Our Torah portion this week contains the first capital campaign in Jewish history. God gives Moses the directions to build the Tabernacle, the mobile sanctuary that the Israelites traveled with as they wandered in the wilderness. To finance this project, Moses is told, “Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved…. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them (b’tocham)” (Ex. 25:2, 8). It’s a voluntary campaign, based on the free will offering of those who choose to give. As a congregational rabbi, I have to wonder if Moses was concerned about a fundraising effort based only on voluntary gifts: Would the people give enough to support the campaign?
Turns out Moses didn’t need to worry if the offerings of all whose hearts moved them would be sufficient for the building of the Tabernacle. A few chapters later, the Torah tells us that the Israelites freely brought so much material to create the Tabernacle that Moses actually has to ask them to stop bringing things. “There was sufficient material to complete all the work, and more than enough” (Ex. 36:7). (We should all have such problems in our capital campaigns!)
Our sages wonder about the meaning of such a surplus, what it might represent, and what we might learn from it. I attribute it to the meaningful connections the Israelites felt for one another. Though all shared the same inclination to give, perhaps those with the means to give more did so with the knowledge that there were others who could not. Then their less wealthy kinsfolks would not feel ashamed about their smaller contributions, as the Tabernacle would still be completed. Viewed in this light, the Tabernacle is a sign of the overwhelming bonds of community among the Israelites. The fundraising was successful because of the connectedness of the community.
The same lesson applies to our modern setting. The question of financing for synagogues is very much in the air these days. In an era of decreasing congregational affiliation and funding, many are wondering what to do. One model that has been adopted by a small number of congregations is a system of voluntary dues, like the Israelites’ contributions to the Tabernacle. No longer based on a family’s or individual’s financial means, or part of a scaled system of dues, these congregations have a “pay what you want” model, as a recent New York Times article described it. A just-released report from UJA-Federation of New York describes this phenomenon and provides a roadmap for congregations contemplating a change to this system. Many communities that have tried this model report increases in both donations and membership.
But a new dues structure, even one based on Biblical antecedents, isn’t the only key to reversing affiliation trends. Nina Badzin, in an influential posting on Kveller.com, argues that it can’t be just about the money; it’s also about the relationships. We need to make a community of real meaning, that demonstrates to people how Judaism provides values and joy and purpose to life. Then today’s generation of Jews will connect, regardless of the financial model. Like the Israelites in the wilderness whose hearts moved them to donate more than their share to take care of their neighbors, it’s the sense of community that truly gives meaning to a congregation.
Taking “b’tocham” to mean “within them” (instead of the usual “among them”), the 19th century commentator Malbim observes that the text doesn’t say “and I will dwell in it,” meaning the Tabernacle, but rather, “I will dwell in them,” meaning the Israelites. We are, Malbim says, to each build a Tabernacle in our own hearts for God to dwell in. Hearts that are open to the concerns of others, hearts that compel us to care for others, hearts that create a community of meaning and bonds of connection – these are truly the hearts where God can dwell.