By Zachary Herrmann, incoming NFTY President
Following Zachary’s election to serve as the next NFTY President, his rabbi reached out to him to have a celebratory Shabbat service for the special occasion. He was asked to write the D’var for the service. She suggested that he create something that he could connect to his work this upcoming year in NFTY so that their congregation could better understand his role as NFTY President.
My name is Zachary Herrmann, and my family and I have been members of Kol Ami, in Vancouver WA, since we moved here from Seattle in 2008. At the time, I wasn’t interested in the least in Judaism. Interesting how things change, because this upcoming year I am honored to be serving as the NFTY President. For those of you who don’t know, NFTY is the teen branch of the Reform Movement. It is a movement that builds strong, welcoming, inspired communities through teen-powered engagement. Together, we pursue tikkun olam, personal growth, youth empowerment, and deep connections, all rooted in Reform Judaism.
For those of you who don’t regularly follow the adventures of the traveling Jews, this week’s Torah portion is where Moses is instructing the Israelites on “how to be Jewish” as they travel to the promise land.
Here is this week’s Torah portion in a nutshell: Moses assembles the people of Israel and repeats the commandment to observe Shabbat. He then conveys G-d’s instructions regarding the making of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The people donate the required materials in abundance, bringing gold, silver and copper; blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool; goat hair, spun linen, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs and precious stones. In fact they bring so much that Moses has to tell them to stop giving.
This was the part I found curious about this portion. Moses instructs them to “stop giving.”
The direct quotation from the Torah is “the work (and contributions) had been enough for all the work, to do it — and there was extra” (Exodus 36:7). Scholars often fixate on every part of the Torah, so it is perplexing that the statement was “there had been enough, AND there was extra”. Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky offers the perspective that “Some people give. They give and leave. The impact of their gift is felt only as far as the dollar will go… But there is another type of giving. Its act has more impact than the dollars could buy. Its enthusiasm sweeps a wave of goodwill with it…Perhaps that is what the Torah meant” (Kamenetzky 7).
While I agree with Rabbi Kamenetzky that there is much value in the idea of giving more than just monetarily, I personally took a very different message from the portion. To me, this portion tells us the dangers of giving too much. Now, you may be thinking, “How can one give too much? Should we not always give as much as we can?” While it is true that the Torah commands us to give what we can, sometimes we don’t really know how much we can give, especially when it comes to giving something less easily measured than tangible objects and currency.
Allow me to explain myself further – the Israelites have only really started their journey across the desert with limited means. If they always give so much that there is extra, they will quickly run out of the goods needed to personally survive. In other words, if we always choose to give 100% we will quickly burn ourselves out and not be able to give anything truly constructive to anyone.
But for those of us who always give, it can be hard to decide where to give less or when you’ve given enough. As an active involved teen, I know only too well how easy it can be to sign yourself up for way too many commitments and find yourself lost over burdened and overwhelmed. We are doing the most we can to look attractive to colleges and plan for our future and simultaneously trying to take advantage of the “unencumbered years” our last bit of freedom before we take on the responsibilities of adulthood. Last year my French teacher sat me down after a class to talk to me. She told me she had noticed I had done significantly worse on my last test than my previous ones and she wanted to discuss it with me. She told me how she knew how many commitments and other extracurricular activities I was involved in and she understood how hard it was to keep on top of everything. Then she asked if I thought “it was worth cutting off a limb, just to finish the race.” She told me I had to come up with the answer on my own but I had to think about the long-term effects of losing that limb.
The idea of cutting back our commitments, or our limbs, can feel impossible, but it is the truth nonetheless. Teens today across the country are stretching themselves too thin, and this year even I found myself overbooked, and I knew that my schedule was only going to get busier, as my year progressed. Following my election as the new NFTY North American President, I knew somethings had to give. I had to cut back my hours at work, and resign from some of the school commitments I had that were overwhelming me.
It’s hard to leave commitments, especially when we feel an obligation or that our work is not yet complete, but sometimes it has to be done for the sake of our own mental and physical wellbeing. We are of no use to anyone when we allow ourselves to get completely worn out. My family had always warned me of this. But as most teenagers do, I had to learn from the school of hard knocks. It is hard to tell yourself not to give your all in everything that you do, but sometimes you have to choose between commitments, or reduce your level of overall giving rather than risk total collapse.
The American poet, Tyler Knott Gregson once said “Promise me, you will not spend so much time treading water and trying to keep your head above the waves that you truly forget how much you have always loved to swim.” Gregson’s words resonate with me. I’ve found myself, at times, where I get so overwhelmed by the work that I’m doing, that I soon find myself no longer able to remember the reason I started the work in the first place. The “joy” is lost. Over the last year I’ve hit a few bumps with NFTY but I’ve worked hard to remember why I started this work in the first place. I’ve been surrounded by a supportive and realistic community who keeps me grounded when it feels like the world is falling in around me. Finding these support systems in your own life, is crucial in ensuring your own sanity.
We must all work to find that one thing that we truly want to give the majority of our time. We need to find something that we can give to and feel that we’re getting just as much back out of it. For me that thing is NFTY. Now I’m ending one chapter of my life and I get the chance to start the next one by hitting the ground running. I’ve shown my commitment to NFTY and now I get a chance to continue the legacy of the organization that has given me so much. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I get to spend the next year as the leader of one of the Reform Jewish Youth Movement in North America. I’m proud to say that this synagogue, this community, has made me the person I am today, and has helped broaden my perspective so that I feel prepared and excited to tackle the year ahead. I hope that you have all found that community that welcomes you with us, and I hope you can fill your lives with opportunities that are rewarding so that you never feel that you need to give less than 100%.