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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Leaving Egypt: "To Give or Not to Give" and the Torah Portion of Terumah

This week's Torah portion begins with the description of how donations were supposed to be collected for the Temple. How much was each person supposed to give? As much as their heart would inspire them.

For the past few weeks, we have been discussing Tiferet (Balance/Beauty) in different aspects of life. In no area does this concept appear to be more pervasive than when it comes to giving Tzedakah. On the one hand, there appear to be certain limits regarding how much one should give. 10% is the minimum, but 20% is the maximum. Otherwise, the giver himself might end up being on the receiving end of someone else's Tzedakah. In Pirkei Avot, we are also told about being careful about keeping track of our tithes, apparently not to risk giving too little or too much. Another teaching in Pirkei Avot teaches, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?" (Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li?) A person must have boundaries, otherwise they risk being taken advantage by others, completely giving up their own needs and wants.

On the other hand, the same verse in Pirkei Avot continues, "If I am for myself, what am I?" ("Im Ani L'Atzmi, Mah Ani?") Yet another lesson in Pirkei Avot states that the pious are those that believe that, "What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours." (As opposed to the wicked who state that "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine." Even the one who states, "what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours," is compared to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are many other sources that seem to encourage giving in an unlimited fashion. It is well known that Tzadikim of previous generations would not go to sleep until they'd given out their every last cent. This was a sign of their trust in G-d. The Alter Rebbe also writes in the Tanya that the limits placed on giving do not apply when someone when it comes to giving Tzedakah in order to remedy past misdeeds. Just like there is no limit on spending money to save a life physically, the same holds true for saving a life spiritually through Tzedakah. There are also additional obligations when the person is physically before you, asking for Tzedakah, right here and now (which unfortunately happens quite often), Jewish law states that one is not allowed to leave the person empty-handed.

Nevertheless, it would seem that to give to a person who is known to be lying, faking poverty, using the money (self-)destructively, this would not even be considered Tzedakah at all. It would be considered enabling bad behavior, much along the lines of the Torah prohibition of placing a "stumbling block before the blind."

Finally, it is a well known principle that Hashem asks in a way of Middah-Keneged-Middah, which means that He acts towards you in the same manner that you act towards others (and yourself). Wouldn't it be better, then, to give without judging, in a way of unlimited Chesed, so that Hashem will do the same for us?

The answer, once again, does not appear to be simple. Furthermore, once again, the answer will indeed be different for different people and will change drastically depending on the circumstances.

Nevertheless, a closer look at the beginning of our Torah portion perhaps hints at the proper approach to answering this question. The name of this Torah portion, Terumah, means "offering" or "donation." It is mentioned twice in the portion's opening verse: 

"Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering."

The term Terumah is mentioned in yet a different context altogether later in the Torah. Rashi picks up on this and comments as follows:

you shall take My offering: Our Rabbis said: [The word תְּרוּמָה, mentioned three times, denotes that] three offerings are mentioned here: 

a) One is the offering of a beka [half-shekel] per head, from which they made the sockets... 

b) Another is the offering of a beka per head for the [community] coffers, from which to purchase the communal sacrifices, and 

c) another is the offering for the [construction of the] Mishkan [the Tabernacle], each one’s [Israelite’s] donation [to their heart's desire]. (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:1; Meg. 29b). 

The Rebbe explains these three different kinds of Terumah in terms of the three pillars that sustain the world, Torah (the sockets, that holds everything else together), prayer (communal service), and acts of kindness/mitzvot (performed with physical materials, such as gold, silver, and copper). The Rebbe explained that the Tabernacle was to be G-d's dwelling place in this world, and that it is the third type of Terumah, acts of kindness/mitzvot that physically achieve this (even though the other two are necessary elements) and that is why it is the third kind that is fully described in this Torah portion. (See a summary of this idea here)

Perhaps, one can also explain these three the kinds of Terumah as three aspects within Tzedakah itself. The Maharal explains that prayer is primarily about how we relate to G-d (as opposed to the cardinal sin of idol worship); Torah represents primarily how we relate to and improve ourselves (as opposed to the cardinal sin of immoral sexual behavior); deeds of kindness are about how we relate to others (as opposed to the cardinal sin of murder).  

The first two donations have a set amount per person. When it comes to giving Tzedakah to fulfill our obligation to ourselves, that requires only a set amount. When it comes to giving Tzedakah to fulfill our obligations to G-d, that also requires only a set amount. G-d, after all, wants us to enjoy the wealth He gave us as well. However, when it comes to helping others and fixing the world, which is the most essential aspect of Tzedakah, there is no limit. We give as much as we can, yet without upsetting the two above-mentioned principles: our obligation to ourselves and our obligation to G-d.

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