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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Amy Eilberg

On the Art and Practice of Generosity

Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) presents a perfect opportunity to think about the virtue and practice of generosity.

At the start of the parashah, God asks Moshe to engage the people in a massive communal campaign to provide all the materials needed to create the desert tabernacle. The text lays out in tremendous detail what exactly the people are to bring.

But strikingly, God does not command the donations. Rather, God says, “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.” (Exodus 25:2) This is not a mitzvah, a commandment. It is a request to those whose hearts open in generosity. We know from later in the story that so many people are moved to such expansive generosity that eventually Moses must tell them to stop giving. (Exodus 36:5-6) (This is the dream of every communal fundraiser.)

Naturally, the tradition reads this story not only as a one-time incident in the life of the Israelite community, but also as wisdom and guidance for all of our lives. And so it is a moment to ask: What is generosity? How do we offer it in our lives?

Material gifts: Of course, as in the parashah, generosity often means giving money or goods to those who need them: the poor and the needy. The Torah expresses this most powerfully here: “For there will never cease to be impoverished ones in your land, which is why I command you: Open your hand to the poor and needy kin in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11) When I read this verse, I nearly always have the visceral instinct to open my hands in a gesture of generosity.

Perhaps it is normal to keep our hands tightly closed much of the time. After all, when it feels like things are scarce, when we need to struggle to get what we need, we must hold on tight. Our capitalist society tries to train us to believe that no matter how much we have, we must hold on and accumulate more.

That’s why we need the mitzvah of giving. We must be commanded to open our hearts to those who are truly in need and to trust that there will be enough for us as well.

Gifts of time and presence: Many people who are materially comfortable still need gifts of presence. In fact, children need the caring presence of loved ones nearly as much as they need food. So, too, without the gifts of time, attention and love from others, we would be unable to thrive. Thus, when we offer ourselves to others — those we love and also to a broader circle of people, we are literally engaging in life-saving activity.

We are asked to open our hearts, sometimes even when we don’t feel like it or when time feels scarce (unless our own well-being depends on saying “no”). Some people, of course, give of themselves to an extreme, in a way that is depleting and leaves them less truly able to give and to serve. But for most of us, the commandment to be generous urges us to push past a natural sense of scarcity or self-absorption and to open our hands.

After all, we describe God in this way: “You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with favor.” (Psalms 145:16) We do not have infinite capacity for giving, as God does, but we are to emulate God’s desire by offering ourselves freely and joyfully.

Mental or spiritual generosity: The Mussar teachers sometimes write of “nedivut-lev,” generosity of the heart or spirit. This is the spiritual equivalent of “opening one’s hand” to another. One of the ways to practice this is to stretch beyond our own limited perceptions of reality. When we are very sure that our view of a personal, communal or international situation is right — exclusively right — we are closing our fists, insisting that there is no other input that we will consider.

In the society in which we live, so many of the people we read about are practicing stinginess, meanness or downright prejudice of heart and spirit, and sometimes the same is true of us. Our fists are clenched; our hearts and minds are closed to the other. We are so besieged by distressing information and perspectives that we vigorously push against those who threaten us with their terrible words and ideas.

In this awesomely painful time since Oct. 7, we are wound up tight, protecting ourselves against the next angry or outrageous rhetorical outburst, or even against the possibility of violence. We are on guard because our hearts are so bruised, and we live with so much pain, sorrow and fear.

How to be generous in a time like this? Perhaps the very idea of generosity is too much to ask of people suffering with grief and trauma, as all of us are.

Only you know if you have the capacity to listen — to really listen — to a person with whom you disagree. It takes effort and self-restraint. It is an exercise in stretching the mind and heart, just as we stretch when we decide what level of charitable gift we are able to give. But if you really are able to do this but refuse, you are not practicing the open-handedness that is asked of us.

Generosity to ourselves: Finally, especially in times of great pain, we need to regularly open our hands to ourselves. We must ask ourselves again and again what we need, and we must think of ways to get the comfort and support we need. After all, being stingy with ourselves is no mitzvah at all.

May this parashah inspire generosity on many levels, and may those gifts of goods, presence, mind and spirit do much good in the world.

A version of this column first appeared at

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1 Comment

Flaurie S. Imberman
Flaurie S. Imberman
Mar 11

Amy, this is so beautiful, and so important. The image of opening one's hands is powerful, and motivating. Thank you for this Torah. I always learn when I read your blog.

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