We come upon a Torah portion which is a Jewish fundraiser’s dream text for encouraging people to donate to their religious institutions. Talking about giving money to a congregation or to any non-profit institution is a sensitive issue. There is nothing more personal, except for partisan political issues, then how people spend their money and how they feel about how important money is to their lives.
Our congregation deserves special commendation from being able to summon the courage and communal will to build this new synagogue. We take great pride in what has been achieved not only in terms of aesthetics of the building but also from, hopefully, the quality of activity that continues to emerge each day from the chemistry between us all. People give of their time and their sweat equity and their financial resources to make a difference in the world. It is truly a mitzvah.
The Torah portion Terumah is all about the feeling of giving of our own free will to the building of a different kind of sanctuary. Here the Torah records the story of the ancient Israelites giving their jewelry and anything else of beauty and value to the construction of the Tabernacle or the Mishkan in the desert. What can we learn from their experience of giving of their own free will and how has that influenced Jewish giving down through the ages? Finally how do we finally instill a spiritual sense of joy from giving thereby embracing a culture of philanthropy in our congregation without getting distracted into too many ego issues?
You will see that the verse I am focusing on is, “The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to being Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved” (25:1). Our sages saw the meaning of giving to the community and especially to the building of religious institutions through these verses.
Medieval commentator from Spain Ibn Ezra clarified the meaning of the verse by saying, “All contributions to the Tabernacle were voluntary except the half shekel, which was required of all. Contributions in kind were left to generosity.”
In the Midrash of earlier times it is written on verse 1, “God said: Take me gifts.” For when Israel acquires Torah and Tabernacle it acquires Me too.” Skipping over history to the 18th century the sages said in Europe that giving is the heart and substance of the Torah: tzedakah and good deeds.”
And the most pertinent of genres of Jewish spiritual literature called Musar sees in this verse a combination about taking and giving. In fact the two are placed side by side. This should remind a giver how it feels to accept a gift.
Judaism is telling us to that God wants us to approach our giving to the synagogues and other causes with a proper mind set. Many of us do and give for altruistic reasons. At the same time people give for all kinds of reasons sometimes altruistic and other times self serving. The challenge is to create a temple where the culture of the congregation establishes a pattern where the community affirms the principle that giving to the temple is a good thing and we embrace and appreciate everyone who gives to the welfare of the congregation.
This state of mind requires education and it says that balance is what it is all about. The most sensitive issue is about balance in our attitudes towards people who desire recognition or those who do not request it for their contributions. I can remember the first congregation I served as an assistant rabbi in Palo Alto which prided itself on the beautiful complex they built. They refused in those days to establish a naming program for donors for fear of how it would dominate the culture of the congregation. Decades later they finally gave in and changed that policy.
I saw then back in the late 80s how divisive that issue could be. I have worked at other congregations where the culture of the congregation allowed a policy of naming all kinds of structures and names of donors were scattered all over the congregation. Ultimately I did not see that one congregation was spiritually better than the other one based upon their naming policy of contributions to a capital campaign fund. In the ideal it takes recognition quite often of donors to encourage them to be generous financially. At the same time it also takes a perspective that encourages donors take the moral high ground and be accepting of divergent practices with regard to recognition of contributors. I think sometimes people go overboard in their need for recognition as those who can equally be a distraction for going overboard in fearing the idea of giving recognition.
This congregation worked through those issues in the capital campaign several years ago regarding naming opportunities. We are still working on that issue with regards to the Friends Campaign. So the real issue is not about whether it is right or not to give names and plaques on the walls. The question is how can we celebrate and give affirmation to those who give and how do we create the widest tent of affirmation to people who choose to give out of the goodness of their hearts?
We can do this by initiating more adult education on Judaism’s views towards donating financially. We can also do this by disciplining ourselves not to indulge the temptation to be overly judgmental about other people and their needs to receive recognition versus those who feel it is a danger to the well being of the temple to recognize givers of financial resources. If we could identify some core principles in our congregation about how we feel about giving I believe in it would go a long way to setting the pathway and letting those principles guide us for future giving at Beth Yam.
The Torah tells us that it is important to feel good about what people give to the congregations they support. Our goal should be teach that multiple ways of being generous exist in Judaism. It is up to us to learn them and teach them to the children of Israel.
For the Torah says, “for every person whose heart is so moved,” which could mean whatever we do it is important to help our congregants to feel good about their generosity. The rest will work itself out.