In parashat Vayakhel (and in next week’s parasha, Pekudei), we read about how the instructions for building the Mishkan (the portable sanctuary) were carried out. We learn about the collection of materials for the Mishkan, about the making of the tent, and about how the ark, the table, and the altars were fashioned.
And the Torah reports an amazing fact: the people were so enthusiastic and eager to donate materials for the Mishkan that the artisans recruited for the project told Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Lord has commanded to be done.”
So much was given so quickly that Moses had to issue a proclamation telling the people to stop making donations. I don’t remember ever being involved in a fund-raising project for which people gave so much that they had to be told to stop donating. However, Jews are remarkably generous.
Surely we might point with pride to our parasha as the foundation story for Jewish generosity if it were not for what the Torah told us last week. The people demanded that Aaron make them a god — the Golden Calf — and so Aaron asked for their jewelry. The Torah says, “And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.”
In Midrash Sifre Devarim (an early rabbinic commentary on the Book of Deuteronomy) we read:
Rabbi Shimon says, “A parable: to what may this be likened? To one who used to entertain scholars and students, and everyone praised him. Heathens came and he entertained them; robbers, and he entertained them also. Finally people said, ‘It is his nature to entertain anyone at all.’ Even so, Moses said to Israel ‘enough gold for the Tabernacle and enough gold for the calf.’”
As is the case with all human attributes, the value of generosity depends on context. Generosity to causes that effectively and efficiently support the poor, heal the sick, comfort the troubled, causes that underwrite education, social justice, and community services — and many more — is surely praiseworthy.
But sometimes, generosity is the wrong response. Sometimes it allows a donor to avoid dealing with a problem; sometimes it allows a recipient to continue anti-social or self-destructive behavior. Sometimes generosity causes significant harm — think of the Muslim charities shut down by the government when it was discovered that they were funneling money to terrorist organizations.
Be generous, but do your homework. Be sure that your generosity will help and not hurt. Make sure that your generosity will be used to build the Tabernacle, not the Calf.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.