the first fundraiser
Any endeavour, however spiritual or lofty, needs practical nuts and bolts to hold it together. This week’s portion describes the building of the Mishkan, the holy tabernacle, but it also deals with the down-to-earth issue of how contributions to the Mishkan were collected. This description of the first fundraising event in Jewish history gives us an insight into how we give and what we get in return…
God’s instructions to Moses to make a collection to enable the holy Mishkan to be built are worded in a strange manner:
“Let them take a contribution for me”, commands God, “from every willing person…” (Exodus XXV:)
Surely the command should say ‘let them give’ and not ‘let them take’, especially since the contributions are not being forced but are coming ‘from every willing person”.
The continuation of the command is also couched in unusual language:
“And let them make for me a tabernacle”, says God, “and I will dwell within them.” (Exodus XXV:)
Surely the sentence should say that God will live within ‘it’ , that is in the tabernacle, rather than within “them”, that is in the people themselves.
The unusual wording of these two commandments, the rabbis suggest, is designed to convey two insights about charitable giving.
The first is that in communal matters, giving is really a kind of taking. That which you give is your only true possession. For this reason the people of Israel are commanded not to give, but to take. The act of giving creates something of value that will remain with them for ever.
As if to confirm this, the second verse clarifies the aim is not to create a home for godliness in the world, but to create a possibility of godliness within the heart of man. By contributing to the building of a place for God, the people of Israel create a place of holiness within their own hearts. As the 15th century Portuguese commentator Isaac Abarbanel explained:
The words “I will dwell within them” are to teach that The Holy One intended that by making the Tabernacle and its furnishings the sanctity of the Divine presence would adhere to the people.”
Contributions and donations from Jewish communities around the world have played a major role in the development of the Jewish state. The experience of many donors shows that the lessons of this week’s portion regarding the building of the tabernacle, apply equally well to those who support the building of the Jewish homeland. First, as many donors can testify, when they have the knowledge and satisfaction of seeing a new school, community center or hospital take root, the feeling of involvement and pride makes it hard indeed to distinguish the feelings of giving and receiving. And secondly, like the Mishkan, donors give to Israel, but often find that the very act of giving makes Israel live within them and makes the Jewish state a part of their identity.
One recent initiative which shows how the circle of giving and taking runs though so much of Jewish philanthropy is the remarkable “Birthright” project, in which young men and women from around world rediscover their Jewish identity by visiting Israel. After decades of supporting Israel and helping Israeli society flourish, Diaspora Jewry has discovered the two lessons of building the Mishkan: that there is little difference between giving and taking, as the society that they helped to build is now playing a role in ensuring its own continuity; and that giving to the distant land of Israel has really been creating a place for Israel in their own hearts.
In others’ words
Golda Meir on being sent on a critical fundraising mission in 1948:
The first appearance I made in 1948 before American Jewry was unscheduled, unrehearsed, and, of course, unannounced… I didn’t speak for long, but I said everything that was in my heart. I described the situation as it had been the day I left Palestine, and then I said: “The Jewish community in Palestine is going to fight to the very end… You cannot decide whether we should fight or not. We will… You can only decide one thing: whether we shall be victorious in this fight or whether the mufti will be victorious. That decision American Jews can make. It has to be made quickly, within hours, within days. And I beg of you – don’t be too late. Don’t be bitterly sorry three months from now for what you failed to do today. The time is now.” They listened, and they wept, and they pledged money in amounts that no community had ever given before…. Ben Gurion said to me: “Someday, when history will be written, it will be said that there was a Jewish woman who got the money which made the state possible.” But I always knew that these dollars were given not to me, but to Israel.
Golda Meir, My Life
On a lighter note
A delegation of fundraisers for Israel go to visit a wealthy Jew who has never made a donation to Israel.
“We’ve been checking up on you, Goldstein” says the leader of the group. “We know everything. Not only do you own this house outright, but we also know about your mansion in Palm Springs and the chalet in Switzerland. You drive a Rolls Royce, your wife has a Mercedes, and we know you opened up twelve new stores this year.”
Goldstein sits through the speech unperturbed; he doesn’t flinch.
“You think you’ve checked so thoroughly into my background”, he says, “Well, do you know about my mother who has been in hospital for three months with a heart condition? And do you know what round-the-clock nurses cost? Did you find out about my uncle who is in a sanatorium, and with no insurance? And did you check into my sister, who’s married to a bum who can’t keep a job and has five children to support?… And if I don’t give a penny to any of them, you think I’m going to give to you?”