Consider and Converse: A Guide to N’div Lev

Artwork by David Wander
Artwork by David Wander

Consider and Converse: A Guide to n’div lev / generosity of the heart


Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the core of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of n’div lev/ generosity of the heart. As I considered the issue as a whole, and as I was soliciting essays for it, I was drawn to the notion that generosity can take so many different forms. I was curious about why the Torah — in describing how the Israelites were to bring gifts to build the desert sanctuary, the mishkan — uses the words “whose heart so moves him…” “n’div libo” (Exodus 35:5). As Rabbi Dorothy Richman writes in her introductory essay, it “requires two words to conjure open-hearted giving — literally bringing the body into the equation. N’div comes from the root for volition. Aaron’s son Nadav, known for flinging himself into a strange fire, highlights the sense of this term as an emphatic leaping willingness. The second word, lev, means heart.” The essays in this issue explore generosity as a form of philanthropy and tzedakah, as a personal gesture of lay leadership, and as a posture of mindfulness practice. Our simulated Talmud page, NiSh’ma, addresses the question of generosity and synagogue dues.

Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth in your discovery of ideas and questions independently or with others, formally and informally.

How to Begin

This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at

Guidelines for Discussion

If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:

  • Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
  • Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
  • For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
  • Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.

Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.

  • Andrés Spokoiny, president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network, writes about the different motivations for philanthropy. Some people “give charity for many and overlapping reasons: tax advantages; social pressure (my friend asked me); ego (I want my name on a building); enlightened self-interest (I know a society that helps the powerless will be more prosperous and stable than a purely greedy society); admiration for particular leaders or institutions; outrage at injustice; empathy for people suffering; passion for culture; religious conviction; gratitude and a desire to give back; or countless other variations.” He writes about effective altruism, which looks at problems that can be solved by philanthropy as well as strategic philanthropy, where philanthropists support causes close to their hearts, finding strategic and effective ways to address the particular issues. Andrés writes that the “genius of our tradition of tzedakah, in all its rich complexity in Jewish texts and history, is to provide a balance between the self’s needs (fulfilling religious obligations, obtaining Divine forgiveness, and developing character) and communal needs (actually helping people). It also balances proactive logic (like all Jewish law, tzedakah demands systematic engagement) and reactive emotions such as generosity of the heart (n’div lev) and gratitude (hakarat hatov), which are also discussed in texts about tzedakah.” How do you understand the differences between “effective altruism” and “strategic philanthropy”? Should philanthropy be based on verifiable need and measuring success? How does the tug of one’s heart impact the direction of philanthropy?
  • In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators examine a verse from the Book of Exodus (35:5) that describes how the Israelites brought gifts for the building of the desert sanctuary, the mishkan: “everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring gifts for the LORD: gold, silver, and copper.” Rabbi Dan Judson, author of Pennies for Heaven: The History of American Synagogues and Money, uses the verse to tap into the question of synagogue support—whether dues should be mandatory or voluntary. Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubenstein shares her synagogue’s story of establishing a model of giving some amount based on one’s own calculations, and David Goldman, an executive director of a large urban synagogue, shares his experiences where voluntary dues failed to establish a sustainable model for this synagogue. How do you weigh in on this debate — for a synagogue or any communal structure: Should dues be set by an organization or should they be determined by the individual as a voluntary contribution? What Jewish values animate your choices? On what Jewish values and principles, do you contribute to Jewish charities and nonprofit endeavors?
  • Gamal J. Palmer, a senior vice president of leadership development at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and founder and CEO of Global Eye Entrepreneurs, writes about the trajectory of nonprofit board development. In building a board for Global Eye, he sought out people who could contribute wisdom, time, and eventually financial resources. He writes that “generosity comes in many forms, and I learned to communicate that all contributions were dear to the organization. I needed a board comprised of people with valuable skill sets, expertise, wisdom, and now financial resources to ensure the nonprofit’s success.” As a nonprofit develops, what types of people — and gifts — are needed to serve and guide the organization toward growth? How does a nonprofit leader welcome the array of gifts from board members and also cultivate members who can give significantly to the financial stability of an organization? How does that nonprofit head ensure that board members feel that gifts of wisdom and time are also valuable? What ways do recruitment efforts serve to elevate a nonprofit mission and values?

Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.

  • Rabbi Dorothy Richman, opens the issue with an exploration of textual sources and stories about generosity. She shares a teaching from the 19th-century commentator Rabbi Moshe Sofer, who is known as the Hatam Sofer after his best-known work: “one who doesn’t give with a full heart, it is as if they didn’t give anything, because everything is already the Blessed One’s.” Dorothy goes on to write “No matter what we are giving materially, we are really giving our hearts — our desire to contribute, to serve, to share from the gifts we have received.” Do you consider yourself a generous person? In what ways is your generosity manifest? What memories of your family’s generosity animate your own choices?
  • Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell brings the practice of Jewish mindfulness to bear on our personal sense of generosity — especially when we are not feeling generous. Mindfulness “is an approach of working intentionally and bringing the qualities of honesty (emet) and lovingkindness (chesed) to bear on one’s moment-by-moment experience.” Jordan shares a teaching from the prophet Ezekiel: “And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you: I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh.” (36:26) He goes on to write, “A heart of stone is a cold and unempathetic heart that cannot emotionally respond to one’s fellow; a heart of stone is not capable of generosity. It is akin to the hardened heart of Pharaoh who would not let the Israelites leave Egypt.” Jordan goes on to teach that we can change a heart of stone to a softer “heart of flesh,” “lev basar.” He writes, “with the skills we build through mindfulness — self-awareness, breath, and intention — we are able to actively relax and soften the tissues in our body, and then transform the feeling of a heart of stone into a heart of flesh.” Have you experienced turning your hardened heart into a more receptive heart? How have you done that and under what circumstances? Softening one’s heart — opening to experiences that we haven’t been receptive to in the past — can be exhilarating and also frightening. Do you have a mindfulness practice that helps you in moments of ambiguity and fear?

Consider and Converse: A Guide to N’div Lev

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