Terumah I - GIVING THAT DOES NOT UPLIFT
JEWS ARE UNIVERSALLY admired for the fact that charity plays a dominant role in their culture and tradition. There are Jews whose only contact and identification with Judaism is through their philanthropic involvements and activities on behalf of their coreligionists.
Usually two individuals are involved in the act of tzedakah: the giver and the receiver. For the recipient the manner of giving is, in most instances, of no crucial significance. The halachah takes cognizance of this fact by declaring that if a person loses money and a poor man finds it, the loser has performed an act of charity, albeit unwittingly.
When one considers, however, the attitude and state of mind of the giver, it is another matter altogether. The mitzvah is not performed well when the feelings of the recipient are hurt in any way in the process of receiving the nedavah. Only when the tzedakah is given with compassion and in a dignified manner is the mitzvah performed properly. This kind of giving is a result of religious and ethical training that one receives in the home and at school. When an act of benevolence is performed in accordance with the standards of Jewish law, then not only the recipient but also the donor is a beneficiary. That explains why the Torah describes a gift to the kohen or the tabernacle as terumah --an uplifting. Giving at the highest spiritual level --out of love and with deep feelings of gratitude to God for being in a position to contribute and with a keen sense of responsibility to those who need our help-- is terumah, the kind of giving that uplifts, ennobles and enriches the giver.
In the very beginning of the tractate Terumah, the mishnah lists five kinds of giving that fail to uplift the donor. It states, "Five who gave their giving is not considered terumah. First is the cheresh, the giver who is hard of hearing. He is the individual who is insensitive to the plight of others. His budget has complete mastery over his life. The accountant tells him how much charity is tax deductable, and come what may, he will not go beyond that figure. No emergency and no pleas will move him. His giving is finished for the year and he will not respond. What the cheresh has given is worthy, but the fact that he has an inviolable quota and lacks the capacity to hear the call to do beyond what he thinks he is obliged to do, makes his giving unworthy of the name of terumah. It simply will not uplift him.
Second is the shoteh, the fool. This refers to the person who gives without sekhel, without using good sense. His charity is not a matter of giving but squandering wealth. The examples are numerous. There are men and women who give to protect stray cats and dogs, but not to help human beings in distress. There are those who leave sizable bequests for animals and not for needy pepole. Some time ago I read about a man who went to the Bowery in New York City and distributed a large sum of money in five dollar bills to human derelicts who populate that street. It was reported that these people went ahead and spent the money on cheap liquor and drugs. Their "benefactor" boasted that he never gave a dime to organized charities such as the U.J.A. or the Cancer Fund. This kind of indiscriminate giving is shtoos --utter folly--- and it does not uplift.
Third is the katan, the immature giver. The "juvenile" gives to impress his "elders." His major concern is to obtain publicity and approval. Please do not misunderstand me. Each one who gives in accordance with his ability, deserves recognition and praise. But when the sole motive for giving is an insatiable hunger for public flattery and aggrandizement, it is degrading to personality and detrimental to character. It annoys me to the point of nausea to see week after week the photographs of certain individuals in the form of advertisements in Yiddish newspapers and in the Anglo-Jewish press of what they are doing for, or planning to give to this or that organization. Providence has been kind to them. It has blessed them with a lot of money to make up for their lack of maturity. Worthy charities nebech often have no choice but to cater to the swollen egos of these opulent juveniles. A rabbi was asked why he cringes before a certain wealthy am-haaretz, and he replied that when one has to milk a cow one has to bend. Such giving by these ktanim may keep institutions functioning, but they certainly do not uplift the givers.
The fourth is hatorem et she'eno shelo, who gives that which does not belong to him. He gives the wealth that was earned by others whom he has cheated, exploited or defrauded. He gives stained or "laundered" money. Waiters and bell-hops say that crooks and racketeers are very good tippers. Easy come, easy go. Ida Tarbel tells, in her book, of the early robber barons of American industry who cheated and stole right and left from individuals and from their Government. Sad to say, many of them were the founders of America's first families. Sure, it is better that they give to libraries, hospitals and peace foundations than keep all the "loot" for themselves, but their giving could not be characterized as terumah.
Finally we come to the last of the categories: akum shetoram et shel yisrael. There are Jews who give only to impress non-Jews. They contribute thousands and millions to non-Jewish causes and pennies or nothing to enterprises which help their own people. Of course, a Jew should contribute to non-sectarian benevolences and institutions. Care must be taken, however, to strike a happy balance in the distribution of one's wealth. This is particularly true in our time when the need to help the Stare of Israel in its struggle for survival is so urgent. A Jew who goes out of his way to give everything to non-Jewish drives and little or nothing to Jewish ones is a runaway and a renegade. His giving is far from the ideal of terumah.
This thought is stressed in the second verse of our sidrah. "Speak unto the children of Israel that they may bring Me terumah" (Ex. 25:2). The emphasis is on the Hebrew word lee, to Me, which Rashi interprets lishmi, for the sake of God's name. Some give because of lekha, you. They wish to impress you with their generosity. Others give because of lo, him. They get political and commercial advantages and honors out of their giving. The correct way of giving is lishmi --to alleviate suffering, to educate the young, to promote human welfare and freedom, to spread the word of God.
There is a picture by Watts which bears the title Sic Transit GIoria Mundi --"So passes the Glory of the World." It represents a bier with a shroud over the silent form. The face of the deceased cannot be seen; only the outlines are visible through the shroud. Around the picture are emblems that give a clue to the story of the individual's life. He was a man of means cultured and fond of art. Around the three sides of the painting, Watts wrote the following inscriptions: "What I spent, I had; what I kept, I lost; what I gave, I have."
There will come a moment in each one's life when we will realize that what we gave with sekhel and heart will give us stature and upliftment in the eyes of God and man.