Sacred Giving

The Israelites responded favorably to the call for donations because they knew they were creating a place for God to dwell among them.

Commentary on Parashat Terumah, Exodus 25:1 - 27:19

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?

Maybe it is the absence of God’s presence in our own Jewish institutions that prevents a similarly universal and positive response to today’s calls for donations. Start with synagogues, which certainly ought to manifest God’s presence, not just be busy places with revolving doors for kids dropped-off and kids picked-up when religious school is over. But the same may be said about Jewish hospitals and all our sundry agencies that serve the needs of people in trouble or despair. They too should be motivated not just by secular considerations but by the sense that God’s presence hovers in their doorways, promising the kind of care that purely secular institutions necessarily lack. Jewish hospitals should feature the patent sense that its doctors, nurses and administrators reflect what the Talmud calls the “divine permission” to be like God and bring about healing. Our agencies should treat people with the conscious knowledge that it is God who looks over their shoulder urging them on to goodness. Clients who enter Jewish Family Services need good therapy, but in addition, they have the right to expect the uniquely spiritual nurture that comes from sensing divine purpose in their lives.

Once upon a time, when Jews could not avail themselves of other communal agencies, we had to create Jewish ones. Now that we can use the commonly available network of support, there is little reason to maintain Jewish alternatives unless they are really Jewish – places, that is, where the care differs because it comes with God’s presence, not just the social worker’s.

The Israelites responded favorably to the call for donations because they knew they were creating a place for God to dwell among them. To the extent that people think the projects that we ask them to support are suffused with the sacred, they will give also. If not, our once-popular causes may sound redundant to what society offers elsewhere. Every Jewish organization needs to be a tabernacle in its own right. Build a house of God, and they will come – bringing whatever it takes to keep God active among us.

This essay was commissioned to accompany the September 3, 2013 release of Connected to Give (, the first in a series of reports published by Jumpstart ( on the first-ever nationwide study of the charitable behaviors and motivations of American Jews.

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