One of These Things is Not Like the Other
by Rabbi Jason Bonder
Our guest writer for this issue of Insights, Rabbi Jason Bonder, is a recent participant in our Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising course.
If you ever find yourself reading an ancient religious text and the words on the page suddenly prompt you to think of Sesame Street, you might be a religious leader and you might be a parent of young children. I am both. As a dad and a rabbi, the content I consume often oscillates between ancient Jewish texts and children’s television. It is a rare occurrence, however, when Sesame Street helps me to understand the ancient texts. This is one of those times.
The 1st Century rabbi, Elazar ben Azariah says in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers:
“Where there is no Torah, there is no right conduct; where there is no right conduct, there is no Torah.
Where there is no wisdom there is no reverence; Where there is no reverence, there is no wisdom.
Where there is no understanding, there is no knowledge; where there is no knowledge, there is no understanding.
Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; where there is no Torah, there is no flour.”
When I finished reading this set of statements, verses from a very famous Sesame Street song popped into my head: “One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”
For the majority of this beautiful teaching, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah talks of ideas. He is teaching about elusive goals towards which we can aspire like wisdom and reverence. He prompts his students to consider what it means to truly understand something. And then… flour? How could that possibly belong here?
I can imagine Elazar ben Azariah presenting this for the first time in the study hall. In my mind I can almost see his subtle grin as he anticipates the confused look on his students’ faces followed by the frantic questions. What does food have to do with Torah? And how can Torah produce food? Is Rabbi Elazar in the right classroom? Is this a lesson on ethics or agriculture? I think the last line, “Where there is no flour, there is no Torah, where there is no Torah, there is no flour.” is meant to help us shift our perspective.
One of the most foundational lessons I learned in Lake Institute’s Executive Certificate in Religious Fundraising (ECRF) course is that as children, we learn lessons from our families, our communities, our cultures, and our religions, all of which help us to shape our worldview. It is from those lessons that we figure out how to categorize our world. Often in American culture, we are taught that topics like money, religion, and politics don’t belong in polite conversation. Furthermore, money and religion don’t belong together. No one has to explicitly tell us this because it can easily be learned through behaviors and cues. Sometimes our worldviews help us. Other times, they hold us back.
I knew Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s teaching long before taking the ECRF, but now I see it in a completely different light. Before the course, shaped by my experiences, I had always read this teaching as a description of an unfortunate reality: that without flour – often translated less literally to mean bread, sustenance, or money – there is no Torah. I understood the teaching to mean that money was a necessary evil to pursue more worthy causes. Now I see in this teaching an attempt to break down a barrier that was previously constructed in my mind. Religious teaching and proper behavior, wisdom and reverence, knowledge and understanding, and yes, money and religious teaching, can all be categorized together. They are four examples of pairs that complement one another.
Placing items and ideas into groupings is essential to our understanding of the world. But breaking down barriers between them can allow us to see the world in ways we had not seen before. I hope this fundamental shift of seeing fundraising as an integral part of religion, and not just of religious institutions, will have a positive impact on my synagogue and on houses of worship around the world. But there is one more unexpected lesson I learned when Sesame Street and Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah were rolling around in my head at the same moment.
I was thinking about how different Sesame Street is today from when I used to watch the program. Today, with the rise of streaming services, my children rarely see a commercial. They are blown away when I tell them that once upon a time you had to wait a full 90 seconds or more for the show you were watching to return to the screen. It was at that moment that another line popped into my brain. This one came with no musical accompaniment. It wasn’t from Sesame Street directly. Rather, it was the line shared by PBS after they rolled the credits. “This program was made possible by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you.” At the end of each episode of Sesame Street I watched, back when I was learning the values and norms that would shape my outlook on life, I consistently heard that line. It could have easily also been said, “Without contributions, there is no Sesame Street. Without Sesame Street, there are no contributions.” It’s a line that would have made that first-century rabbi, Elazar ben Azariah, very proud.
Rabbi Jason Bonder is the Associate Rabbi at Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, PA. He and his wife, Rina, have two young children, Mark and Sophie. His favorite Sesame Street characters are Grover and Guy Smiley.
Receiving teaches us to give
by Melissa Spas
Graciously receiving gifts makes for better givers. I’m convinced of this and have seen it in my own life, and through the work of Lake Institute. If generosity is a behavior and orientation that can be learned, which social science would have us believe, then the generosity and hospitality of others will necessarily be our teachers. Even little kids can learn (and teach!) generosity. Rabbi Bonder illustrates this, bringing together the teaching of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah with a wonderful lesson from Sesame Street.
Acknowledging the others who have given to us connects the experience of receiving with the opportunity to become givers ourselves. For people of faith, seeing the connection between spiritual and material gifts, as bread and Torah are connected, can be a reminder of the intimate connection between faith and giving. The relational cycle of giving and receiving is simply stated through the PBS tagline “made possible by viewers like you.” What a beautiful reality.
I find that my own practice of generosity is deepened by considering the opportunities I have in my life to receive gifts from others. I’ve been given many gifts across my lifetime: toys, clothes and jewelry; food, wine and books; time, attention and encouragement. My education was supported by the generosity of others; I’ve lived, worked and worshipped in institutions built by the contributions of faithful givers before me. Gifts that I have received, large and small, have helped me to see the value of giving to sustain life together. And as Rabbi Bonder notes, sometimes the gifts we receive may seem incongruous, or I would observe, not like much of a gift at all.
As a Christian, the season of Lent can feel like a time of deprivation, solemn waiting, rather than a gift. As I consider my finitude, and await the events of Holy week, I am already looking ahead to the new life that comes at Easter. One of the texts read during Lent has Jesus citing scripture in response to temptation from Satan. In Mathew 4:4, refusing to turn a stone into bread to satisfy his own human appetite, Jesus refers to Deuteronomy 8:3, which says, in part, “…one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” The incongruity of the gift of faith to sustain even in times of temptation or unbelief… this is set into the context of divine involvement in human life. While time wandering in the wilderness might not feel like a gift, God’s sustaining provision proves to be of enduring, interconnected worth, which may enable human generosity in turn.
Insights, a bi-weekly e-newsletter, is a resource for the religious community and fundraisers of faith-based organizations that provides:
- Reflections on important developments in the field of faith and giving
- Recommended books, studies and articles
- Upcoming Lake Institute events