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'Of every man whose heart makes him willing'
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Photo: Ruchama Weiss
Ruchama Weiss and Yona Arzi
Photo: Ruchama Weiss

'Terumah': Put your money where your mouth is

Even if the children of Israel escaping from Egypt really were owners of valuable items, the journey into the unknown makes the Divine request for an offering especially difficult. Who can dare to freely offer one's property at a time when one's future is clouded in the fog of uncertainty?

The Jew's golden riddle

It is as if we aren't talking about a nation of slaves that escaped by the skin of their teeth from a wicked government and pursued through the wilderness and miraculously crossed the Red Sea.



It is as if the people under discussion are well fed and established on their own land for many years when this week's Torah portion, "Terumah," opens with a celebratory request of Moses (25:1-7): "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 'Speak to the children of Israel, that they take to Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering... gold, and silver, and brass; 4 and blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen... onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod, and for the breastplate.'"


Biblical commentators must answer the challenging question, how did a people who in the escape couldn't even find the time to properly bake bread come to possess such precious treasures?


Even if the children of Israel escaping from Egypt really were owners of such valuable items, the journey into the unknown makes the Divine request for an offering especially difficult. Who can dare to freely offer his or her property at a time when one's future, and one's family's future, is clouded in the fog of uncertainty?


After a series of challenging loyalty tests that the slave nation has already passed, the "Terumah" Torah portion begins with another difficult test. A people under existential stress are asked to donate from their personal possessions to build the Tabernacle, a portable desert Temple. The phase of speech and declarations is finished. The children of Israel are required to give financial backing to the saying "We will do and we will listen."


Voluntary or obligatory donation?

The language that the command is phrased in is surprising: "'Speak to the children of Israel, that they take to Me an offering; of every man whose heart makes him willing you shall take My offering'."


Specifically the phrase "Take to Me" is surprising. We usually say that people give to others and take for themselves. For example in Genesis 3:6 it is written: "And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food... she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat."


Therefore the phrasing of the command should have been "give Me an offering." The decision to write "take to Me" hints at ambivalence in relation to spirit of generosity found in the children of Israel: Will they bring the offering willingly? Will there be a need to be an effort "to take" it, perhaps even by force? Will there be adequate funding for the Tabernacle if only those whose "hearts make them willing" give? In affluent times it is difficult to convince people to give. All the more so at the beginning of the wanderings in the wilderness.


The difficulty in donating and the tension between force and choice in the experience of giving is illustrated in the following Midrash (Pesikta Zutrata, Terumah, 25, 2): "'Take to Me' - If one is late in giving freely from his heart, take my offering from him by force.'"


The need for the fundraisers to take the donation, and the difficulty of the donors to part with their valuable property is also recognized in the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, Targum Yonaton: "Without violence take my offering."


Even for good and wealthy it is hard to give

There are several, not complimentary traditions that deal with Rabbi Tarfon's lust for money. There is a tradition about Rabbi Akiva teaching his teacher and friend Rabbi Tarfon a lesson on giving that is touching in its candor (Babylonian Talmud, Masechet Kallah 1:21): "What will a man do when his sons are rich? He will do the will of Heaven and the will of his wife. These are the will of Heaven: He will distribute his money to the poor... It is said of a Rabbi Tarfon that he was very wealthy, and he would not give gifts to the poor.


"Once Akiva found him and said to him: 'Rabbi, Would you like for me to take for you a city or two?' He answered: 'Yes.' Rabbi Tarfon immediately gave him 40,000 Golden Dinar. Rabbi Akiva took them and distributed them amongst the poor. Sometime thereafter Rabbi Tarfon found Rabbi Akiva and said to him: 'Akiva, where are the cities that you took from me?' Rabbi Akiva took him by the hand and lead him to the Beit Midrash. He took out the Book of Psalms and placed hit before the students. They read on until arriving at Psalm 112, verse 9: 'He has scattered abroad, he has given to the needy; his righteousness endures for ever; his horn shall be exalted in honor.' Rabbi Tarfon stood up and kissed his head and told him: 'My teacher, My champion! My teacher in wisdom! My teacher in proper behavior!'"


At the story's opening two aspects of Rabbi Tarfon's personality are presented: "That he was very wealthy, and he would not give gifts to the poor." If this difficult description wasn't enough, it is preceded by the attribution: "They said of him" - people would gossip about his wealth and about his stinginess. In the markets and in the batei midrash people are discussing the important Sage that is able to help the poor but chooses not to do so.


Someone needs to act, to properly educate one of the greatest Sages, and "take" from him an offering. Rabbi Akiva volunteers for this educational act, a bold sage who has personally experienced difficulty in earning a living and lived in poverty. In a smile evoking, roundabout question Rabbi Akiva asks Rabbi Tarfon: "Would you like for me to take for you a city or two?" as if this were a game of Monopoly.


In order to emphasize Rabbi Tarfon's wealth when he casually buys "a city or two," we learn that he almost forgot the money Rabbi Akiva gave him. Only when they meet by chance, is Rabbi Tarfon reminded of his money and looks for the list cities. This is the moment when Rabbi Akiva reveals to him "Operation Taking Donation." In order to prove to Rabbi Tarfon how charitably blind he had been, Rabbi Akiva requests from some small children to read from the book of Psalms, and this we learn what is obvious to every child, but hidden from the eyes of Rabbi Tarfon - Whomever distributes and gives his money to the poor merits a much more stable reward than property: "his horn shall be exalted in honor."


If it was difficult for Rabbi Tarfon to donate money, what can we expect from the generation wandering in the wilderness?


When an 'offering' isn't voluntary

During the years 1938-1948, there existed in the Jewish community in the Land of Israel an institution called Kofer HaYishuv ("community ransom"), a tax imposed by the Jewish National Council to finance central security operations and increase the size of the self-defense force known as the Haganah which also collected the funds.


The idea for the tax was born during the 1936–39 Arab revolt, and funded the Notrot (a Jewish guard brigade in the British police force during the British Mandate), the police forces of the Hebrew settlements, the establishment of the Palmach (the elite fighting force of the Haganah – the underground Jewish army during the British Mandate and precursor to the IDF), and the Haganah's field companies.


Moving and relevant to our topic of discussion, is "Operation Jewelry Gift," in which people donated gold jewelry, silver candlesticks, and even their wedding rings. Every donor received a "souvenir": A brass ring, pin, or paper tray stamped with the symbol "Community Ransom."


The architects of the "community ransom tax" also understood the tension that was included in the general request for a donation and the specific 'Operation Jewelry Gift.' The poet Emanuel the Russian, that was tasked with diplomatically explaining the 'community ransom tax' described "Operation Jewelry Gift" in a poem:


"The call of giving to the community tax – all will satisfy,

Broken off gold and silver to the Haganah – all will sanctify.

One will give a ring one his life – and die,

This treasure for security – will redemption justify.

Much has come before us – at a high price of sorrow,

But we won't be slaughtered sheep – if will redden our morrow."


Note how heavy the efforts at persuasion, how much effort and fear-mongering, are included in one short, rhymed, forced poem, intended to address the tension between "taking" and "offering."


As a side note we will comment on the surprising choice of Emanuel the Russian to persuade the public to donate their jewelry while simultaneously alluding to the donation of jewelry by the children of Israel to the sin of the golden calf.


The poet Emanuel the Russian is referring to difficult Biblical verses that describe the enthusiastic, non-ambivalent spirit of generosity that gripped the people specifically at a moment when they were asked to donate in support of idolatry (Exodus 32:2-3): "And Aaron said to them: 'Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them to me.' And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron."


'Take to Me an offering'

An old-new story of a "taken" offering can be taken from Muki Tzur's book: Until a few years ago it was the custom in one of the kibbutzim in Israel to celebrate Kibbutz Day. Senior kibbutz members were asked to bring an object connected to the early years of the kibbutz. One kibbutz member sat off to the side and cried. She shared that when she made aliyah to Israel, her parents requested of her to take a Kiddush cup, candlesticks, and a hanukkiah with her to Israel. She refused, saying: "I won't need these in the kibbutz."


A few years later, a messenger appeared in the kibbutz, and he had with him the candlesticks, Kiddush cup, and hanukkiah. The embarrassed kibbutz member hid the objects under her bed in a shoe box. When the "community ransom tax" collector took the possessions, she gave them happily and with pride. That was why she cried...


And in the beit midrash of talkbacks

You noted to us an incorrect reference, so I am attaching here the link (this time correct and working...) to the website "Parents and caregivers of children with special needs." It seems to be an attractive and helpful site.


Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas


Click here to read this article in Hebrew


פרסום ראשון: 02.02.14, 10:20
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