Friday, February 24, 2012

Parshat Terumah: Giving & Taking

This week's parshah begins with something very near and dear to the heart of the Jewish community: contribution. HaShem says to the Israelites, “Take for Me (vayikchu-li) an offering from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity" in preparation for the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle that will be carried throughout the desert and eventually will lead to the building of the Beit haMikdash, the holy Temple.

It's a particular word spin, and I hope it makes you pause. The Big Man speaks, saying we should take from ourselves -- but only if we're inspired! The verb that's used does not mean give, it means quite literally to take, which also is peculiar because how does one take of himself or from himself? How does one provide a contribution on command and guarantee that it's genuinely inspired?

Very little of giving today happens on demand. HaShem doesn't call us on Super Sunday and say we have to give to our local federations or that the local Jewish retirement facility needs funds so we must give. And even if that did happen, would we? What compels us to give? Is it the action of taking of ourselves rather than giving of ourselves? It becomes a two-way street when you take something from your own life, from your own lot, and provide it for others. When you give, it's less so.

I want to start using more folktales on the blog (and really, who doesn't), so let's start with this one, a Yiddish one, that offers perspective on the difference between "giving" and "taking."

"Yankel the Cheapskate" would not give money to anyone, for any reason. It didn't matter how important the cause. No one could crack him. He just wouldn't contribute. One day, Yankel was crossing the river in a small boat. Suddenly, a huge storm breaks out, and his boat capsizes. Luckily, another boat approached. The sailor calls out to him: "Give me your hand. Give me your hand."

Yankel can barely hear him over the strong winds and the roaring waves. He hears only one word, over and over: "Give, Give..."

And good old Yankel can't help himself. He yells back: "No. I don't give. I don't give."

Again: "Yankel, give me your hand! Give me your hand." And again Yankel screams: "Never. I don't give."

Finally, in desperation, the rescuer yells: "Yankel, take my hand." And Yankel says: "Oh, take? Sure."

I think that this week's parshah offers a spin on what we considering taking. To take something from someone else benefits the self, so perhaps HaShem knew that asking the Israelites to take of themselves would give them a chance to feel a part of the building of the mishkan. No matter how poor or rich, old or young, everyone provided for the construction. Everyone took of themselves to put into the construction of a dwelling place for the shechinah (the divine presence of HaShem). 

An old adage says that "A fool gives, a wise person takes." Be the wise person and whenever you offer a contribution or gift, make sure that you're taking of yourself and not just giving. Okay? Okay. 

That's your public service announcement for Shabbat. If you want more on the awesome goodness that is tzedakah, I suggest you check out Maimonides Eight Levels of Charity, which is fascinating.