Charity–the Only True Possession

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Terumah, we read of the Israelites’ overwhelmingly generous response to the appeal for materials and valuables to be used for building and erecting the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, that traveled with the people in the wilderness.

G-d speaks to Moses saying, Exodus 25:2, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה, מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי, “Speak unto the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion, from every man whose heart motivates him, you shall take My portion.”

The Torah proceeds to list all the valuables that are to be donated: Gold, silver, copper, turquoise, purple, scarlet, wool, linen, goat hair, red-dyed ram skins, Tachash skins, acacia wood, oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and the aromatic incense, Shoham stones, and stones for the settings, for the Ephod and the Breastplate. The appeal was so successful that Moses had to call for the people to stop giving (Exodus 36:5-6).

When the Al-mighty proclaimed, “Let them take for Me a portion,” it is understood that the Tabernacle is not to serve for their own worship, but rather to serve as a center of holiness and sanctity throughout the world. Since the sanctuary was to be built as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence, the donations had to be given with total sincerity.

Even the Hebrew word תְּרוּמָה, “Terumah,” donation, is a term designated only for sacred gifts. Therefore, agricultural gifts that are given to the priests, are also called Terumah, and because of their sanctity, any stranger (non-priest) who eats of the Terumah shall surely die. That is why the appeal must be voluntary, and all donations must be given with a full heart and not due to feelings of obligation or coercion.

The Al-mighty wanted all the People of Israel to participate so that the Tabernacle would be a joint effort of all the people. Leaders may not tax the people to pay for the materials. Charitable donations must be given in front of at least two people, so that the collectors will not be suspected of taking the donations for themselves. Gifts given in this exalted manner, will be seen by G-d as תְּרוּמָתִי,“Terumati,” My (G-d’s) portion.

The commentators, however, are particularly perplexed by the unexpected language of the parasha’s opening verse. G-d says, דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה, Speak to the Children of Israel and let them take for Me a portion. Since those who are donating will be giving, not taking, the verse should have stated, “Speak to the Children of Israel, so they will give Me a portion.”

Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik wrote in his well-known writing, Beit HaLevi, that, a person only possesses the money that he gives to charity. Those who have great wealth must realize that the money that they possess is not really theirs, and that the wealth that they’ve amassed is only a deposit left with them by the Al-mighty. Only those portions that are given away for charity can truthfully be considered one’s real possession.

The Chofetz Chaim declared that many people mistakenly interpret the verse in Numbers 5:10, וְאִישׁ אֶת קֳדָשָׁיו, לוֹ יִהְיוּ, A man’s holies shall be his. Many conclude that what they give for tzedakah, charity, or out of kindness, is no longer theirs. To the contrary, declares the Chofetz Chaim, that which they designate for charity is what really belongs to them. Therefore, when our verse states, “and let them take for Me a portion” the portion that they actually give, they really take, because only that remains in their possession.

There is a fascinating story cited in the Talmud Baba Batra 11a, about a first century C.E, non-Jewish king, King Monobaz, who embraced Judaism. The Talmud relates that in years of scarcity, King Monobaz not only distributed to the needy all of his own wealth, but also all the wealth that he had inherited from his father. His brothers’ and his father’s household berated him bitterly, saying: “Your father saved money and added to the treasuries of his own fathers, and you squander them!”

King Monobaz famously replied, “My father stored up below, and I am storing above. My father stored in a place that can be tampered with, but I have stored in a place that cannot be tampered. My father stored things that produce no fruits, but I have stored things that produce many fruits. My father gathered treasures of money, but I have gathered treasures of souls. My father has gathered for others, and I have gathered for myself. My father has gathered for this world, but I have gathered for the World to Come.”

We now know that many of those people who were defrauded in the terrible Madoff scandal, will actually receive most of their original funds back. However, at the time of the great fraud it was said that the only funds that the Madoff victims really had in their possessions, were the funds that they had given away to charity.

There is a well-known story of Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna who came from Israel to America to collect funds for his yeshiva, Yeshivat Chevron. As part of the fund-raising efforts, he scheduled a reception for all the large donors to the Yeshiva.

Among the major donors of the yeshiva was a man who had given a huge amount of money to cover the costs of transferring the yeshiva from Slabodka in Europe to Israel. Unfortunately, the generous donor subsequently lost all his wealth and was left virtually destitute. The Rosh Yeshiva ultimately decided not to invite him to this special meeting, in order to spare the now-impoverished donor the embarrassment of being seen in his present desperate situation.

However, the donor surprised all the guests, arriving at the dinner without an invitation, and asked for permission to speak to those gathered.

He said: “My dear brothers, it is well known, that all of life can be seen as a rotating sphere. I was once enormously wealthy, but now my fate has changed and the wheel of fortune has taken a fateful turn for me in the other direction. Today, I struggle for even a morsel of bread. I have nothing to show of the great wealth that I once possessed. All that’s left of my once great fortune are the donations that I gave many years ago to help the yeshiva relocate to the land of Israel. Although I am in great need today, I am not prepared, for all the money in the world, to give up the merits that I accrued for helping the Yeshiva. It has been a bitter experience. I therefore, suggest to you that you give all that you are able to give to charity now, give quickly, because no one knows what will be tomorrow. However, that which you quickly give now, will remain yours forever.”

We see how correct the Torah was in stating that “giving” charity should really be considered “taking.” Giving charity in no way results in a loss to the donor. In fact, it is undoubtedly a reward for the donor, a reward that lasts forever and can never be confiscated.

May you be blessed.