Extending Others the Invitation to Be the Much of Their Muchness

March 6, 2016

The reflection below comes to us from Nora Feinstein, former Program Associate for the Foundation and current rabbinical student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinc Studies in Los Angeles, California. At the time of writing, the week's Torah portion was Vayekhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20).

In honor of the first week of women’s history month, I’ve been thinking about the men in my family. Let me explain:

Yesterday, I visited with my maternal grandfather, Richard Elfenbein, an unstoppable WWII veteran two months shy of 90 (pictured below). Today, my father, Robert Feinstein turned 54 (sorry Dad). Five years ago, my paternal grandpa, Julius Feinstein (Grandpa Julie as we called him), died on his son’s birthday.

Notoriously frugal when it came to material goods, Grandpa Julie was lavish with praise and acts of love for his family and friends. One of his catchphrases, which he bequeathed to my father is, “You're too much.”

In my family, “you’re too much” functions as a compliment. It was/is usually deployed after a loved one thanks, commends or sends the Feinstein male in question into a fit of spasmodic laughter.

The men in my family bring and have brought so many gifts: they model integrity, wisdom, courage, service, dignity, love and humor; they balance pride and humility, generosity and gratitude.

Perhaps the greatest talent of my male relatives is the ability to make space and encourage the women in their lives to be powerful individuals and strong partners. They are living texts, embodying the values they hold dear. I see their wisdom reflected in our heritage.

The Jewish calendar is circular: it undulates and reverberates through the cycles of our lives. Right now, Jewish communities around the world are reading the verses of Torah known as Vayekhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20). Towards the beginning of the portion, the Israelites are commanded to bring gifts to help build the mishkan, their mobile sanctuary in the wilderness.

In Judaism, we do not always see primary sources for women and men serving equal roles. One thing I love about these verses is that the entire community is called to help create sacred space: “Every man and woman whose heart drove them…the children of Israel brought a voluntary offering for God” (Exodus 35:29). They did such a bang-up job as givers that a bit later in the portion God tells Moses to command the men and women of Israel to stop their giving. The artisans overseeing construction proclaim that the gifts are enough to do their work (dayam), and also that the Israelites gave more than enough (hoter) (Exodus 36:7).

How can something be enough and also more than enough? 18th century Hassidic commentator, Rabbi Levi Yitzhok of Berdichev (a.k.a. the Berdichever) makes a big deal about this duality. He explains that it teaches us that every generation has the opportunity to limit themselves so that there’s room for the succeeding generations to continue doing holy work.

Here’s my respectful riff on the Berdichever: Every generation gets the opportunity to demonstrate to the next—Remember: You’re enough! Don’t forget: You’re too much!

American Jews have the right and privilege to ensure that all people have the freedom, the wherewithal, and the invitation to be the much of their muchness irrespective of gender expression, race, class, sexuality, faith and ability.

In this season of voting and politicking, we are reminded that it is not only our right and privilege, but also our sacred duty to give freely of our gifts and to leave space for others to give of theirs, too.

That’s not “too much” to ask.