At one time or another, we have all contributed to a financial campaign. Projects, buildings and institutions call upon us to join with them in their endeavours.
Imagine, if you will, a scene where all of your campaign contributors have been called upon, pledges have been made, but there is still a shortfall. The last name on your list is a well-known philanthropist, and when asked for a pledge, he says: “Let me know how much your campaign is short and I will make up the difference.”
What would your reaction be? You would probably thank and applaud him for this most magnanimous offer.
A similar scene can be found in this week’s Torah portion of Vayakhel, although with quite a different ending. At the outset of the construction of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle – the nesiim, the heads of each tribe, wait until the completion of construction before volunteering their wealth.
Even though this may seem commendable, the Torah, in rebuke of their attitude, removes the letter “yud” from the word nesiim, which is normally spelled with two “yudin.” (see Exodus 35:27.
The obvious question is why? Most probably, what the leadership donated was worth more than the total of all the other donations.
In a related story in the Talmud, in Kiddushin 31a, we see that the sages were willing to pay great sums for the precious stones that adorned the priestly garments. Why then were the nesiim punished?
Perhaps by looking at the rebuke, we can understand the reasoning. When the letter “yud” is added to a Hebrew word, it creates a plural. The nesiim did not share with the multitude of the Nation of Israel in the building of the Mishkan. They hesitated in their fulfilment of this mitzvah and thereby missed it completely.
In a few weeks, we will celebrate a Shabbat known as Shabbat Shekalim. It was given this name, because a special Torah portion concerning the commandment that everyone must give a half-shekel for atonement is read publicly. This obligation was incumbent equally on both affluent and underprivileged during the month of Adar. The prosperous could not give more and the unfortunate could not give less. The commentaries explain that this mandatory donation was collected for the benefit of the entire nation since it was used for the purchase of the daily sacrifices of atonement. The shekel was the great equalizer – it had to be given, by everyone, on time, for the benefit of the nation.
The nesiim should have anticipated the possibility that, in their enthusiasm and devotion to HaShem, the people might contribute everything themselves – which, in fact, is what happened in the case of the Mishkan.
Covering a deficit is a wonderful offer if one is concerned about the recipient. But in the case of the Mishkan, the recipient was the Creator of the universe. He did not need the assistance of the nesiim or anyone else. The commandment to donate to the Mishkan was a singular privilege granted to the Jewish people for their own benefit.
Tzedakah is a great mitzvah, but like all other commandments, it is based upon Godly principles and ethics. Perhaps the underlying message is that when it comes to mitzvot that embody kindness and empathy, like tzedakah, we may be receiving more than we are giving.
Rabbi Meir Rosenberg is executive director of Mizrachi Canada and the rav of Congregation Ayin L’Tzion in Thornhill, Ont.