mitzvot.  On the contrary, should the opportunity to perform a mitzvah present itself to you, you should do it at once.”] (Mekhilta Bo: 12). Immediate, spontaneous performance of a mitzvah is preferable to a more carefully considered and thus more perfect performance that is delayed.

The sages illustrate the virtue of non-procrastination in a remarkable talmudic passage.  The final chapter of tractate Sanhedrin contains a list of kings and commoners who were considered to be unworthy of immortal life.  Who were the authors of this list of rogues?  They were the distinguished members of the epoch-making Great Assembly of the Sages, which Ezra the Scribe established. It remained in session for about a century, establishing the fundamental structures and spiritual ideals of what was to become rabbinic Judaism. The majority of its members voted to include King Solomon in their list of the spiritually ostracized, presumably because of he excesses of which he was guilty. He had, after all, contravened the biblical law of kings by taking so many wives, and amassing so many horses The ghost of King David appeared to plead for his disgraced son, but the sages were unmoved by this terrifying intrusion from beyond the grave. Fire from heaven entered the assembly hall, its flames licking the very benches on which the sages were sitting. But they chose to pay no heed even to this display of divine vexation at their decision. Ultimately, the echo of the divine voice [bat kol] resounded through the assembly hall reciting from the 22nd chapter of the Book of Proverbs: “Have you beheld a man who goes about his business without procrastinating [mahir bimelakhto]? He shall stand firmly in the presence of kings. He shall not be forever fixed in the presence of rogues.” Let him who hastened to build My House before he built his own house forever stand in the presence of [worthy] kings. (B.T. Sanhedrin 104b).

This aggadic passage is an astonishing instance of the rabbinic imagination.  Arguably the most important convocation of rabbis in the history of the Jewish tradition is portrayed as impertinently ignoring several awesome supernatural signs of God’s displeasure at their inclusion of Solomon in the ranks of the truly despicable. They are not moved by the ghostly appearance of King David or by the heavenly fire sent to frighten them into compliance. Only one argument moves them to exonerate the wayward king—his alacrity in building the holy Temple, his refusal to satisfy his personal ambitions by procrastinating in building the House of God. In virtue of his being a “man who goes about his business without procrastinating [mahir bimelakhto],” Solomon is saved from the horrible fate he might otherwise have suffered. 

The sages’ teaching about the importance of not procrastinating applies to many areas of our lives. Procrastination is often a negative consequence of perfectionism. Students frequently miss deadlines for submitting term papers because they obsess about getting every detail, sometimes even every phrase, perfect. Their obsession about producing the perfect paper leads to endless rewriting and frustration—and, ultimately, failure to submit their work on time. 

We rationalize our not setting aside regular times for Torah study on the basis of not having enough discretionary time. We persuade ourselves that short study sessions cannot produce real learning. Our study will be more perfect at some future time when, for example, we no longer have to work full-time.  But this rarely happens. Our procrastinating has doomed our hopes of ever learning.

For the same reason, we put off participating in a regular daily minyan. The davening is too fast. Our private communion with God is more perfect anyway. And our other commitments are too time consuming to allow us the luxury of going to shul, finding parking, and so forth. So, we put it off to a later, less busy and stressful time in our lives.

 We know that regular exercise is vital for maintaining good health, and that health maintenance is a divine imperative (ve-nishmartem me’od), but busyness and stress are our excuses for procrastination. There is scarcely any area of our private lives to which the pitfalls of procrastination do not apply. Our sages urge punctuality rather than perfection, performance rather than procrastination.

The message of non-procrastination is particularly urgent on the collective level. The Arab world is in flames. Iran is in the ascendant. The peace with Egypt is precarious. The mesmerizing Islamist cleric, Yusuf al Qaradawi, back in Egypt after 30 years of exile, has addressed ten million Egyptians, both declaring his tolerant pluralism and simultaneously justifying suicide bombings within Israel and calling for open borders with Gaza. The contradiction is not lost on Israelis, who foresee increased terror from Hamas-especially following the escape from an Egyptian prison of its senior military commander, Ayman Nofal, who has declared: “Now we are preparing for the next battle.” Jordan, too, is vulnerable, and its peace with Israel at risk. There has been only one Security Council condemnation of one Arab tyrant, and silence on all the others who kill innocents in the streets. Yet in the midst of the inferno, the UN finds time to label Jewish housing in Jerusalem a threat to peace-with the USA joining the chorus of the blamers.

 If ever there were a time for Jewish activism, it is now. We each   have to remind our representatives in Washington of our concern for the safety of Israel. We have to give material support to AIPAC and NORPAC. Any Jew who procrastinates now is complicit in potential tragedy. “Ein machmitzim et ha-mitzvot, ela im ba le-yadekha, aseh otah miyad” [Do not put off the performance of mitzvot.  On the contrary, should the opportunity to perform a mitzvah present itself to you, you should do it at once.”]




Monday, February 14, 2011

ILLUSIONS OF DISEMPOWERMENT: PARASHAT KI TISSA 5771/2011


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT KI TISSA:  2011/5771

ILLUSIONS OF DISEMPOWERMENT


And the Lord spoke unto Moses: ‘Go. Get down, for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has dealt corruptly. They have turned aside quickly from the path that I have commanded. They have made for themselves a molten calf, and have bowed down to it and offered sacrifices unto it. And they said: This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. (Ex. 32:7-9). 

At first blush, the collective apostasy of the Children of Israel is almost incomprehensible. Just forty days before this they had experienced the unprecedented collective epiphany of the revelation at Sinai. Never before had some three million people had a shared direct encounter with God and heard the divine utterance.  Ordinary sensory perceptions transformed as they “saw the thunder and heard the lightning.” (Ex. 20:15). Even the natural became supernatural. The effect was an extraordinary expression of collective commitment.  And the entire nation answered in a single voice, and said: All the words which the Lord has spoken we shall do.” (Ex. 24: 3). And yet, a mere forty days later, while Moses tarried on the mountain with God, unmindful of their extraordinary experience, and unconcerned by the commitment they had made to God, they built a calf of gold and made their graven image the object of their faith. How can we understand this astonishing turn of events?

Perhaps the roots of their apostasy are to be found in the immediate aftermath of the revelatory experience. For three days before the booming tones of the divine utterances forever changed the course of western civilization, the masses had been restrained on pain of death from ascending the mountain. Apparently they had needed to be restrained because their natural impulse was to ascend the mount and encounter the Divine.

But following their experience of the quaking mountain, the thunder, lightening, and increasingly powerful tones of the ram’s horn—and the divine utterances, Moses invited them to ascend the mountain with him: “And they said to Moses: You speak to us and we shall listen, but do not let God speak with us lest we perish. And Moses said to the people: Do not be afraid, for God came in order to test you, so that awe of him should be on your faces and in order that you should not sin. And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.” (Ex.20: 16-18)

These verses suggest three possible explanations, all interconnected, for the rapid atrophy of the transformative effects of the epiphany at Sinai.

The first was the Israelites’ perception of the thick darkness that enveloped the divine Presence. This was in stark contrast to Moses’ perception of the same phenomenon. “And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.” For the people, the arafel was a black, forbidding and impenetrable barrier to the Divine.. It became an obstacle they were incapable of transcending, and so they remained stuck where they were—afar off.

For Moses, on the other hand, the perception of the arafel as an impenetrable barrier was an optical illusion. He knew that when one enters the darkest bank of clouds they simply lose their substantial quality and melt away. From a distance they appear so substantial that one cannot penetrate them, but as one gets nearer one experiences them as essentially transient and ephemeral. Therefore, whereas “the people stood afar off, … Moses drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.” The obstacles to the Divine were illusory..

Too many of us are stuck in our illusions. We perceive the path to our successful completion of important tasks as blocked by insurmountable barriers. Like the ancient Israelites, we remain far removed from the destinations of our dreams.

I have often seen this in my clinical practice. Sometimes repeated failures have disempowered and depressed my clients. They have learned to despair of ever being successful. Their frequent defeats have convinced them that the barriers to their acquiring a sense of self-worth are impenetrable. As a result, they disengage from life and its challenges, and isolate themselves emotionally, standing afar off.

The losses of people with severe mental disorders are frighteningly real. They have lost not only their dreams, their sense of reality and, often, their friends as well, but also the people they themselves once were. It is easy for them to surrender to their cruel fate. But attitudes can either reinforce despair or help the healing process.

I once shared with a very psychiatrically disabled patient the story of the Israelites who were paralyzed by their misperception of the ephemeral banks of cloud. “Are you telling me that I can do what Moses did, and challenge my belief that I can never climb the mountain?” he asked. “Why don’t we test it,” I answered, “and try to get through just one ‘impassable’ barrier at a time?” Very slowly but surely one dark cloud after the other began to dissipate and melt away. True, the underlying illness remained, and medication treatment was still needed. True, the losses were real and also remained. But there was a gradual sense of optimism as small successes suggested that the losses were not absolute, and that the future was not utterly hopeless. Life could still be meaningful and personal happiness still possible.

Tragically, the ancient Israelites were not ready to risk learning this lesson, and the result was the very despair they sought to avoid.

The second reason for the unanticipated collective apostasy was the Israelites’ preference for encountering God vicariously, indirectly: “And they said to Moses: You speak to us and we shall listen, but do not let God speak with us lest we perish.” They were satisfied to have Moses as their intermediary. When their intermediary disappeared, so did the memory of their recent commitment.

Is this really surprising? The attempt to encounter God at second hand is as futile as hoping to see clearly with prescription lenses made for completely different eyes, and as unsatisfying as kissing one’s beloved through a thick cloth. Direct, unmediated I-thou relationships are alone authentic and fulfilling. Without being open to a personal I-Thou encounter with God, we cannot expect to reap the rewards of faith, or to remain committed to the relationship. Relationships at second hand are inauthentic and transient.

The third reason for the astonishing sin of the golden calf so soon after Sinai was a radical misunderstanding of the nature of the Divine. God is often pictured as dark, punishing and forbidding, “visiting [poked] the sins of the fathers on their children and children’s children, unto the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” (Ex. 34:7). Generations have been taught that the Hebrew verb poked means “visiting” or “punishing.”  It does not.  Classical commentators like Ramban [Nachmanides] focus on the etymological connection between the words poked and pikadon [bank deposit]. God does not exact immediate retribution for transgressions. The iniquities are, as it were, deposited in a multi-year account in the hope that the children and grandchildren of the transgressor will redeem their wayward ancestor through their own meritorious behavior.

This is a far cry from the terrifying image of a punishing deity enveloped in clouds of darkness. The terror evoked by an imagined personal encounter with God may actually be a projection either of our own insecurity, or/and the jaundiced understanding of the Divine attributes that we have been taught.  On the contrary, the verse that precedes the poked passage (Ex. 34:7) presents God as merciful, loving, long suffering, utterly forgiving, and eminently approachable and present to those who seek to transcend imagined barriers to Him. It is not fortuitous that this passage is read on fast days, which are periods of contrition, when we need assurance that God is close to those who call on Him. This was the faith of the Prince of the prophets who  “ drew near to the thick darkness [arafel] where God was.”

These are the three lessons we may derive from the incident of the golden calf: The obstacles to our happiness and personal growth are often illusions that keep us paralyzed; we can no more have an authentic second hand relationship with God than we can with a significant human life partner; the inapproachability of God is the result of the distorted concept we are so frequently taught by those who try to frighten us to obedience. Knowing that God loves us and wants us to ascend His Mountain is an invitation to shatter the illusions of inadequacy, guilt and disempowerment that keep us from connecting directly with Him.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

EVENTS IN EGYPT: A TORAH PERSPECTIVE PARASHAT TETZAVEH 5771/2011


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT TETZAVEH:  2011/5771

EVENTS IN EGYPT: A TORAH PERSPECTIVE

And I shall sanctify the tent of meeting and the altar: Aaron and his sons shall I sanctify to serve me as priests.  And I shall dwell in the midst of the children of Israel, and I shall be their God. (Ex.29: 44-45).

The Torah reading of this week is a continuation of last week’s reading. Parashat Terumah was dedicated to the construction of the portable sanctuary and its contents. This week’s reading focuses on the priests who would serve in the completed structure, the fashioning of their vestments, their ritual consecration, and their emoluments. It concludes with a summary of the daily sacrifices and instructions for construction of the altar of incense. This concludes the mandate for the great building project of the newly liberated Israelite people.

As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has pointed out, the erection of the sanctuary in the wilderness is the second communal building project recorded in the Torah. The first was the infamous Tower of Babel:

And the whole earth was of one language and a single speech (devarim achadim)… And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and tower with its top in heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth.” (Gen. 11:1; 4).

There are striking differences between the two construction projects. The first relates to the goals of the conceivers of the projects. The purpose of the portable sanctuary is: “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst.” (Ex. 25:8). The beneficiary of the construction is not the One who conceived it. The construction of the tower of Babel was to benefit those who conceived the project: “and let us make a name for ourselves.” It was motivated by ego and grandiosity.

The second major difference between the two projects is the attitude of the planners to the people whose lives would be affected by their structures. Our text describes God’s attitude to the Israelite worshippers in the sanctuary:  “And I shall dwell in the midst of the children of Israel.”  As the sages have emphasized, the parallel verse is: “And they shall make me a sanctuary, and I shall dwell in their midst” (Ex. 25:8), but not in its [the sanctuary’s] midst. Its purpose was the spiritual elevation and transformation of the users of the structure, rather than of any perceived need of its divine planner for a home on earth. It was people focused rather than authoritarian and self-serving.

This contrasts radically with the vision of the planners of the tower of Babel. Commentators have pointed out the subtext of the verse: “And the whole earth was of one language and a single speech (devarim achadim].”  There was neither freedom of thought nor expression. The structure was meant to preserve the groupthink of the masses and the ideology of the authorities. There was to be neither freedom of thought nor movement: “ lest we be scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth”.  Their project was exclusively dedicated to the preservation of the existing social and political structures, rather than on the needs of the people. Indeed, the needs of the people were utterly irrelevant.

This notion is movingly articulated in the Midrash: “Should a construction worker fall to his death, nobody would show concern. But should a single building block fall [from high in the tower], they would sit and weep, saying ‘Woe is us. When will another large block be hoisted up in its place?’” (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 24:39). The structure mattered, not the people.

The contrast between the two worldviews is reflected in many areas of human activity. It certainly applies to religious structures. In all too many societies the preservation of the structure is far more important than the well-being and happiness of the people it pretends to serve.

To my deep shame, this attitude accounts for the cruelty of rabbis who undo the conversions and religious divorces performed by other rabbis of whom they disapprove. They are unconcerned by their disenfranchising of generations of Jews and of the unutterable pain they cause. The “House” matters infinitely more than those who dwell in it.

This ideology is the visible face of Islam. Islamists have increasingly become the virtually unopposed leaders of the international Muslim community—and the ugliest contemporary practitioners of human sacrifice. To preserve their ideological structures, they send human bombers to be killed and to kill other human beings, both Muslim and non-Muslim. They stone people who dare to think outside the ideological box and have the gall to choose another faith.

There is an exquisite aggadah on this week’s Torah reading. Exodus 25: 20 presents the cherubim [cherubs] atop the ark in the sanctuary as facing each other. But Chronicles II 3:13, describing Solomon’s Temple, declares: “And they [the cherubim] stood on their feet, their faces to the House.” Attempting to resolve the contradiction, the sages said that when they faced one another, they were doing the will of God, but when they faced the House and were primarily concerned with the structure, they were not doing the divine will. (Bava Metzi’a 99a). The implication is obvious. There is no need for me to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

The contrasting building projects also characterize antithetical political structures. Democracy is premised on the interests and freedoms of the members of society. Structures serve people, rather than the converse. Government of the people is by the people for the people.

In authoritarian regimes, people serve the political structures, and can be sacrificed to ensure the endurance of those structures or to create alternative revolutionary structures. Such activist theorists of revolutionary political structures,  as Herbert Marcuse, have been open to actually calculating the acceptable number of citizen lives to be thus sacrificed.

Anything that threatens the continued stability of the structure is off limits—political dissent, effective political opposition, a free press, and so on. Secret police, special militias and armed thugs sow fear and control the masses. Opposition parties are banned, elections (when they are held) are rigged, and opponents of the regime routinely imprisoned, tortured and even murdered in the interests of preserving the “House.”

Current events in Egypt highlight the tension between the conflicting ideals. Hosni Mubarak has ruled the country with an iron fist for thirty years, using all the strategies just delineated. Opposition has been silenced and the needs and freedoms of the population ignored in the interests of the stability of the regime. The regime change demanded by protesting masses is articulated not merely as a change of leaders, but as a systemic change from an authoritarian to a democratic vision of the society. The rabbinical comment about the cherubim seems applicable.  The leaders face the House, and preserve the existing order at all costs.  They are not open to one another, to the expressed needs of their people.

The “talking heads” in the democracies appear to have concluded that Egypt is about to be refashioned in their own image. Identifying with the protesting masses, they have declared: “We are all Egyptians.” Are they correct? Does the overthrow of hated regimes always presage a systemic shift from oppression to freedom?  Lenin and Stalin substituted communist repression for imperial dictatorship. The repressive Muslim theocracy of the Ayatollah and his Revolutionary Guard replaced the regime of the hated Shah of Iran. Oppression by one authoritarian system can follow repression by another.

What do the Egyptian people really want? Nobody knows for sure, but the polls are disquieting.  Fifty nine percent of Egyptians want democracy and 95 percent want Islam to play a large part in politics. (As Egypt is approximately 5 percent Christian, this means that 100 percent of Muslims want Islam to play a large part in politics.) Eighty four percent, for example, believe that apostates should face the death penalty for exercising their freedom to choose how to worship. This means overwhelming support for the murder of individuals in order to maintain the religious structure of the nation.

The outlook is ominous for the State of Israel. Hamas was elected by a majority and has imposed radical Islamism on the populace, rejecting the right of Israel to exist, and rocketing its citizens.  Hamas is the Palestinian incarnation of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Will the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood honor the peace treaty with Israel? As an outlawed party they were rejectionist. Will they really change their religious convictions and policies when they come to wield real political power?

You and I are the only unconditional guardians of Israel. We are the cherubim who please our Maker when we face one another and defend one another. Whatever our views are of Israel’s government (the only true democracy in the region), our fate is inseparably bound up with the fate of our Israeli brethren—and we shall increasingly be summoned to their support.



Thursday, February 3, 2011

UNACCEPTABLE GIFTS: PARASHAT TERUMAH 5771/2011


WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT TERUMAH:  2011/5771

UNACCEPTABLE GIFTS

And the Lord spoke onto Moses saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel that they may take for me an offering; of every man whose heart inspires him to be generous shall you take my offering. (Ex. 25:1-2).

This text introduces most of the remainder of the Book of Exodus, which is devoted to the contributions for, the design of, and the construction of the portable sanctuary, and of its furnishings and the attire of those who served in it. 

The sanctuary narrative begins with a call to the people of Israel to make voluntary gifts for the construction of the sanctuary.  As we subsequently learn, the appeal was extraordinarily successful.  More was given than was required.

The source of the gifts is not clearly defined in the Torah.  However the Mishnah delineates five categories of unacceptable contributors:

Five [classes of people] shall not contribute, and if they have contributed, their contributions are not [to be considered a legitimate] contribution—ha-cheresh[the deaf mute], ve ha-shoteh [the psychiatrically disabled], ve-ha-katan [the minor], ve ha-torem et she-eino shelo [one who has contributed something that does not belong to one], and a ha-nokhri ]gentile] who has contributed something owned by a Jew, even with permission. (Terumot 1:1). 

Although our text applies specifically to contributions for the portable sanctuary, the sages broadened its scope to include valid contributions to the priest.  The Jerusalem Talmud explains the technical reasons for the Mishnah’s exclusion of the five classes of individual:  “Rabbi Shemu’el Bar Nachman understood all these excluded classes from the implications of the Biblical text (Ex 25:1-3):  ‘Speak onto the children of Israel that they may take for me an offering’.  This excludes a worshiper of idols.  Of every man’s’ this excludes a minor.     ‘Whose heart inspires him to be generous’.  This excludes the deaf mute and the psychiatrically disabled.  ‘And this is the offering which you shall take of them.’  This excludes one who contributes that which does not belong to one. (J.T. Terumah 1:1).

Clearly, according to Rabbi Shemu’el Bar Nachman, the various parts of the text imply who may and who may not legitimately make acceptable offerings.  The prohibited classes are simply excluded by gezerat ha –katuv [Divine decree in the Torah] .

Although the Torah does not give the reasons for its decree, the exclusion of four of the five classes makes sense.  A gift must be conscious and rational if it is to be considered motivated by a heart inspired by generosity.

Before the advent of communication strategies such as sign language and lip reading, the cheresh [deaf mute] lived in a state of cognitive deprivation and isolation, and was considered incapable of making personal and considered decisions.  The gifts of  a cheresh could thus not be regarded as authentic free will offerings.

The shoteh [psychiatrically disabled] frequently lived in a world of unreality, motivated by paranoia, hallucinations and delusions.  During such states of cognitive confusion, the gifts of the shoteh could not really be offered consciously and responsibly.

Minors [ketanim] were excluded because they were deemed to be insufficiently mature and financially dependent on others to make offerings of their own.  They had not yet learned to appreciate the value of money and possessions, and could be easily manipulated to dissipate what they did own.

The exclusion of gifts that did not belong to the donor [she-eino shelo] requires no explanation.   Such gifts were regarded as abominations rather than offerings.  The sanctuary would be desecrated were it to accept unlawfully acquired contributions.

However, if four of the Mishnah’s excluded categories can be rationally understood, the fifth appears to make no sense.   An idolater’s contribution is welcome.  Yet the Mishnah excludes the gifts of Jewish property made by an idolater, even with the permission of the Jewish owner. This seems to make no sense. How can we  explain this part of the Mishnah? 

The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg resolved the difficulty by examining the excluded classes by idealistic spiritual criteria rather than by merely technical considerations. 

The Hebrew word for “offering” is terumah, from the root le-harim, [to elevate], as in the verse, ‘And you shall lift up [ve-harimotem] from it the offering of the Lord.”(Num. 18:26)  Understood in this way, the Mishnah excludes five classes of individual who are incapable of achieving spiritual elevation. 

The person who is incapable of communication [cheresh] is excluded because true spirituality is attained in association with other--either on the level of intimacy achieved in the reciprocal relationship of two people in a relationship of love, or as a participant in the endeavors of a caring community. Both require communication skills.

One of the symptoms used by the Talmud to identify a shoteh [psychiatrically disabled person] is ha-lan be-vet ha-kevarot [one who frequents a cemetery].  Metaphorically, this defines a person whose religious observance is limited to rituals for the dead, shivah, yahrzeit, yizkor and Kaddish, or who is fixated on death.  

The katan [minor], in a metaphorical sense, is a person who believes that religion is a necessary element of the educational process of young children only.  It is not necessary for the day-to-day lives of mature, busy adults. They are too involved with such serious preoccupations making a living to waste time on religious practice.  They send their children to synagogue, religious schools, and even
Day Schools, unaware of the incongruity of what their children learn there with how the family lives at home.

 The exclusion of ha- torem et she-eino shelo [one who gives charity from ill gotten gains] requires no further elaboration.  Spiritual growth in the absence of   ethical behavior is a contradiction in terms. Moral practice and spiritual elevation are inseparable. 

The exclusion of a gentile, who gifts the sanctuary from the possessions of a Jew, albeit with permission, is particularly significant. A gentile’s gift from his own possessions is absolutely acceptable.  However, if he gives the impression of personal generosity when, in fact, his gift has cost him nothing personally, he is guilty of hypocrisy.  The Mishnah has effectively placed the hypocrite on a par with the thief. 

By excluding the gifts of these five classes of people, the sages imply a striking contrast between five spiritually inferior modes of being with five spiritually elevating ways of life.  Spiritual isolation and insensitivity are contrasted with unselfish reciprocal, sensitive and participatory spiritual practice.  Spirituality that centers on death, and glorifies it, is contrasted with life affirming spiritual aspirations.  Spiritual immaturity is contrasted with the mature spiritual practice of adults who aim for personal growth and transformation.  The cynical behavior of individuals who are punctilious in their practice of religious rituals and simultaneously immoral in their business practices and interpersonal relationships is contrasted with the life-style of individuals of personal integrity and uncompromising ethical standards.  Hypocrisy, the deliberate creation of a false impression of being different from who one really is, contrasts with the ideal of sincerity as the most important precondition for authentic spirituality.

In the last analysis, the sages of the Mishnah remind us that the gifts of people whose conduct and motivations are unacceptable are not welcome in God’s Holy House.