Thursday, February 7, 2008

Table Talk - Terumah 5768 - Money for the Mishkan

I'd like to share with you a textual challenge that we find in the beginning of the parshah that I studied with the ladies' parshah shiurim (Tuesday at 1:30pm at YIOP and Wednesdays at 8:30am at Akiva) this week.

Any community leader will tell you that they find funraising to be one of the greatest challenges in communal leadership. There are simply too many needs, and not enough money to go around. In reality, it's only fair that each person pay his or her fair share. If every member of the community benefits from an institution, shouldn't he be forced to contribute for that benefit? In reality, halachah wholeheartedly agrees, and does compel community members to pay for the needs of the entire kehillah. In America, where we have completely disassociated our secular and religoius needs, no one questions the requirement to pay communal taxes to fund the roads, police and other non-religious functions. But were the community to impose a religious tax on its members (to cover the mikveh, eruv, shuls and the like), what likelihood is there that most community members would actually pay it?

This same question arises when God tells Moshe to instruct the Jewish people to bring donations for the construction of the mishkan. Does the Torah require every Jew to pay for the mishkan by imposing a mishkan tax, or does He make the contributions for the mishkan completely voluntary? The Torah sends us decidedly mixed signals. God tells Moshe (25:2):

דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ-לִי תְּרוּמָה: מֵאֵת כָּל-אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ, תִּקְחוּ אֶת-תְּרוּמָתִי.

'Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering.'

While the verse at first glance seems straighforward, the language is anything but. First and foremost, while the translation I provided translates the word "terumah" as offering (implying a voluntary gift), in another context in the Torah, Terumah refers to the mandatory gift that each person must give to the Kohen from his produce. That gift is anything but volutary: God considers consumption of produce before the separation of Terumah to be a grave, terrible sin.

In addition, the verb used by the Torah seems contradictory. If a person makes a voluntary donation, we would usually say that he "gave" the gift. It would seem strange to say that he "takes" the gift. But that's precisely what the Torah says: "You shall take for me Terumah." If it's a gift, why doesn't the Torah tell us that we should "give Terumah." Taking implies coersion and obligation -- a tax, and not a gift.

Thus, we're left with an internal contradiction: what does God want from the people? Does He want them to contribute voluntarily, of their own free will, or does He require them to pay a tax to fund the needed construction that would benefit the entire community?

That's a great question to discuss around the Shabbos table.