This essay was commissioned to accompany the September 3, 2013 release of Connected to Give (connectedtogive.org), the first in a series of reports published by Jumpstart (jewishjumpstart.org) on the first-ever nationwide study of the charitable behaviors and motivations of American Jews.
If you are a synagogue president, professional fund-raiser or Federation campaign chair, “Gird up your loins,” (as they say in Bible talk) – meaning get going and check out the first-ever capital campaign in Jewish history: Parashat Terumah. Here’s the thing: everyone gave. We are not talking 50% of the population (wishful thinking), or 80% (a crazy dream), or even 95% (a virtual hallucination), but 100% — every single soul who left Egypt. All of this without a women’s division or special drives for lawyers, dentists, and accountants; and not even one award dinner. It came from men and women without a single bank account, share of common stock, charitable trust, or need for a tax write-off. They just gave – because they wanted to.
The Torah is clear on this, and so is Midrash Rabbah which says explicitly that everyone responded: not just those who with possessions set aside from Egypt, but even people who had saved little, if anything, but who scraped together at least something for the desert tabernacle. The absolutely destitute, says Rab Nachman of Bratslav, donated their best intentions within, and according to the Chatam Sofer, if the wealthy had tried to give it all, so as to save the poor their share, they wouldn’t have been allowed to, since this was truly a project for all of Israel.
At stake was what economists call a public good – like municipal services or parklands: something set aside to benefit the general public. Nowadays, we tax people for such things, with a referendum, perhaps, to justify a special assessment. By contrast, our biblical forebears just gave — freely and without even a murmur.
Here is the reason why: this was a building where God would dwell. Ramban says that God’s presence moved there from Sinai. It was not immediately visible; there was no awesome display of lightning and thunder, like a divine scare tactic to terrorize the people into giving. But somehow, they knew anyway that this would be a place to meet God. Who wouldn’t donate willingly if our gifts would bring God into our lives?