Parshat Terumah — Rabbi Riskin (text)

Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1 – 27:19)

Efrat, Israel — “And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and let them take for Me a gift offering (Terumah) from every individual motivated by his heart…'” (Ex. 25:1)

Moses not only served as the Rabbi, Rosh Yeshiva and “Pastor” of the Israelites, but he also did the fundraising – collecting the “gold, silver, copper…wool, linen…ram-skins…acacia wood, illuminating oil, anointing oil, aromatic incenses and precious stones” for the construction and upkeep of the Sanctuary. (ibid. 25:3-7).

Moreover, he was consummately successful: “Moses commanded that they proclaim throughout the camp, saying, ‘Man and woman shall not do any more (collection) work towards the gifts for the Sanctuary’; the people were restrained from bringing….there was extra” (ibid. 36:6-7).  I can only state that, in my own history of fundraising for Torah institutions both here in Israel as well as in the United States, there was never “extra”!

There is, however, one difficult phrase in the second verse of our Biblical portion.  God commands Moses to tell the children of Israel to “take” gift offerings for the Sanctuary; ought not the proper verb be to “give” gift offerings for the Sanctuary?

I certainly understand the significance of the adage that “it is better to give than to receive,” and that individuals who give of their time for a good cause often receive much more in satisfaction than they expect.  Indeed, I can never forget the response of one of our regular donors when I visited him soon after the Madoff debacle.  Since it had been rumored that he had lost his entire fortune, I stipulated when I called for a meeting that I would not accept a check even if he offered one; I was coming only to thank him for his many years of generosity and to wish him well for the future.

Despite my sincere remonstrations, the donor insisted upon giving me another check.  “You must understand”, he said. “My entire fortune went down the drain of excess greed.  The only thing I still have – and can truly still enjoy the benefits of – is the money I spent on my children’s education, and the funds I gave to worthy charities.  No one can take those away from me”.

Having said all of this, the expected verbal usage is that the donor “gives” gifts and the recipient “takes”.  There may be intangible rewards which outweigh the expenditure, but the proper Hebrew verb should still be “let them give for Me a gift offering”, not take for Me a gift offering.

I once heard from my revered teacher Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in the name of his grandfather Rav Haim HaLevi, that the individual donor must first give his gift to the Gizbar or treasurer of the Sanctuary; the treasurer represents the entire Knesset Yisrael (Congregation of Israel), accepting the gift-offering on their behalf.  The donor then takes the gift which no longer belongs to him but rather to Communal Israel and presents it to the Sanctuary on behalf of “Israel entire”.

This procedure ensures that no object in the Sanctuary could be claimed by any individual, no matter how much he may have donated, not even if he had made the ritual object himself.  Once a sacred object becomes part of the Sanctuary, it could never be removed or tampered with.  It no long belongs to the donor; it belongs to Klal Yisrael (Israel Entire).

This also applies to every sacred object in a synagogue or Bet Midrash today.  No donor may remove it for whatever the reason; it was first given to Klal Yisrael and only later, afterwards, to the synagogue.  It even applies to a seat with a name written upon it.  No one can eject anyone else from “his seat”; it may be memorializing his name or memorializing his parent’s name, but it does not belong to either of them!

What made Moses such a successful fundraiser? Rabbi Yosef Yoizl of Navardok founded 180 Yeshivot in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars.  He had a student who fell short of his Yeshiva’s standards and he gently insisted that he leave.  Another Rosh Yeshiva accepted the student to his institution. This time, he barely made the grade, but not long afterwards, left the Yeshiva and went on to become a very wealthy businessman.  Rav Yosef Yoizl visited with his former student and received a gift of one million rubles to open another Yeshiva.

When the Rosh Yeshiva who had taken in the failed student came to visit his former pupil, he had extremely high expectations of the gift he would receive, but he only got eighteen rubles.  He bitterly complained, to which he received the following reply:  “When Rav Yosef Yoizl visited me, he showed disdain for my fine furniture, and he spoke of Torah learning as the highest value. Through his presence, my money lost all value for me, I gladly gave him a million rubles. But when you entered my home, I saw how your eyes glowed in amazement at my expensive furniture.  You called me by the honorific title “reb” – certainly not because of my Torah Knowledge.  In your presence, my money gained in value and so I could barely part with eighteen rubles!”

Moses had no interest in the gold, silver or precious stones.  He understood that the material objects were only a means to inspire to ultimate values of spirituality!

Shabbat Shalom

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