November 17, 2018

Obligation or choice?

Were contributions toward the building of the Tabernacle voluntary or compulsory? Those of us who have stood before our communities during a building campaign have always tended to favor the latter option, as this makes for a more effective appeal. But the classical commentaries on the Torah — presumably more objective in their approach to the question — are rather evenly divided on it.

“Speak to the children of Israel that they take contributions for Me. From every person whose heart is moved by generosity, you shall take My contributions” (Exodus 25:2).

Rashi presumes this phrase to be indicating that all the donations were free-will offerings and that the Jewish people’s first capital campaign was entirely voluntary.

By contrast, there is a cluster of commentators who insist that this was not the case. Representative of this cluster is the relatively contemporary Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin. Based on logical considerations alone, he rules out the possibility that God was simply asking for voluntary contributions.

“And if Israel had not contributed voluntarily,” Netziv asks, “the Tabernacle would have been allowed to go unbuilt?!”

This is simply a non-starter for Netziv. In addition, he cites the normative ruling of halachah (Jewish law) that all members of the Jewish community may be compelled to contribute to the building of a synagogue, and wonders how the building of the Tabernacle could possibly have been any less so. He also points out that the Talmud derives the regulations governing compulsory tzedakah (charity) collection from the story of the building of the Tabernacle. Clearly, the Talmud assumed that Israelites in the desert were assessed, not appealed to. The critical phrase in the biblical text is not the one that Rashi emphasizes, Netziv contends. Rather it is the phrase, “that they take contributions.” God is instructing Moses to create the committee whose members would go from tent door to tent door, and — it’s hard to put this delicately — take.

An interesting twist on this age-old debate is presented by Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno of the 16th century. Like Netziv, Sforno accepts the notion that the phrase “that they take” implies the requirement to appoint official Tabernacle “collectors.” Curiously though, he then also goes on to hold up Rashi’s belief that it was voluntary and arrives at the slightly tortured conclusion that contrary to the rule of all later such community collectors, those who labored on behalf of the Tabernacle project were to take voluntary contributions only. For whatever it may lack in interpretive elegance, Seforno’s dogged determination to preserve the voluntary quality of the contributions to the Tabernacle is impressive. The question of course is why he (like Rashi) was so absolutely convinced that it had to be a voluntary system. What makes them so certain that God would not have had it any other way?

The key to the answer may, paradoxically, be Netziv’s most powerful counterargument: “And if Israel had not contributed voluntarily, the Tabernacle would have been allowed to go unbuilt?!”

Sforno would have answered an emphatic “yes!” to this question, and he would have further said, “That was the whole point of God’s commanding the building of the Tabernacle to begin with.” The project was not, in the final analysis, about God’s having a place to rest His presence; the Presence of God is, as King Solomon pointed out, transcendent of physical space. Rather, it was a challenge to the children of Israel to discover what their hearts were made of. “From every person whose heart is moved by generosity, you shall take My contributions.”

This moment was designed and intended by God to be the first one in which the people would be forced to ask themselves how much generosity their hearts were capable of, how much love of God they had and to what extent they could be counted on to stand up and realize the great endeavors that would define Israel’s vision and spiritual identity. Indeed, if they would not step up, the Tabernacle would not be built. That’s precisely what made the challenge meaningful and made self-discovery possible.

Every morning we recite the Mishna: “These are mitzvot [commandments] that have no prescribed quantity: the leaving of a corner of the field for the poor … acts of lovingkindness and the study of Torah.”

The point of the Mishna is not only that there is no upper limit as to how these mitzvot may be performed, but also that there is almost no lower limit. These are mitzvot that can be performed in a token way, if that’s all a person is moved to do. And that is exactly what gives these mitzvot their special, Tabernacle-like quality. Every opportunity to initiate an act of lovingkindness is ultimately voluntary. Any given opportunity to study Torah is a choice, not an obligation. And this is what makes them invaluable opportunities for self-discovery. These are the moments when we are compelled to ask ourselves just how committed we actually are to the vision with which God has entrusted us. And these are the moments when we can rise to a challenge in ways more profound than when we fulfill mitzvot that are more compulsory in nature. These are the kinds of moments that are potentially transformative, as the building of the Tabernacle was for our ancestors in the desert.

A midrash: When the Holy One, Blessed be He, commanded Moses concerning the Tabernacle, Moses said, “Can the children of Israel really do this?” And God replied, “You will see that any one of them could do it alone,” as it is written, “from any person whose heart is moved by generosity you shall take My contributions.” This was the challenge, the challenge of self-discovery with which God dignified us in the desert.

Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.