A sermon delivered at Beth Shalom Synagogue on Feb. 16, 2018
I’ve been accused frequently of being stubborn, mostly by my wife, sometimes by others, and yet I’ve always taken it as somewhat of a compliment, as a badge of honor. After all, aren’t us Jews am kshey oref, a stiff necked, stubborn people. Why should I not be stubborn, principled?… Perhaps the time this stubbornness surfaced the most has been the annual distaste I have for the secular holiday of Valentine’s Day.
I don’t know what it is…it’s overt Christian name, the tragedies that befell Jews on that day in years past. Or perhaps that it’s a manufactured Hallmark holiday, a mere pretext for our society to promote excess materialism and conspicuous consumption. Whatever it was…it did not seem Jewish to me, or keeping with the best in Jewish values.
Now before you dismiss me as crotchety and curmudgeonly, or one-dimensionally Jewish, hear me out a bit more.
After all, we have a Jewish Day of Love. More ancient than Valentine’s Day, just as beloved, the beautiful holiday of Tu b’av, celebrated in the summer, a time when our Talmud teaches us the daughters of Jerusalem would dress in white and dance in the vineyards. A time of embracing our loved ones and celebrating life.
So why, on Earth, would be celebrate Valentine’s Day?! Wasn’t I right to be stubborn and principled?!
And then…I started dating my wife, and our first Valentine’s Day as a couple came around. I dug in my heels and even pre-warned her that I would not be marking it in any way. True to my principles, the day came and the evening passed and my wife got nothing from me.
And what happened? It caused a HUGE fight!! It turns out we were driving up to Maine that evening for what was the most tension-filled ride of my life. Even after trying to assuage her ire with a last second trip to a Manhattan florist to buy her a few roses costing a whopping $65, nothing seemed to help. She was livid. And so, I learned a lesson. Secular, non-Jewish holidays matter…even if my stubbornness dictates they should not.
Indeed, secular culture is strong and we live as part of that. It seems the outside world bombards us with messaging for Valentine’s Day…And this Valentine Day, It seemed this one radio commercial was on repeat these past couple of weeks.
I seemed to hear it every time I got in the car…it was from a Jewelry shop promoting a gold or diamond bracelet for that special sweetheart in your life. In their words, “not because she needs it, because she deserves it.”
While I don’t doubt that all of our loved ones deserve a special treat, something irks me about being told to give it. Sometimes it all just seems so arbitrary and frivolous.
But wait a second! What about our own tradition?! In fact, what could seem more arbitrary than all the riches we are told to give for the tabernacle in this week’s Torah reading, Terumah.
We’re told at the beginning: v’zot ha’teruma asher tikchu me’itam: And these are the contributions you will make: zahav va’chesef u’nichoshet. gold and silver and bronze, and blue and crimson linens and acacia wood, seal-skins and sweet incense, among many others.
I think about my jewelry shop’s message: It’s not because she needs it, it’s because she deserves it. Hmm, perhaps it’s not because God needs it, it’s because he deserves it.
In fact, my wife, Sam, coincidentally, is especially fond of another phrase at the beginning of this week’s portion: Everyone should give contributions asher yidvenu libo /as their heart moves them to. The text tells us to be generous, even if we don’t feel like it..not because God needs it, but because he deserves it.
Sometimes God has plans that we don’t understand. Perhaps that’s something to learn with Valentine’s Day also. I don’t have to understand it, but it’s the world in which I live, another reminder of which I got a few days ago.
I received an email from Mark Vadim, a former part of our BSS family who converted with Rabbi Gardner several years ago. He sends his greetings to everyone here, and what was the occasion?!
He muses, and I quote, “it is the time of the Chinese New Year, and though It is not a particularly Jewish event, who would deny another chance to share smiles and have a drink with friends.” A lovely sentiment considering today IS the Chinese New Year, and I told him I would definitely convey his greetings. Though I don’t celebrate it, I sure loved getting the blessing.
Smiles, good cheer and values, generosity, what more could God want from us?…Perhaps for us to create it. The onus is on us to create that world worthy of God’s presence. Then, and only then, will the words of our Torah portion come true. v’asu li mikdash, build for me a temple worthy of me, v’shachanti b’tocham / and I will dwell within it.
We build it with our love, our generosity, no matter from where it comes…whether that be our Jewish Day of Love, Tu b’Av, or Valentine’s Day. Because God deserves it And so, would this Valentine’s Day be a replay of my first one with my wife, Sam? What, if anything, was my terumah/my freely offered contribution to her on this secular day of love?…
Well, I’m sure Sam will be wearing it the next time she visits.