This week’s Torah parashah, Vayakhel, Exodus 35:1–38:20, begins with Moses addressing the Israelites. Nu? That is not unusual as the words from God directing Moshe to “tell the Children of Israel” this, and that, come quite frequently. The words this week however, are directing the Children of Israel with the “privilege” of building the mishkan (Tabernacle). Many of the same instructions from previous parshiot regarding the specifics of the mishkan construction are repeated in this week’s reading just to be sure we understand this important undertaking.
A commentary in the Stone Humash, suggests that the repetition of the instructions demonstrates the great significance of the mishkan as a setting for God’s essence or presence among the Israelites. Once again, Moses requested that “everyone whose heart motivates him” donate the materials required for the building of the mishkan. And then, do you know what happened? Some folks gave just what they could afford, and others donated even more and more and even more.
Another commentary suggests that the women of Israel were the primary donors of the gold that was used to build the mishkan, since they were more likely than the men to wear the bracelets, nose rings, and other types of bodily ornaments referred to in the parashah. (Chapter 35 verse 22).
Perhaps the most interesting turn of events comes in Chapter 36, when the artisans who were actually building the Tabernacle informed Moses that there was an excess of donated supplies. As a result, Moses spoke yet again and directed a halt to all further contributions.
According to biblical commentator Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman), Moses and the artisans are to be commended for their honesty since they could have continued to collect donations and pocket the excess.
Can you imagine a fundraising campaign conducted with the utmost honesty by all involved; the givers and the recipients and donations in such a surplus that Moses had to put the brakes on further contributions? Come on! In this day and age, how many shuls can afford to turn away valuable donations? Name one – I am looking forward to hearing that success story in today’s world.
In this context, I recently researched the topic of “synagogue fundraising” and here are some of my findings: There was an article on Forward.com that compares the theoretical differences between synagogue and church fundraising. The article starts out with the premise that synagogues, unlike churches, rarely bring the mention of God into fundraising appeals. In the article, Pastor Megan Torgerson said that her church emphasizes religious obligation in its fundraising efforts. She encourages her parishioners to consider money as something that already belongs to God; not to think of it as personal property. She views money as a temporary “gift” that should be returned to God.
In contrast, Josh Nathan-Kazis, who authored the article, implied that many synagogues remind congregants how the synagogue “community” is there for them through thick and thin, and that that should be the reason to donate money.Nathan-Kazis specifically referenced the typical synagogue Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrei appeals in support of his position.
According to Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the rhetoric surrounding giving within the Conservative and Reform movements is generally not religiously charged. Wertheimer said that, while churches use biblical language like tithing and offerings, synagogues speak in terms of various categories that are business oriented. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
Whether taking the religious approach, the business approach or a combination of both fundraising models, synagogues, and therefore Judaism itself, cannot survive without fundraising. In addition to the costs of paying clergy, teachers and other staff, there is also rent/mortgage, utilities, insurance and general maintenance, some of which were not relevant in the days of the mishkan. The Children of Israel had only to give for the building. They gave from the heart until they were told to stop.
That is not the end of the story, however. The Children of Israel were told to stop bringing items to build the mishkan, but they continued to maintain the mishkan by bringing their sacrificial offerings. That kind of giving continued until the two Temples were destroyed, a full one-third of our time as Jews. After that, the sacrifices were replaced by tefilah and tzedakah, prayer and contribution.
Yes, maintaining a synagogue in today’s world requires us to run it like a business. There are revenues, expenses and budgets. The reality is, a synagogue is in the business of serving the religious needs of its members. We should never lose sight of that. When we give, let us remember that we are giving to God’s house, a house we Jews need to survive as a people. Knowing this is why giving to God should not be viewed as a burden, it should feel good. Like our ancestors, if we give from our hearts, perhaps pulpit rabbis all over will stand up and say, “Nu, enough already! Stop giving!” Imagine that! May we all be blessed with health, happiness and a whole lot of plenty.
RICHARD PERLMAN is rabbi of the West Bay Community Jewish Center.