T’rumah: Why give?

T’rumah: Why give?

This week’s Torah portion conveys the commandment to build the Mishkan (desert sanctuary) which accompanied the Jewish nation throughout their 40 year sojourn in the desert and beyond. The directive is prefaced with instructions about how to raise the funds for the Mishkan’s construction.

When it comes to giving charity, there is a contest of two virtues: On one hand is the need for the donor to experience the subjective sense of moral elevation as he or she participates in an act of kindness, while on the other hand there is the objective need to provide for those who are suffering deprivation and for the spiritual needs of the community at large.

Certainly, compelling a person to donate will diminish the giver’s subjective experience of kindness; while it is equally certain that without some form of moral obligation, the minimum needs of the poor and of the community will not be met.

It is therefore necessary to maintain both elements, that neither the objective need nor the subjective experience be rejected outright. This is indicated by Rashi’s elucidation of the capital campaign – that there was a mandatory minimum contribution beyond which the people could increase their giving through voluntary, goodwill contributions.

Since the minimum threshold constituted required giving, it can be deduced that Judaism gives preference to the objective need more than the subjective experience.

For this reason the Talmud states that if someone makes a contribution conditional on being rewarded eternal life, the tzedakah is considered genuine and he is a complete Tzadik – a righteous person. Yes, you heard right! When someone is in need we have only one overriding concern: Feed him, clothe him, alleviate his pain, ease his suffering, provide for his needs – and don’t worry about the purity of your own spiritual experience or moral contentment!

And yet, the Torah is mindful of how difficult it is for a person to contribute to tzedakah under any circumstances. Pirkei Avot records a statement by Rabbi Akiva that our reward depends on our actions. Maimonides explains the statement to mean that our reward does not depend upon the size and impact of what we do, as much as upon how often we do it; i.e. the amount of our actions. In other words, breaking up a charitable gift so that the act of charity is performed multiple times has greater value than the same sum given at once. This is because the Torah recognizes the struggle a person undergoes to overcome his natural resistance each time he gives from his hard-earned money and the value in habituating oneself to giving.

A great rabbi once prevailed on a philanthropist to raise a significant sum of money for his yeshiva. The philanthropist asked the rabbi to remain local while he went about collecting the funds and provided for all his needs in the interim. At the month’s end, he proceeded to give the rabbi the entire sum. When the rabbi discovered that the philanthropist had given it all from his own personal wealth he questioned the philanthropist’s wisdom in delaying his return for an entire month. The philanthropist explained that he had not made the decision to give the entire sum. Rather, each day he had struggled to increase his gift, deciding again and again to match yesterday’s gift until the entire sum was complete. It had taken him a month to raise the entire amount from himself!

In the old banking system there were two types of clerks: The teller and the cashier. The former counted and collected money while the latter dispensed it. When a young man informed his rabbi that he planned on working as a clerk in the bank, the rabbi advised him to choose the cashier position. “Accustom yourself to giving, rather than taking.”

To this end, the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated a campaign to place a tzedakah box in a prominent and visible location in the home and to give charity daily. Years ago, the tzedakah box was a ubiquitous feature of every Jewish home in an assortment of colors and sizes. And putting a coin into the ‘pushka’ or writing a check in response to a written solicitation was an act that came more easily. We need to reacquaint ourselves with the tzedakah box and habituate our hands and minds to the act of giving.

If we acclimate ourselves to giving and giving often, perhaps, we will later discover that is possible to have both the objective and subjective benefits of giving charity.