There was a village on the bank of a river. One day, a young girl saw a baby floating downstream. She immediately rescued the child and brought him to the village leaders. The next day, two babies were found. Then three the next day. Then four, five, six. Soon, the river was flooded with babies, and the village mobilized to rescue every single one. Everyone had a role to play and knew they were important to the survival of the babies. Some of the villagers began to wonder where these babies were coming from, but they didn’t have time to find out. They were too busy rescuing the children! But the girl and a few of her friends decided to go up river and discover the source of the problem. Emboldened by their discovery, they were tempted to berate the community for not doing enough and guilt them into solving the problem. But the girl could see that the village was doing incredible work; they needed only to channel their energies toward a more sustainable solution. Each villager contributed to the health of the babies, and they all had a shared goal. By highlighting the community’s strengths, the young girl was able to motivate her village to go beyond just saving the babies to address the root of the problem.
The Israelites were in the desert, a desolate place, when God instructed them to build a sanctuary in which the Shechinah would dwell. Despite their status as newly freed slaves, the Torah indicates that the Israelites possessed an abundance of both precious material and valuable skill to build a holy and beautiful tabernacle. In fact, their efforts were more than enough: Moses actually had to tell people to stop bringing voluntary offerings because it was too much (Exodus 36:3–7). I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember receiving an email from a nonprofit, synagogue, public radio station, or university telling me to stop giving money. In the desert, of all places, our people had more than enough. Dayeinu.
God is at the core of this story. God is responsible for bestowing abundant gifts, which can be taken away just as easily as they are given. The Israelites brought material gifts for the building of the tabernacle, but there was another gift necessary to construct the ark: the gift of artistic skill. We read that “Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons whom Adonai has endowed with skill” are brought to carry out the task of building the holy vessel (Exodus 36:1). These “skilled persons” are described in Hebrew as chacham lev, meaning wise of heart. Their individual and communal wisdom is essential to their whole being. And these craftspeople did not develop their skills independently; they were endowed by God with chochmat lev, wisdom of the heart. In Exodus, God calls upon those with divine gifts to use those gifts to create a holy communal object. Today, we open our ears to God’s call: What chochmat lev has God endowed in each of us? How might we use our divine gifts to create holiness in our world?
The Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner defines God’s call as “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It is not selfish ambition to share our gifts with the world. Rather, it is a fulfillment of God’s will manifest in each of our unique souls. It is not always easy to hear that call to share our gifts, but, when we do, it’s contagious: we can’t stop, and we inspire others to bravely share their gifts as well.
This past summer (2020), I served as a fellow at the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) in Cincinnati. The uprising of protest and focus on the history of racism in our country inspired us, like many others, to recommit to racial justice work in our community. We initiated reflective conversations that we hoped would continue to expand and move toward action. With an incredible team, we were learning and adapting constantly, and we were having a meaningful impact on participants. It was so rewarding that I continued to volunteer my time after the fellowship was officially over.
Finally, in November, it was time to leverage our learning and reflection for action. In the last session, we focused on finding the intersections between our personal strengths and the world’s needs. I decided to be brave and share my singing voice and banjo music with the group. When the words, “may the life I lead speak for me,” came out of my mouth, I couldn’t help but notice everyone’s focus. The music helped to stir in our hearts (lev) what was stirring in our heads, because the music came from the heart. It wasn’t showing off, as I feared it might be. Rather, my vulnerability and skill inspired others to offer their own. Some participants shared that they would ask difficult and challenging questions or use sermons to highlight racial justice issues. Others offered to connect neighborhood councils, start parenting groups, or use dance to inspire change. We were on a roll. Each shared gift inspired another. It felt expansive, electric, contagious.
During our final team debrief, we were brimming with ideas and inspiration. We realized that we have in our community an abundance of resources—not only financial resources but also gifts of skill, networks, and time. An idea was born: create a community-wide gift inventory. Let’s discover the abundant gifts in our community. When we bring them together, who knows what could be possible?
My paternal grandparents have spent their entire lives striving for equity and quality of life in Cincinnati, Ohio. While some of their peers threw parties, they were fighting red-liners, blockbusters, and slumlords. Reflecting on their active membership in their neighborhood association, they informed me, “that was our social life.” They shared their gifts of stubbornness, attention to detail, and steadfast commitment with their community. Now in their eighties, they both feel a great sense of pride and fulfillment because they contributed to something bigger than themselves. My grandparents’ story reminds us that it is not only a gift to receive; it is also a gift to give—our time, our talents, and our passion. When we come together and share those gifts, incredible things are possible.
Whether we are constructing a tabernacle, saving babies in a river, or building a more just society, I know we have more than what we need to accomplish our task. Our community is abundant not just with material resources, but also with chochmat lev, divinely endowed wisdom of the heart. Our task is to expose, unlock, and share our gifts with one another. In the process of working together, we will accomplish more than just our end goal: we will create deep relationships, invaluable memories, and holy communities. We got this. Let’s go!
Shirah Kraus was a summer fellow at Cincinnati’s Jewish Community Relations Council in 2020