“Defining True Generosity”
(updated and revised from Vayakhel 5763-2003)

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald


In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayakhel, we learn, once again, of building the מִּשְׁכָּן –Mishkan, the Tabernacle, the temporary sanctuary that accompanied the people of Israel during their wanderings in the wilderness.

In Exodus 35:21, the Torah states: וַיָּבֹאוּ כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ, וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר נָדְבָה רוּחוֹ אֹתוֹ, הֵבִיאוּ אֶת תְּרוּמַת השׁם, לִמְלֶאכֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. And they came, every person whose heart stirred him and everyone whose spirit moved him, brought the L-rd’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: מַרְבִּים הָעָם לְהָבִיא מִדֵּי הָעֲבֹדָה לַמְּלָאכָה, “The people are bringing much more than is needed for doing the work which the L-rd has commanded.” And so, for the first, and probably last time in Jewish fundraising history, a Jewish leader (Moses) had to announce: (Exodus 36:6), אִישׁ וְאִשָּׁה, אַל יַעֲשׂוּ עוֹד מְלָאכָה לִתְרוּמַת הַקֹּדֶשׁ, “Let no man or woman do any more work for the offering of the sanctuary!”

Indeed, Ramban suggests 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 nations, says the Ramban, Moses did not covet the people’s wealth, confirming what Moses had declared in Numbers 16:15, לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי, וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת אַחַד מֵהֶם, “I have not taken even a single donkey of theirs, nor have I wronged even one of them.”

And yet, the Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 1:1, quotes Rabbi Yehudah ben Pazi in the name of Rebbi (Rabbi Judah the Prince), as saying: הֵן נִקְרָא וְלֹא נִבְעַת? “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: כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ, every willing heart brought. But, when the people gave for evil–for the Golden Calf, the verse in Exodus 32:3 reads: וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ כָּל הָעָם, all
the people
broke off their ornaments to give to the Golden Calf. The giving for the Golden Calf was universal.

True to their pattern, our rabbis quickly come to the defense of the people. In Yoma 86b, they say: גְּדוֹלָה תְּשׁוּבָה, שֶׁזְּדוֹנוֹת נַעֲשׂוֹת לוֹ כִּזְכִיּוֹת, 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 minimize 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.

Please Note: This Shabbat is Shabbat Parashat Shekalim. On this Shabbat, an additional Torah portion, known as Parashat Shekalim, is read. It is the first of four additional thematic Torah portions that are read on the Shabbatot that surround the holiday of Purim.

This week’s supplementary Torah reading is found in Exodus 30:11-16, and speaks of the requirement for all the men of Israel, aged 20 and above, to bring a half-shekel in order to be counted as a member of the People of Israel. In later years, these shekels were donated to the Temple in anticipation of the festival of Passover, when funding for the daily sacrifice had to be renewed.