Give And Take

The fundraising campaign to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle) teaches us that in true Tzedakah, the giver benefits as much as the taker.

This week’s dvar torah was adapted from one written by Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen for KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

In this week’s parsha, named Terumah, Moshe/Moses is up on Mount Sinai and G!D is giving him instructions to pass on to the Israelites. The specific topic of discussion at this point is the building of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), the locus of where G!D will be worshipped.

But before God passes on the details of how the Mishkan is to be built, they must discuss the building campaign– how they will collect the materials needed for this large construction project. The answer (you guessed it) is fund-raising!

Moses is to ask the Israelites to bring Terumah– “gifts” –for the building of the holy place. However, these are not taxes, but rather donations– freewill offerings from each person “whose heart so moves him.”

Anyone who has ever sat on a synagogue, school or other nonprofit board knows how important fundraising is. Without that kind of important support, these significant institutions would not exist. But they also know how difficult it is.

Convincing people to part with their hard-earned funds to support even a worthy institution is, understandably, not easy. Imagine how much more difficult it would be to convince a group of people just two weeks out of slavery to make contributions to build a house of worship for an invisible (in Egypt they could at least see the “gods” in the temples) G!D. Talk about a hard sell!

In asking this of Moses, the Holy One seems to understand the difficulty of the task. And so, the language of the request is very precise. God asks the Israelites to “take” Terumah 

An interesting choice of words. Can you “take” a freewill offering? 

It really means that the Israelites should “give” a gift for the construction of the Tabernacle. But instead, it says they should “take.

The French medieval commentator known as Rashi seems to connect the use of the verb “take” to the specific type of offering being requested. Terumah is defined as a “heave offering,” a special type of offering that is to be “set apart.”

Therefore, it is the individual himself who “takes” the offering voluntarily from his/her own possessions and designates it as a sacred gift.

But a Yiddish folktale gives another perspective on the difference between “giving” and “taking”: 

One day, Yankel was crossing the river in a small boat. Suddenly, a huge storm broke out, and his boat capsized. Luckily, another boat approached. The sailor called out to him: “Give me your hand. Give me your hand.” 

Yankel could barely hear him over the strong winds and the roaring waves. He heard only one word, over and over: “Give, Give…”

And good old Yankel couldn’t help himself. He yelled back: “No. I don’t give. I don’t give.”

Again the sailor called out: “Yankel, give me your hand! Give me your hand.” And again Yankel screamed: “Never. I don’t give.”

Finally, in desperation, the rescuer yelled: “Yankel, take my hand.” And Yankel said: “Oh, take? Sure.”

Jewish tradition teaches us that giving — tzedakah — the opportunity to help others — is just that: an opportunity. It is a privilege that benefits us as much as the ones to whom we give.

Therefore, there is actually very little difference between giving and taking. Every time we give–we are really taking.

There is an old folk saying: “A fool gives and a wise person takes.” The wise person realizes that it is s/he who benefits most from his action of giving. This is the difference between charity and tzedakah.

In charity, we give, and it is a one-way street. With tzedakah, we are actually obligated to give, everyone, equally. It is an act of righteousness.

If everyone gives, then we benefit from living in a society where everyone’s needs are met or are being taken into account, and none are in need, alone and lonely.

To live in a society where people understand the benefit of tzedakah benefits all its members. To live in such a society is a privilege. And for all that we give, we benefit much more.

Shabbat Shalom

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