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A Different Measure of Wealth

By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim

In Parshat Terumah, the Jewish people are commanded to bring donations for the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle.) They are commanded to bring commodities (such as gold, silver, wool, and animal skins). There is no prescribed amount–they are commanded to simply bring according to the generosity of their hearts. Rashi points out that the Hebrew word “Terumah” (meaning “separated donation”) is used three times in the opening verses, hinting at two other donations that were given to the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The other two donations had a prescribed amount of a half shekel of silver. One of the donations was used for the silver base sockets for the wooden beams of the Tabernacle structure, and the other donation was an annual collection for the communal sacrifices.

The Maharal inquires as to why it was necessary for the Torah to connect these three separate donations by hinting at all of them in one place. His answer is that the purpose of the Tabernacle was to atone for the idolatrous sin of the golden calf. He explains further that a human being has three fundamental components: a spiritual (intellectual) component, a physical component, and an emotional component. The idolatrous sin of the golden calf involved the spiritual, physical, and emotional aspects of the Jewish people. These three donations atoned for these three aspects. The half shekel silver base sockets donation atoned for the body, the half shekel donation towards the communal sacrifices atoned for the spirit, and the donation that was given according to the generosity of the heart atoned for the emotional aspect of the sin of the golden calf.

The Maharal then asks why the Torah left the donation which atones for a person’s heart to the discretion of each individual. A wealthy individual may donate less than an individual with much more limited resources. It would seem more logical for the Torah to have commanded a flat tax of a particular percentage. In that way each person would donate according to their level of wealth. Maharal answers that the Torah commanded people to give according to their true level of wealth. One’s true wealth is not defined by one’s balance sheet but rather by one’s attitude to one’s balance sheet.

There are wealthy individuals who feel lacking and do not feel wealthy. For these individuals giving a small amount to charity may be extremely challenging. There are individuals who are less wealthy but do not feel that they are lacking, consequently, they feel wealthy and give very generous charitable donations. In fact, by making the donation voluntary, the Torah is commanding us to donate according to our true wealth: the extent to which we feel we are lacking and the extent to which we feel blessed, complete, and whole.