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Va-yakhel 5779: Giving to Receive and Giving to Give

Va-yakhel 5779: Giving to Receive and Giving to Give

Mar 05, 2019

As I turned on my car radio on Thursday morning—on my way to Starbucks for my office hour, please come by any Thursday from 8-9!—I discovered that it is yet again that time of year. Not some religious or civil holiday, not some milestone in our ever-expanding election cycle. No, it is one of the annual NPR pledge drives! My usual listening was interrupted by impassionate pleas for financial support of the nonprofit radio station.

NPR broadcasts for free to anyone with a radio, so there’s no way they could charge their listeners in a direct, fee-for-service way. Nor, like private stations, do they rely on advertising. Instead, like a synagogue, they appeal to their members and listeners for sustaining support.

In this respect, it was interesting to note the nature of the reasons they gave for supporting NPR. One set of reasons appealed to the self-interest of the listeners. They are used to paying for their content either directly through subscriptions or indirectly by sitting through advertising, or both. So, just as a magazine reader pays for the magazine, so should an NPR listener pay for the content he or she enjoys. If you want to keep listening to NPR, then you should pay in to keep it in operation. Fee-for-service, in a transactional way.
But there was also a second set of arguments that was less focused on paying back for the individual benefit received, but rather on the benefit to the general public provided by NPR. Especially memorable was a recounting of the major layoffs that have occurred in the last few years at for-profit local media outlets, leading to a significant decrease in the number of journalists covering local news. The NPR hosts suggested that concerned citizens should pay in to keep NPR’s local coverage going, so that someone is paying attention to local government decisions and holding its officials accountable to the public.

This and similar arguments were based on the idea that the radio station is a public institution that benefits everyone, not just its listeners. Therefore, people should support them out of a sense of civic-mindedness and generosity. This is why, for instance, philanthropists support public radio well in excess whatever individual benefit they receive from listening. They give to sustain a valued community institution in a non-transactional way.

Our two Torah readings this morning—the regular weekly reading and the special reading for Shabbat Shekalim—reflect these two types of giving. Today is known on the Jewish calendar as Shabbat Shekalim, the first of the four special Shabbatot between now and Passover. This day recalls the annual head-tax in the days of the ancient Temple. Each Israelite man was to contribute a half-shekel coin during the month of Adar, which was used for the upkeep of the Temple.

In remembrance of this ancient practice, we read on Shabbat Shekalim the passage from Exodus that is the source of this custom. This passage reflects the more transactional model of giving. The half-shekel gift served a dual purpose: to raise funds to build the Tabernacle, and also to count up the total number of Israelites. The payment itself is called a “kofer,” a ransom or life-price, so that “no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” Evidently, it was considered bad luck or asking for trouble in ancient times to directly count up people. (This remains with us today in the practice of using a 10-word phrase or saying “Not 1, Not 2” to count to determine if there is a minyan, a quorum, present, so as to avoid directly counting Jews.)

So, somehow, the payment to the Temple prevented any negative consequences of conducting the count. This also explains why this tax was the same for everyone, wealthy and poor alike. Everyone stood in equal danger, regardless of wealth, and so everyone paid in equally (ibn Ezra).

In other words, this way of supporting the Tabernacle was self-interested. First of all, it was a mandatory tax that if necessary would be collected by force. Secondly, the payment had a spiritual value in that it forestalled the plague, so people had good reason to pay. So this gift matches up nicely with the first kind of NPR appeal: you benefit from this, so you must support it.

The second kind of appeal, though, comes through in our regular weekly Torah portion, Vaykhel. Here, the people are to donate precious materials and artisanal skills of their own accord. “Everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring” (ex. 35: 5), the Torah tell us. And bring they did: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, all stepped forward to provide the materials and craftsmanship for the Tabernacle. Whoever’s heart moved them and spirit urged them stepped forward, until there was so much material that Moses had to tell them to stop!

This is the other kind of giving, a giving that based on a generosity of spirit. A giving for the greater good, so that the Mishkan could exist as a national institution beyond whatever benefit each individual derived from it. The people gave as an expression of their character, of their exalted hearts, as one commentator puts it. It was not about giving in order to receive, but giving in order to give.

One might think that this is the less common kind of giving, and perhaps so. But it nonetheless still exists. A recent study by an English psychologist, for example, asked if “Outcomes Or Perceptions Of Morality Influence Our Sense Of Generosity. ” In a laboratory game setting, when the research subject is given an amount of money to allocate among himself and several strangers, does labeling one type of allocation with a moral label like “fair” or “generous” affect the outcome?

It turns out that it does. The study, writes the author, “provided evidence that many people were motivated by what they perceived to be the morally right action when deciding how to behave in the [game] — and not by the specific outcome of their action per se.” Many more people chose a certain allocation when it was given a morally positive label, even though the actual distribution of the money did not change.

This is the kind of giving in our Torah portion: giving primarily because it is the right thing to do, not in order to achieve a specific outcome. This explains why the people continued giving materials for the Tabernacle even when the need had already been fulfilled.

The juxtaposition of these two Torah readings, these two types of giving, teaches us that we actually need both. It would be wonderful if people stepped forward with donations of time, talent and treasure simply out of the goodness of their hearts. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that it wouldn’t be enough. We know that we couldn’t rely on that alone.

So we also need that sense of obligation and of self-interest. We give of ourselves not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because we get something out of it. On a simple level, if we want the synagogue to be there for us when we need or want it, then we all have to do our part to keep it going, just like NPR. But there are other things we get out of our efforts: a community to be a part of, a sense of satisfaction of accomplishing something important, a chance to use our skills for a sacred purpose.

And then, there is also the sense of obligation we feel: to God, to our ancestors and teachers, to our friends and fellow-travelers. As Americans, we like to think of ourselves as free agents who give of ourselves totally by our choice. But again, if we are being honest with ourselves, we also have a sense of obligation, a sense that our giving is not totally voluntary.

This doesn’t make our giving less important; on the contrary, it elevates it. Judaism teaches us to see obligation and responsibility as positive reasons for right action. Our sense of obligation creates a discipline that ensures that we do the right thing consistently and not only when we feel like it.

We are gathered here this morning for Volunteer Appreciation Shabbat. As I begin my ninth month with this community, I continue to be impressed by the dedication of our many volunteers who in ways large and small contribute to our community. They—you—do so both out of a sense of generosity and also a sense of obligation and self-interest. We are so blessed by all of your contributions in their various forms, for the ways large and small that you each contribute to the make-up of this community. Together, may we go from strength to strength.