.”The practice of Judaism is not reserved for the synagogue. Quite to the contrary, our experience in the synagogue is specifically intended to inspire us to practice Judaism everywhere else. Standing in prayer, giving praise to Gd and begging Him for help, as well as the study of our sacred texts, should have the effect of motivating us to live with faith in the Almighty and in compliance with His laws. Those who act “religious” in the synagogue but not elsewhere are missing the entire point and purpose of the institution of the synagogue.
It is with this basic premise in mind that we ought to approach the study of a section of the Humash which, unfortunately, many people neglect, regarding it as “boring” or, even worse, irrelevant, Heaven forbid. We believe that every word and every letter of the Torah is sacred and laden with profound meaning and significance – and this is true even of the sections in the Book of Shemot that deal with the Mishkan, the portable Bet Ha’mikdashwhich Gd commanded Beneh Yisraelto build during their stay at the foot of Mount Sinai. As we said, the synagogue’s purpose is to inspire us to act properly outside the synagogue. By the same token, the Torah’s instructions regarding the Mishkan– the first “synagogue” – are relevant not just with regard to the Mishkan, but to life generally. These sections, like every section of the Torah, without exception, provide us with valuable insights and principles that we are to live by each and every day.
While there is a great deal that can be learned about Torah life from the Mishkan, we will focus here on what the Mishkan can teach us about an especially important, and sensitive, area of life – money.
Writing a Kosher Check
The first lesson about money conveyed by the Mishkan is indicated by the placement of this section within the Book of Shemot. Parashat Terumah, which begins with Gd’s command to the people to donate materials for the construction the Mishkan, comes immediately following Parashat Mishpatim, which is devoted mainly to civil law. Many of the kinds of cases that are brought by litigants before a Bet Din, such as questions involving liability for damages, lending and borrowing, and the status of lost items, are discussed in Parashat Mishpatim. The Rabbis found it very significant that the Torah’s primary presentation of civil law precedes the Torah’s command to donate towards the building of the first sanctuary. The message communicated by this sequence is that we cannot donate money to lofty causes unless we are certain that the money rightfully belongs to us. Just as nobody would imagine using the hide of a non-kosher animal for a Torah scroll, we should similarly never countenance building or supporting a synagogue or other religious institutions with “non-kosher” money.
It is a grave mistake to think that donating ill-begotten money to a charitable cause has the effect of somehow erasing one’s guilt for dishonest business practices. In fact, this is not only a grave mistake, but a gross distortion of Judaism. Our religion does not give us a way to allowing lying, cheating, and stealing. To the contrary, our religion teaches us that Parashat Mishpatim comes before Parashat Terumah, that one must first be a good person before he can be a good Jew. If a sanctuary is built with money earned through dishonesty, then the sanctuary is inherently defective.
When a person sponsors a sebet or some other function in the synagogue, he must ensure not only that the food is kosher, but also that the check he writes is kosher, that the money he donates was earned honestly and in strict accordance with basic ethics and halachah.
This requirement is indicated by the very word “Terumah.” The great Sephardic sage Hida (Rav Haim Yosef David Azoulay) observed that the letters of this word also spell the word “hamutar – that which is permissible.” The terumah, the donations that we make to sacred causes, are valuable only if they are made from “hamutar,” from money that was honestly earned.
The “Gold Standard” of Charity
Another lesson relevant to charity is indicated by the first three materials which Beneh Yisrael were told to donate for the Mishkan: zahav(gold), kesef (silver), and nehoshet(copper).
Some commentators note these words allude to three different types of benefactors. Just as all three of these metals – gold, silver, and copper – are all valuable and precious, and all were needed for the Mishkan, similarly, all people who donate their hard-earned money for charitable causes are precious and praiseworthy, and will be rewarded for their generosity. However, just as gold is more precious than silver, and silver is more precious than copper, likewise, there are different gradations when it comes to donors of charity. The highest level is alluded to by the word “zahav,” which can be read as an acrostic for “zeh hanoten bari – this is one who gives when he is healthy.” The highest level of charity is achieved when one does not wait for any personal crisis to inspire him to donate. The “gold standard” of charity is giving because it’s the right thing to do, and not only when one seeks additional sources of merit during troubled times.
The next level is represented by the word “kesef,” which represents the phrase “kesheroeh sakanah pote’ah – when he sees danger he opens [his hands].” Such a person donates generously, but only when he “sees danger,” when, Heaven forbid, he faces a situation such as illness or some other crisis which prompts him to give charity. Finally, there is the level of “nehoshet,” which stands for “netinat holeh she’amar tenu – the donation of an ill patient who said, ‘Give’.” This refers to a gravely ill patient who, seeing that his end is near, drafts a will allocating money to charity. He had not given much charity during his lifetime, but seeing that he would soon be departing from this world, he recognizes that he cannot take any of his wealth with him, and so he orders that a portion of his estate be distributed to charity.
As mentioned, each and every dollar donated to charity is precious and sacred, deemed worthy of being included in the Mishkan. However, we are to aspire to the “gold standard” of charity, to donate out of conviction and idealism, recognizing that our money is to be used for the Mishkan, to glorify the Name of Gd. We should not wait until the fear of danger, or old age, prompts us to support worthy causes. This should be a priority at all times, and under all circumstances.
Giving and Taking
Our Rabbis also learned another lesson from the command to build a Mishkan – that giving is taking.
Gd formulates the command to donate with the phrase, “yikhu li terumah,” which literally means, “they shall take for Me a donation.” It seems odd, at first glance, that the Torah uses the verb “take” in reference to a charitable donation. Why would the act of donating be depicted with the word “take”?
The powerful answer that has been given is that indeed, when one gives charity, he receives.
Baron Rothschild was once asked by a certain king how much he was worth. He responded with a modest figure.
“Excuse me, Sir,” the king replied, “but according to reports, you’re worth about five times that amount! Are you lying?”
“Absolutely not,” the Baron said. “I am only worth the amount that I have given to philanthropic causes. Any money or property I possess could easily be lost or stolen. But my donations are mine – they can never be taken away from me.”
When we give charity, we earn our eternal share – a share that can never be lost. So, when we give, we actually receive. It’s like depositing money into a long-term savings account – one which pays infinitely more interest than any saving plan ever established.
Our relationship to our money has been described by way of an analogy to a fly stuck in a full bag of sugar. Sure, the fly is “rich” – it has a lifetime supply of sugar, more than it could ever consume. But on the other hand, it’s stuck. It can’t take the sugar anywhere. It can enjoy it only there, in the bag. And the same is true with us. We can enjoy our wealth for the brief period of time that we spend here in this world, but when the time comes for us to move on to the next world, all we take with us is our mitzvot – including the charity we donated. Hence, giving is taking. We exchange our worldly assets for eternal, spiritual assets, which are far more precious.
The Gemara in Masechet Sotah tells that at the time of the Exodus from Egypt, Beneh Yisrael were busy collecting the Egyptians’ valuables, whereas Moshe was busy retrieving Yosef’s remains in order to bring them to the Land of Israel for burial. Besides for the practical necessity of retrieving the coffin to fulfill the promise made to Yosef that he would be buried in his homeland, there was also another reason why Moshe tended to Yosef’s remains specifically at this time. As Beneh Yisrael suddenly became wealthy, after living as poor, downtrodden, oppressed slaves, Moshe wanted them to see the tomb of Yosef. Nobody was as wealthy as Yosef. He ruled over Egypt alongside Pharaoh when the country amassed all the money of the people in all the surrounding countries, who needed to purchase food from Egypt. But in the end, Yosef, like all people, passed on. He took with him inestimable merits accrued through his life of faith and good deeds, including the merit of sustaining millions of people who would have otherwise starved to death, but he did not take with him the slightest bit of material wealth. The most valuable assets we can earn are good deeds, and so by giving to charity, we gain, and do not lose.
The Poles of the Ark
The Torah issues an unusual command regarding the most sacred of all the articles in the Mishkan – the ark, which contained the tablets given to Moshe at Sinai as well as the first Torah scroll. The transport poles, which were used to carry the ark during travel, were to remain affixed to the ark at all times. One might have assumed that the poles should be set in place on the sides of the ark only when they were needed – at the time when the nation needed to travel through the desert. What purpose was served by keeping the poles in place at all times?
Several different answers have been given to this question, one of which views the poles alongside the ark as a symbol of those who support Torah study. Just as the poles carried the ark, which represents the Torah, benefactors are the ones who “carry” the Torah, who enable it to be preserved over the course of history. They fill the role of transporting Torah from one generation to the next, ensuring that our vibrant scholarly tradition remains intact as it is passed down. The poles are affixed to the sides of the ark at all times to teach that the generous supporters of Torah are part of parcel of the Torah. Their stature and reward are not secondary, but rather equal to those of the scholars whom they support.
The Mishnah teaches that in the future, Gd will bequeath “lekol tzadik vetzadik” – to each and every righteous person – no fewer than 318 “worlds” of reward. This is inferred from the verse in Mishleh (8:21), “Lehanhil ohavai yesh,” which implies that Gd will reward the righteous with “yesh” – a word with the numerical value of 318. Rabbi Eliyahu Hakohen of Izmir, in his work Midrash Talpiyot, explains that the Mishnah promises this reward “lekol tzadik vetzadik” – to both types of righteous people: those who devote themselves to Torah scholarship, and those who enable them to do so through their financial support. The great rewards for Torah study are granted not only to the scholars, but also to their supporters. The poles forever remain affixed to the ark, because the supporters of Torah are an integral part of the Torah enterprise and will be rewarded no less than the scholars themselves.
The Golden Children
One final lesson about money which can be learned from the Mishkanis also the most important.
As the Torah describes, the ark was covered with a special covering which featured two keruvim (“cherubs”) – images of young children with wings that hovered over the ark. It seems strange, at first glance, that our religion, which so vehemently opposes the worship of graven images, would require the presence of graven images in the most sacred place in the world. Why would the Torah command the nation to make keruvimover the ark?
Adding to the mystery is a curious halachahrequiring that the keruvim cannot be made from any material other than gold. The rest of the Mishkan’s furnishings, even those that are to be made from gold, may be made from cheaper materials when necessary. In times of economic hardship, compromises may be made, and even wood may be used in place of gold to save money. The keruvim, however, must be made from gold. Even when a shortage of funds necessitates compromising on the rest of the Mishkan, no compromises are allowed when it comes to the golden keruvimatop the ark.
Rav Meir Shapiro of Lublin revealed for us the timeless message of this law. The keruvimabove the ark symbolize our children’s Torah education. They hover over the Mishkanbecause our children are the Torah’s guarantors and protectors; they are the ones who will preserve Torah in the next generation. And they must be made of gold because nothing less than the “gold standard” is good enough when it comes to our children’s religious education. When finances are tight, we may make compromises anywhere in our communities’ “Mishkan.” As important as it is to have beautiful synagogues, we can compromise on the aesthetics of our houses of worship when necessary. And it goes without saying that we can compromise on the aesthetics of our homes, on the luxurious quality of our cars, our designer clothing, and our vacations. The one place where absolutely no compromises are ever allowed is the “keruvim” – our children’s Torah education. In this regard, anything short of the “gold standard” is unacceptable.
Many Jewish families – both in our community and beyond – struggle with the astronomical costs of living in today’s world. This problem is real, and must be addressed. But one solution that must never be considered is compromising the quality of Torah education. There are many areas of life where we can cut costs, both privately and communally. Choosing those areas is difficult and an issue about which reasonable people can respectfully disagree. But the quality of Torah education must never be open for discussion. This is the one area where anything less than “gold” is not good enough.
When resources are limited, we need to prioritize carefully. The keruvimatop the ark teach us that our children’s education must always be our very highest priority. We can reduce our budgets in many different areas – but Torah education is not one of them, and it never should be.