“Give a Little Bit” Parashat Vayakhel 5779

G-d commands the Jewish People to donate towards the building of a Mishkan that will serve as an earthly abode for the Divine. They must give precious metals, animal hides, wood, and other materials that will be used in building the Mishkan and its utensils. They respond with gusto [Shemot 35:21-29]: “Every man whose heart uplifted him came, and everyone whose spirit inspired him to generosity brought the offering of G-d… Every man and woman whose heart inspired them to generosity to bring for all the work that G-d had commanded to make, through Moses, the Children of Israel brought a gift for G-d”. When the artisans who will be doing the actual work begin to sift through the donations, they are surprised to discover that [Shemot 36:5] “The people are bringing very much, more than is enough for the labour of the articles which G-d had commanded to do”. The people had brought too much gold and too much silver. They had exceeded their fund-raising goal. It was a fundraiser’s dream. Moses quickly addresses the “problem” [Shemot 36:6]: “Moses commanded and they announced in the camp, saying: ‘Let no man or woman do any more work for the offering for the Holy.’ So the people stopped bringing.”

At this point, the fund-raisers in the audience are all gasping and asking the same question: What is wrong with exceeding your goal? Why does Moses tell the people to stop bringing? The Mishkan was going to be around for a while. Things would break. There would be midlife upgrades. It would certainly be a good idea to have reserves of precious materials just in case. You can never have too much gold lying around. Yet for some reason, Moses tells the people to stand down. What was he thinking?

There are number of ways to address this question. Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, better known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the early 18th century, suggests that the problem was not with the gold and silver, but with the raw materials that might go bad. Wood and wool must be stored properly in order to withstand the elements and Moses did not want that headache. Rabbi Meir Simcha haKohen from Dvinsk, who lived at the turn of the 20th century, offers another way ahead. An item that is consecrated to the Mishkan or to the Beit HaMikdash attains a certain level of holiness. The sin of me’ilah – benefitting from consecrated property in a forbidden manner – removes the object from the ownership of the Beit HaMikdash and returns it to its original mundane status. Rabbi Meir Simcha, writing in the “Meshech Chochma”, suggests that an overabundance of consecrated material would inevitably lead to me’ilah. It was an accident waiting to happen and Moses did not want that headache.

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy in the sixteenth century, proposes an answer that we will develop further. The Seforno notes that when Moses sees that the people have reached the fund-raising goal, he does not tell them to “stop bringing donations”. Rather, he tells them, “Let no man or woman do any more work”. The Seforno explains that the Jewish People donated raw material: gold and silver coins, wool, animal hides, and wood planks. The raw material required processing before it could be used in the Mishkan: The wood had to be cut and sanded, the wool had to be woven into thread, the animal hides had to be cleaned, and the gold and silver had to be melted, purified, and moulded. After sufficient raw material had been processed, Moses merely tells the people that there is no need for them to process any additional raw material – “Do no more work”.

The Seforno stops here but we will continue. How do the people respond to Moses’ directive? “So the people stopped bringing”. But that is not what Moses asked them to do. As far as he was concerned, they could have kept on bringing the raw materials, which he would have put into storage. Yet for some reason, they completely abandoned the fund drive. Why? I suggest the answer has to do with the economics of giving. One of the basic axioms of economic theory is that man is a rational being who makers monetary decisions in order to increase his wealth, or in the jargon of economists, his utility. Economists refer to this mythical being as “homo economicus”. Why does homo economicus give charity? Why would he willingly give his hard-earned money to another person? A more general question is “Why are humans altruistic?” Why do we tend to help each other? What do we gain, monetarily or otherwise?

In 1989, James Andreoni, a Professor of Economics at the University of California at San Diego, proposed a theory of “warm-glow giving”. According to Andreoni, a person experiences satisfaction – a “warm glow” – when he helps others. This pleasure is selfish – it is derived from the feeling of “doing good” without any connection to the impact of his giving. Within the warm-glow framework, people are considered “impurely altruistic”, meaning that they simultaneously maintain both altruistic and egoistic motivations for giving. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “…a millionaire does not really care whether his money does good or not, provided he finds his conscience eased and his social status improved by giving it away…” Warm-glow giving is universal: Scientists examined the relationship between charitable giving and happiness in 136 countries. They found that in 120 of these countries, giving and feelings of well-being were positively related. In countries both rich and poor, people reported higher levels of happiness when they gave their money to charitable organizations than when they kept it. Recently, scientists have used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to show that generosity results in increased activity in the areas of the brain associated with happiness. Scientists also believe that altruistic behaviour releases endorphins in the brain, producing a positive feeling known as “helper’s high.” Why, then, are humans altruistic? Because we are hard wired to “purchase” pleasure with generosity.

Not so fast. If the act of giving causes pleasure, then it should have made no difference to the Jewish People whether their donations were processed or used in the actual building of the Mishkan or just thrown in a warehouse. Moses’ directive to cease processing the raw material should not have resulted in a complete cessation of giving. One last piece of the puzzle can help us out. In 1996, William Harbaugh, a Professor of Economics at the University of Oregon, proposed an extension to Andreoni’s theory of warm glow giving. He added one more factor: prestige. To illustrate, imagine an organization that has three “clubs” for their biggest donors. It has the Silver Club, for people who donate at least $1000 annually, the Gold Club, for folks who give more than $10,000 annually, all the way to the exclusive Platinum Club, for those who donate more than $100,000 each year. Harbaugh discovered that most of the biggest donors donated just enough to get into a certain club. Many more people donated $10,000 than $5000 or $15,000. Belonging to a club awards the donor with prestige, which is what he “purchasing” with his donation. Harbaugh’s innovation can help explain the behaviour of the Mishkan donors. When their raw material was no longer processed, a person could not show his friends a lamp of the candelabrum made from a gold ingot that he brought. With no prestige to be gained from his donation, he ceased to give.

I suggest that something was learned from this mistake. Until about 1500 years ago, the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh) was proclaimed each month on the basis of testimony of two witnesses. People would see the new moon and would travel to Jerusalem to testify at the High Court (Sanhedrin). Testimony was so important that a person was permitted to violate the Shabbat in order to travel to Jerusalem to testify. The Mishna in Tractate Rosh HaShanah [1:6] relates the following story: “Once, more than forty pairs of witnesses passed through on [Shabbat] and Rabbi Akiva detained them in Lod. Rabbi Gamliel told him, ‘If you detain the multitudes [from passing through on Shabbat to testify], you will be causing them to stumble in the future [and they will not come to testify about the new moon even when there is a need for it].’” Once two witnesses had testified there was no need for any further testimony. Permitting witnesses to continue to travel to Jerusalem had no added value.  Perhaps Rabbi Gamliel understood that years earlier, the underestimation of the importance of prestige led to the premature end to the most successful fund drive in history. Perhaps he understood that while we possess a spark of Divine, at the end of the day, humans are still human.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Tuvia Moshe HaLevi ben Chaya Rasa and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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