When the historian Cecil Roth called the post-war period the Philanthropic Age he had in mind the massive needs of Israel and the Jewish world in constructing a new age.
Roth was speaking in the 1960s and since then the challenges have not grown any less. Appeals for funds are still a crucial dimension of modern Jewish living. But fundraising styles have become different. In the early years, the fundraisers always found an emergency that needed a generous response. The approach then became more rational, explaining that new situations called for new levels of support.
Interestingly, the commentaries on this week’s reading – the title of which means offering or donation – map out an ethic of giving. Rav Soloveitchik points out that T’rumah follows Mishpatim, which focusses on civil and criminal law. The lesson is that giving should always be above board. A person should not give for the sake of quietening their conscience but because their heart and mind tell them this is what to do.
Sforno reminds us that every gift had to be properly recorded and correctly applied – no hanky-panky, no siphoning off for other purposes, no salting away of funds for some future project.
Rabbi Chayyim Ibn Attar notes that the Torah waits till the end of the list before mentioning the really costly donations, the precious stones.
This teaches us that the modest donor should not be deterred by the fear that their small gift would pale in comparison with the major donors.
A BROAD SANCTUARY
Ex. 25:18 contains the command,
“Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst”.
We observe the mitzvah by building synagogues, preceded in ancient times by the tabernacle and temple.
Note that the whole edifice was the sanctuary – not just the area set aside for sacrifices and liturgy. Part of the sanctuary was the ancillary rooms: teaching rooms, meeting rooms, even a hostel for overnight accommodation, even bathrooms.
An inscription from about 10 BCE records that a synagogue in Jerusalem was erected by
“Theodotus, the son of Vettenos, priest and chief of the synagogue”, who “built this synagogue for the reading of the Torah and the teaching of the commandments, and also this hostel with its chambers and water-fittings for the needs of those who, coming from the outside, lodge there…”
Other activities associated with the sanctuary included social welfare services, charity in the broadest sense. The synagogue was a place where the community met for prayer but also where they studied, lodged and ate (the institution of a Kiddush in the synagogue indicates that people who stayed in the precincts had their meals there too). All these activities were sacred; whatever one did in the synagogue precincts was dedicated to the Almighty.
Modern critics sometimes attack the community centre dimension of the synagogue, not realising that when people gather and build a community the Divine purposes are advanced.
How was the ark carried in the wilderness? The Torah says,
“You shall cast four rings of gold for it” (Ex. 25:12). Each of the upper corners of the ark had a ring attached. Staves passed through the rings, enabling the bearers of the ark to carry it comfortably.
This is the basic meaning of the verse, but homiletically it was interpreted to indicate that four categories of people maintain the teachings of the Torah.
According to one version of the Midrash, they are the experts in Bible, Mishnah, Halachah and Aggadah (Midrash Talpiot). Another version enumerates the experts in the four methods of understanding the Torah – the plain meaning, the homiletical approach, the philosophical or rationalistic and the mystical.
The tefillin also seem to hint at the various keys to the Torah. The head tefillin have four compartments, whilst the hand tefillin have only one. This suggests that when it comes to using the head to seek understanding, there are various legitimate approaches that one may follow. But in regard to action, there is only one right way, and one cannot say that, for example, eating kosher and not eating kosher, keeping Shabbat or not keeping Shabbat, are equally valid and acceptable.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.