Terumah: "Giving and Taking"

It is something I have noticed just about every election year, and I am always taken aback by it. This year was no different.

Inevitably, the major candidates make their income tax reports public. Included in these reports are the contributions to charity that they have made during the past year. Some candidates contribute generously, sometimes even impressively, to the charities of their choice.

What shocks me is how some candidates give next to nothing. It is as if charitable contributions are simply not on their agenda. One recent candidate for national office reported that he gave the grand annual total of $139, an amount which most of us who attends religious services easily distributes in small change, just to the collection plate or tzedaka box.

I am certainly not in the business of endorsing candidates for political office. And I certainly do not believe that charitable giving, in and of itself, qualifies or disqualifies a person from governing competently. But I do believe that charity is a very important human value, and it is distressing that some of our leaders do not share that value.

The good news is that this uncharitable behavior does not typify American society as a whole. Indeed, statistics indicate that the charitable giving in this country far exceeds that of most other countries in the world.

But I well remember the first time that I encountered an entire nation, a superpower, which seemed to have expunged the giving of charity from its repertoire of behaviors. It was during my first visit to the former Soviet Union, exactly 21 years ago. My companion and I were taken to the only remaining functioning synagogue in the city of Odessa. We were gratified to see that there were at least a few Jews who attended the weekday morning service.

However, although one of them was qualified to lead the service, and many of them came to light yahrzeit memorial candles, something indefinable seemed to be missing. After a while, it dawned upon us that what were missing were the charity boxes which are to be found in synagogues of every type across the world, and which have been fixtures in Jewish houses throughout our history.

It was apparent from our interviews with those who did attend synagogue that morning that seventy years of Communist rule had broken the age-old custom of giving to others. Charity, along with so many Jewish people and Jewish traditions, was a casualty of the Communist regime.

In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), we read for the first time of an organized appeal for charity. "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: tell the people of Israel to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him." That is the way the first verses of this week's parsha are typically translated.

But, if translated literally, the phrase does not read "tell the people of Israel to bring Me gifts," but rather, "tell them to take My gifts", as if we were not giving but rather getting.

This literal reading is meant to convey a basic religious teaching. It is ludicrous to speak of giving to the Almighty. What can a mere mortal possibly possess that the Almighty lacks? At most, we can only give to Him from that which He has already given to us.

The ideal attitude for the person who gives charity is the recognition that he is not giving from his own possessions, because all of his possessions are gifts from the Almighty. All the charitable person is doing is returning gifts with which he has been blessed.

This attitude is most eloquently expressed in the words of King David after he successfully concluded his collection of the donated materials out of which the holy Temple would eventually be built. The reader may be familiar with the opening phrases of King David's address from the Siddur, the daily prayer book. But note the powerful words which the Siddur omits:

"David blessed the Lord in front of all the assemblage... Now, God, we praise You and extol Your glorious name. Who am I and who are my people, that we should have the means to make such a free will offering; for all is from You, and it is Your gift that we have given back to You." (1 Chronicles 29:10-14)

To the extent that a religious person is sincerely convinced that he owes everything he has to the Almighty, he cannot help but be charitable. He knows that he is simply giving back a gift that was bestowed upon him.

This is a basic Jewish teaching, and although not all of us can claim the same sensitivity as did King David, we can be proud of the Jewish record for charitable giving.

The biblical society whose lack of charity brought about its ultimate destruction was the society of Sodom. Nowadays, we associate Sodom with sexual immorality, but the prophet Ezekiel saw it differently:

"Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy." (Ezekiel 16:48) It was Sodom's failure to be charitable that did her in.

The rabbis, in Ethics of the Fathers (Avot 5:14), speak of four types of human character, one of which is the person who says "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours." But whereas some rabbis maintained that this philosophy of life is morally neutral, other rabbis insisted that this was the essence of the philosophy of Sodom. The person who guides his life by the motto "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is yours" is, from this point of view, a person who cares not about the other, and who, when put to the test, is capable of the cruelty which our tradition attributes to Sodom.

The absence of charity, whether in political candidates or in entire nations, is a troubling symptom indeed. It portends indifference and callousness.

However, where charity exists, there can be found compassion, concern, empathy, and mutual care-giving. Those are the elements of a desirable society.