Presents or Presence?
By Braha Bender
Picture a glowing young couple, married yesterday. You overhear them talking to a friend about their favorite wedding gift: “Would you believe it? Pure gold!” It seems that a particularly good friend of the bride’s gave the couple a gold mezuzah case complete with a letter Shin outlined in diamonds.
And then you hear the end of the conversation. “By the way, she even included a kosher mezuzah scroll.” The mezuzah itself is mentioned as an aside. After all, what is the value of a mezuzah relative to a case of pure gold?
The Talmud describes when the gentile ruler Artavan sent a gift to Jewish ruler Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince). Artavan’s gift was a precious stone, sparkling and pure, an enormous diamond. In return, Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi sent Artavan a mezuzah.
A message dispatched from the insulted Artavan asked, “I sent you a precious stone worth millions, and you have sent me back a mezuzah scroll worth one zuz? What is the connection between these things?”
Replied Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi, “You sent me something which I must safeguard day and night, while I sent you something which day and night will safeguard you.”
Parashas Naso lists the gifts brought by the Jewish tribal leaders for the inauguration of the Mishkan. Each one of them brought, “One silver bowl, its weight a hundred and thirty [shekels]; and one silver basin of seventy shekels in the sacred shekel; both of them filled with fine flour mixed with oil for a meal-offering; one gold ladle of ten [shekels] filled with incense…”
The Torah doesn’t list the expensive, opulent material gifts alone. It lists their purposes: the meal-offering, incense, the means to serve the Almighty.
In our generation it is easy to forget the forest for the trees. We are so busy enhancing our “quality of life” that we forget the purpose of our beautiful homes and cars and possessions. What is the worth of a beautiful home of it is not filled with happy marriage and a warm, thriving family? We can give our children all the gifts in the world, but none will mean anything to them like the gift of our time and attention.
Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi was extraordinarily wealthy and powerful, yet none of this distracted him. He knew that the purpose of his life, including all his wealth and prestige, was to actualize the Torah.
He explained, “You sent me something which I must safeguard day and night, while I sent you something which day and night will safeguard you.” A mezuzah case, even if it is made of gold and diamonds, does not benefit a person anything like a kosher mezuzah does. He knew that material possessions will never fulfill a person. A life of meaning and content will. A mezuzah is worth more than any diamond.
Material possessions can support us in fulfilling the Torah, just as a gold mezuzah case can beautify the mitzvah of putting up a mezuzah, but only if we fill the external casing with something meaningful. It is up to us. We can make our beautiful homes into palaces of kindness, love, and giving, or we can make them into tombs of selfishness and isolation.
We can use our money to buy us time to spend with those we love or we can use our money to try to replace our presence with superficial presents. No matter how expensive, material things are not meaningful in and of themselves. It is up to us to build meaningful lives. Then even our material possessions will be worth so much more.