“Her motivations were corrupt!”
The precocious student continued: “That’s why she didn’t get extra points for doing charity. It’s like we read about the Sh’ma — if you don’t say it with the right kavanah (intention), the mitzvah doesn’t count.”
We were in the middle of a discussion of NBC’s “The Good Place,” which we had begun watching as part of a Jewish ethics elective I had created for my middle school students.
As you may know, there is no program on television that covers moral philosophy quite as well as “The Good Place.” To quote a New York Times review, “ethics is not some kind of moralistic byproduct; it’s baked into the premise.” Specifically, the premise is that the protagonist, Eleanor, wakes up in the afterlife and finds herself in the proverbial “Good Place.” But it turns out that Eleanor was a comically awful person on earth, and is only in the Good Place due to a celestial mishap. Now she must learn to become a good person, or risk being expelled and moving “downward.”
In my elective class that day, the question was why Eleanor’s heavenly point total hadn’t gone up, despite her having performed several generous acts. Was she acting with pure intentions, or was she motivated only by her own well-being? My students were catching on — doing the right thing for the wrong reason doesn’t always count.
Purity of motives is alluded to several times in Parshat Terumah. One example is the symbolism of the ark being constructed in the new tabernacle: “Cover it with pure gold, from within and without you shall cover it.” A question is raised in the Talmud about this seemingly innocuous detail of the Tabernacle’s construction — why must the inside be inlaid with gold if it was to be closed shut and never seen by anyone? It seems unnecessary to cover the inside with gold; what can the Torah be teaching us? One interpretation is that this is a manifestation of the Talmudic dictum that one must be consistent inside and out (“tocho k’varo”). If the outer gold covering refers to those mitzvot or other deeds we perform publicly, then the inner gold covering signifies the acts we do in private, when no one else can see.
In our personal lives, we can probably think of a time when we or someone we know has engaged in “virtue signaling,” perhaps by sharing a post on social media about a trending topic or current cause, while remaining apathetic to the issue in private.
In the political arena, likewise, it is noteworthy to see the difference between what some officials say in front of the cameras versus how they vote in closed sessions. Our parsha, through the example of the golden ark, reminds us to act with integrity both privately and publicly.
A related idea is evident in the parsha’s opening verses: “Take for me a contribution ( ‘v’yikchu li terumah’)…and I will dwell in their midst” (Exodus 25:1-8).
Many commentators question the use of the word “li” (for me). What does Hashem mean by saying to take it “for me?” What could the world’s Creator possibly need?
According to Rashi, “li” should really be understood as “for my sake” (lishmi). That is to say, when giving a contribution, do it for Hashem’s sake, for something greater than yourself. A gift that is meant to burnish your reputation, or that comes as a result of some other external pressure, is not really the kind that Hashem is looking for.
On the other hand, it has always seemed to me that here is a case where a little bit of yetzer hara (the so-called evil impulse) might not be such a bad thing. After all, if my yetzer hara inclines me to desire fame or honor, why not attain it through giving tzedakah? As a result, I will receive the desired recognition, and the needy party will receive a vital donation; everybody wins! (It is also certainly the case that giving in a public manner, whatever one’s motivations, can be very positive indeed, to the extent that it spreads awareness of a cause or inspires others to give as well). As the Talmud says, “mitoch shelo lishma ba lishma” — doing a mitzvah with imperfect intentions can habituate us into doing it with appropriate intentions.
Still, while giving with less than perfect motives may be a positive stepping stone, it is not the highest level. Perhaps this is hinted at in the very name of our parsha, “Terumah.” Within this word we find the root for “leharim,” to lift up or elevate. As Eleanor sought to elevate her spiritual stature (no spoilers here), so can we. By checking our motivations, eschewing the egotistical incentives that so often drive our choices, and acting with true generosity of spirit, we can ultimately elevate both ourselves and those with whom we interact. It is in this elevated atmosphere where God’s presence will reside.