“Defining True Generosity”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Va’yakhel, we learn of the erecting of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the temporary sanctuary that accompanied the people of Israel during their wanderings in the wilderness.

In Exodus 35:21 we read: “Va’ya’voh’oo kol ish ah’sher n’sah’oh lee’bo, v’chol ah’sher nahd’vah ru’cho oh’to, hay’vee’oo et tru’mat Hashem lim’leh’chet o’hel mo’ed.” And they came, every person whose heart stirred him and everyone whose spirit moved him, brought the Lord’s offering for the work of the tent of meeting, and for all its services and for the holy garments. This verse is the first of nine instances in which the words “brought” or “to bring” appear in the following verses. So impressive was the ceaseless flow of voluntary offerings that the craftsmen working on the Tabernacle reported to Moses, Exodus 36:5: “Marbim ha’ahm l’hah’vee mee’day ha’ah’vo’dah lam’lah’cha,” The people are bringing much more than is needed for doing the work which the Lord has commanded. And so, for the first and last time in Jewish fundraising history, a Jewish leader (Moses) had to announce: (Exodus 36:6) “Ish v’ish’ah al ya’ah’soo ohd m’lah’chah lit’rumat ha’kodesh,” Let no man or woman do any more work for the offering of the sanctuary!

Indeed, Ramban explains that the entire lengthy recapitulation of all the technical details of the Tabernacle is recorded in these parashiot in order to stress the peoples’ generosity and the dedication of the craftsmen, and to emphasize, as well, the unselfishness of the leaders. Unlike the rulers of other people, says the Ramban, Moses did not covet the people’s wealth, underscoring what Moses had stated in Numbers 16:15, “Lo cha’mor echad may’hem nah’sah’tee, v’lo ha’ray’o’tee et ah’chad may’hem,” I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them.

And yet, Rabbi Yehudah ben Pazi is quoted in the name of Rebbi (Rabbi Judah the Prince) in the Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1 as saying: “Hayn nik’rah v’lo niv’at?” Is it possible to read these verses and not shudder? Rabbi Judah ben Pazi points out that when the Israelite people gave for a righteous purpose–for the Tabernacle, the verse states, Exodus 35:22: “Kol n’div lev hay’vee’ooh,”-every willing heart brought. But, when the people gave for evil–for the Golden Calf, the verse in Exodus 32:3 reads: “Va’yit’par’koo kol ha’am,”–all the people broke off their ornaments to give to the Golden Calf. The giving at the Golden Calf was universal.

True to their pattern, our rabbis quickly come to the defense of the people. In Yoma 86b they say: “Gedolah teshuva, sheh’z’doh’not nah’ah’sim lo kiz’choo’yot,” Great is the power of repentance, that intentional sins may be transformed into merits. While the sin of the Golden Calf was a most grievous sin for which the Jewish people are certainly held accountable, the sin is nevertheless regarded by the rabbis of the Midrash as a temporary stain–one that can be washed away by repentance and subsequent good deeds.

The Midrash explains that, unlike other nations, if the Jewish people fall, they can rise again and make amends–even with the very same thing with which they have sinned. Nehama Leibowitz points out that the sinful people of Israel gilded the Calf with their gold earrings, but now they repented by offering every kind of gold ornament to the Tabernacle. In fact, Professor Leibowitz points out, only gold was given to the Calf, while gold and a willing heart was given to the Tabernacle. That willing heart (not to belittle the actual material donations) is what made the difference for the Jewish people. It is that giving heart that determines what is genuine and “true generosity.”

May you be blessed.