The establishment of Jewish communities and institutions has always struck us as a remarkable achievement, involving delicately balanced combinations of vision, sacrifice and practical ability.
The designated readings from the Torah over the next few weeks tell of what was perhaps the first communal building project in Jewish history, the construction of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that was to serve as the center of worship during the people's wanderings through the wilderness, until it was replaced by the permanent Temple built by King Solomon in Jerusalem.
Needless to say, the biblical passages describing this event have a lot to teach us about the nature of communal involvement and the skills and attitudes required for the building of successful Jewish institutions.
The sages and rabbis of previous generations were wont to interpret the scriptural verses in the light of their own concerns and to find in them useful models for their own congregational life.
A community such as ours, that is hard-put to keep its synagogues and schools on a solid financial footing, has much to learn from this earliest of Jewish "appeals."
The wording of the biblical passage is inherently enigmatic: God orders Moses to tell the people "that they shall take for me an offering, of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering" (Exodus 25:2). On the one hand, emphasis is placed on taking the contributions, without regard for the willingness of the donors; the commentators have called attention to the surprising fact that the normal Hebrew words for giving are virtually absent throughout the relevant chapters.
On the other hand, the very same verse also underscores the voluntary character of the contribution, as the people's hearts motivate them to give to the cause.
Others however take the opposite stance: the commitment to supporting community institutions should not be left to the fickle and unpredictable vagaries of spontaneous inspiration, but should be grounded and regulated in legal obligation. Such an approach underlies the explanation of that "arch-Litvak" Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the "Netziv of Volozhin") to Exodus 39:22: "And the children of Israel did according to all that God had commanded Moses; so did they do."
According to the Netziv the verse should be understood as saying: "In spite of their enthusiasm at the moment, which might have inspired them to go beyond what God had ordered, the people restrained themselves and obediently restricted their activity to a precise fulfilment of God's commands, and no more."
One of the tensions which the Talmudic Rabbis perceived as having arisen in the mishkan building project involved the relationship between the wealthy donors and the average Israelite-in-the-street who could only afford to contribute his few pennies to the cause.
As related in Talmudic legend, the tribal princes (nesi'im) were quick to respond to Moses' call, offering to pay for the entire project. Moses rejected the offer as running counter to God's intention (Exodus 25:2-3): "Of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take my offering."
In the creation of Jewish institutions the purpose was not simply to get the job done as efficiently as possible; getting the people involved in the project was perceived as an end in itself.
In later generations this principle was to inspire a heated controversy between the Pharisees--who refused to allow communal offerings to be donated to the Temple by wealthy individuals--and their Sadducee opponents.
The Pharisaic approach has generally been upheld by subsequent generations of Jewish fund-raisers (including the various Israel appeals) who have recognized the importance of reaching out to the 85% of the population who are responsible for only 15% of the donations.
By the time we reach the end of the campaign (Exodus 36:5-7) the generosity of the people has surpassed the actual requirements of the Sanctuary, and Moses has to issue orders to stop accepting donations.
That is to say, from their earliest history, the Jews could be identified as willing contributors to any appeal, without always looking carefully into the target of their generosity.
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First Publication: JS, Feb. 17 1989.