When our son was born, Shira and I spent a lot of time thinking of what to name him. I cannot recall exactly our thought process, but we decided on a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Exodus 35:5:
“Take from among you a donation for Hashem, everyone who is generous of heart (nediv libo), shall bring the donation of G-d: gold, silver, copper....”We originally decided to name him Nadav Lev, meaning “generous of heart”, but before his brit milah (circumcision), we substituted Simcha for Lev, in memory of my grandfather Sam Levitt (obm), Chayim Simcha Yona ha-Levi. Thus, he became “generous joy”. We gave him the blessing that “kishmo, kein hu” (see I Sam 25:25), that he should be as his name implies. So far (he’s almost 4 now), he loves to laugh and dance and he shares with his baby sister. So we’re happy and hopeful.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, France, 11th c) adds a layer of meaning to the word Nadav, which we translated as generosity. He writes that Nadav can also mean: - to be moved or inspired. Rashi thinks that generosity should be associated with being inspired to give. Philanthropy and tzedakah – perhaps all virtuous acts -- are not ho-hum, ordinary, no-sweat experiences. They have a passionate and intense side. You give to those things that move you.
Within this, though, there is a cautionary tale. If one can become inspired to good, can’t they also be inspired to evil? A person swept off their feet by an inspired orator could be motivated to write a check to the UJA, to demonstrate against terrorism or to start keeping Kosher. But couldn’t they be motivated to write a check to Hamas, riot in the streets or start to hate their neighbors? Isn’t inspiration a loaded gun? Can’t it shoot out marauding mobs of murder as easily as calm collectives of the conscientious?
So it seems from the Torah. In last week’s sidrah, the people built the Golden Calf, a (possibly) idolatrous rebellion against God and Moshe. When Aaron asked them for gold to build it, they took off their earrings (and nose-rings; you never know, they might come back into style) and handed them right over. They were generously inspired. They didn’t need a development professional to raise it. They didn’t need a building fund. In their excitement, they just threw gold at him. Maybe it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was the opposite of what a Jew ought to be inspired to do.
In this week’s sidrah, when Moshe asks them for gold and possessions to build the Tabernacle, they are also inspired to be generous. They flood the coffers of the mishkan until they have to issue a stop-order saying, Enough! (Ex. 36:6-7)
It is almost eerie how they can have the same enthusiastic reaction to idol worship as to the worship of the one true God. The Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 1:1) made this observation long before I did and the language of the Rabbis clearly betrays their exasperation as well. The Talmud concludes by saying: “Let the gold of the ark- cover (kaporet) come to atone for the gold of the calf.”
I think this sentiment is beautiful. This week’s whole Torah portion is sometimes seen as something of a drag, as it recapitulates the Torah portion of Terumah (at times, almost word for word) from 3 weeks ago. But, subtly, the donation of the gold AFTER the episode of the Golden Calf is cast in a whole new light. It comes to contrast the generosity of the calf with the generosity of the mishkan. There IS a difference between them.
Though I don’t pretend to have all the answers, let me suggest 2 ways of distinguishing between good and bad generosity/inspiration:
Thus, giving money for a cause that you believe in because you want to make a difference is a purely- motivated act. Giving money just to see your name on a building is not. Now, they might both legitimately qualify as tzedakah, but one leaves you vulnerable to the evil inclination and his whispered heresies.
The Dubno Maggid once told a story about two older brothers who were invited by their father to their youngest brother’s wedding. The father wrote the wealthy brother that he would cover all of his son’s expenses for clothing and travel. He wrote: “Do not be frugal. Spend generously in my honor.” The wealthy son spent lavishly on his and his family’s preparations, but did not apprise his poor brother of their father’s offer. Consequently, when they arrived at the wedding, the wealthy brother and his family stood out like royalty, while the poor brother and his family appeared as paupers. Many of the guests noticed the discrepancy and gossiped about it. After the wedding, the wealthy son asked his father to reimburse him for his expenses, but the father declined. He said, “I told you to spend generously in my honor. Since you spent only for yourself and not for your brother, I see that you spent only for your honor and not for mine.”
In the Sh’ma, it says that a person should love God with all of their heart, all of their soul and all of their might. The Talmud interprets “your soul” as your whole life and “your might” as your money. Perhaps the message is that one must contribute both things to the service of God: your life (your energy and time) AND your money. Only one is not enough to have a healthy relationship.
Rabbi Avi Heller