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Giving Selflessly (Terumah)

It’s not often that you find yourself being sued for refusing to accept a donation. That, in essence, is what happened to Secretary of State Francis Valeo in 1976, after Congress passed a series of laws limiting the amount of money that individual citizens (or candidates) could contribute towards election campaigns. The aim of this legislation was simple enough: to prevent the wealthy from wielding disproportionate influence on policies which affect the entire nation. Yet Senator James Buckley—the lead plaintiff in a case that would ultimately reach the Supreme Court—argued that these rules violated donors’ rights to “freedom of speech.” Ultimately, the court agreed with him. In a landmark decision, it ruled:    

Senator James Buckley

Senator James Buckley

While the independent expenditure ceiling… fails to serve any substantial governmental interest… it heavily burdens core First Amendment expression. For the First Amendment right “to speak one’s mind… on all public institutions’” includes the right to engage in “‘vigorous advocacy’ no less than ‘abstract discussion.’” Advocacy of the election or defeat of candidates for federal office is no less entitled to protection under the First Amendment than the discussion of political policy generally or advocacy of the passage or defeat of legislation…

The ceiling on personal expenditures by candidates on their own behalf, like the limitations on independent expenditures…  imposes a substantial restraint on the ability of persons to engage in protected First Amendment expression.  The candidate, no less than any other person, has a First Amendment right to engage in the discussion of public issues and vigorously and tirelessly to advocate his own election and the election of other candidates… The ancillary interest in equalizing the relative financial resources of candidates competing for elective office… is clearly not sufficient to justify the provision’s infringement of fundamental First Amendment rights…

We long have recognized that significant encroachments on First Amendment rights… cannot be justified by a mere showing of some legitimate governmental interest.

Whether or not the court came to the correct conclusion in Buckley v. Valeo is a question best left to constitutional experts. At any rate, the jurisprudential consequences of this case are less instructive for our purposes than are its ethical implications. What is perhaps most fascinating about Buckley v. Valeo, in this regard, is the way that its justices define the relationship between benefactors and beneficiaries. Not once throughout their decision do the justices invoke the concept of “duty” to describe the act of giving. Instead, they present the of act of giving as a “right,” which one is “entitled” to exercise even if one’s gift might cause more harm than good. Thus, the conversation is framed entirely in terms of the interests of the donor. The welfare of the recipient, by contrast, is hardly regarded at all.

Compare that case to the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion:

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering. From every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. And this is the offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson wool; linen and goat hair… And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst. According to all that I show you, the pattern of the Mishkan and the pattern of all its vessels—so shall you do (Exod. 25:1-9).

In this passage, Hashem requests that the Israelites construct a sanctuary in which He can “dwell.” The request is simple enough. Yet if we read carefully, we perceive a delicate dialectic operating within this request—a dialectic which challenges our intuitive notions about what it means to give. On one hand, nobody is forced to contribute materials towards the building of the sanctuary: Hashem desires gifts only from those “whose hearts inspire [them] to generosity.” On the other hand, these “inspired hearts” are not free to give whatever they please. The list of materials Hashem asks for is meticulously detailed, leaving no room for individual discretion. And so we confront the following contradiction: “And this is the offering that you shall take…” In some sense, it is an “offering”—that is, it is voluntary; and yet, it “shall” be taken—that is, it is mandatory. This is truly paradoxical.

In fact, we find the same paradox elsewhere in the Torah as well. Consider the laws of the “peace offering:”

And this is the law of the peace offering, which one shall bring to the Lord. If he is bringing it as a thanksgiving offering, he shall offer along with the thanksgiving offering unleavened loaves mixed with oil, unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and scalded flour mixed with oil…  But if his sacrifice is a vow or a voluntary donation, on the day he offers up his sacrifice it may be eaten, and on the next day, whatever is left over from it, may be eaten. However, whatever is left over from the flesh of the sacrifice on the third day, shall be burnt in fire.  And if any of the flesh of his peace offering is to be eaten on the third day, it shall not be accepted; it shall not count for the one who offers it; [rather,] it shall be rejected, and the person who eats of it shall bear his sin (Exod. 7:11-18).

Around a year ago, we discussed the significance of some of the rules surrounding the “peace offering.” What we did not discuss in that context, however—though it is in some sense the most critical point of all—is why this offering should be subject to rules, in the first place. After all, the peace offering is offered by individuals seeking to express their gratitude and goodwill. It is personal, emotional, and, in many cases, entirely optional. Yet though the individual is free to choose whether to sacrifice, he is not free to choose what or how to sacrifice. Once he has decided to give, the process is strictly regulated; suddenly, the individual finds himself encumbered by a whole host of obligations. What is the message here?

“בלבבי משכן אבנה”–“In my heart, I will build a sanctuary.” Sung by Micky Rosenberg.

It seems that what Hashem is cautioning us against, both through these laws and through the laws outlined in our Torah portion, is the sort of giving which purports to be other-oriented but which ultimately serves the self—the “giving” which, in essence, is actually a form of taking. There are, unfortunately, many selfish ways to give. The father who enrolls his son in three different sports leagues may think that he is giving; the mother who insists upon outfitting her daughter in only the latest fashions may think that she is giving; and the teacher who pushes a student to participate in an academic competition that will bring great honor to the school may think that he or she is giving, too. But if the son doesn’t enjoy sports, and the daughter doesn’t appreciate designer labels, and the student is feeling overstressed as a result of all the pressure being placed upon him or her, then whose interests are ultimately being served?

When we genuinely care about somebody, we do not give them what we want them to have. We give them what they need to receive. If our siblings need more attention, then we don’t buy them more toys—we give them more attention. If our parents need help around the house, then we don’t offer to run their errands for them—we give them help around the house. If our roommates need time to study, then we don’t invite them to a movie—we give them time to study. Giving—despite the language of the Supreme Court—is not a right. It is a duty. And thus, it is not about us. It is entirely about others.

This, then, is the challenge of our Torah portion: to give in a way that is selfless and sincere. Such giving should begin with the excitement and spontaneity that stem from an “inspired heart.” But the “inspired heart” must with time become a “committed heart:” it must learn to give to the other no matter what he, or she, or He, may request of it. When we can do that—then, “בלבבי משכן אבנה”; then, “ושכנתי בתוכם;” then, our hearts become the “sanctuaries” in which even Hashem finds enough room to “dwell.”

Shabbat shalom!


Note: If you’d like, you can access a postscript to this article here. 🙂


1 Comment

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Great insight Alex. Thank you very much Alex.

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