Parshat Vayakheil-Pikudei, 5778
The Nesi’im (Princes of the Tribes of Israel) make a magnanimous gesture of philanthropy; they underwrite all the donations and contributions needed to build the elaborate Mishkan (Tabernacle) in the dessert. After the community has brought its donations, the Nesi’im generously offer to make up any shortfall. To their surprise, there was no shortfall. The community had overdelivered and there was no need for the Nesi’im to contribute anything at all; so they donated the precious stones of the Eifod and the Choshen.
Instead of complimenting the Nesi’im for their generous gesture even though it turned out not to have been needed, the Torah penalizes them. It refers to their title, HaNesi’im, (which should be spelled with two yuds,) with the letters yud removed from the word - והנשאם instead of והנשיאים  . Deliberately dropping a letter from their title would have been insulting enough, but of all letters it is specifically the letter yud that is dropped, the letter that represents the Divine. Something about their gesture of underwriting the contributions demonstrates a missing element of the Divine.
Three approaches to philanthropy
There are three approaches to philanthropy; a secular approach, a general religious approach and a specifically Torah approach. These approaches highlight three differing word-views that distinguish people from one another in how they view money and wealth.
The secular approach to philanthropy is that it is either voluntary or it is a socio-moral obligation for people with means to support those without. How much the wealthy give and to whom they give it, is entirely up to them.
The religious approach assumes that there is a biblical obligation to give between ten and twenty percent of one’s net revenue to charity . It is somewhat of a social tax.
The Torah approach sees philanthropy not as a tax but as a privilege and a unique opportunity to partner with Hashem in sustaining the world. Recognizing that people might be over-zealous in their desire to support others, the Torah limits charitable contributions to a maximum of twenty percent of net revenue. This is so that people, in their urgency to give charity, will not deplete their own resources to the point where they themselves become needy.
In the secular approach, philanthropy is a responsibility taken on voluntarily, generally only by the wealthy – or at least those who compared to the rest of the community, are wealthy. The religious approach sees charity as a tax imposed by the Bible on everyone, irrespective of how wealthy they are. It is an obligation. The Torah approach doesn’t see charity as a tax at all, but as a unique gift. Hashem could well have created society in a way that no one needed charity. He didn’t. Instead, He set society up so that we could have a hand in sustaining it. Rising to the occasion and sharing one’s wealth with others, is something the person living a Torah life does with excitement and immense joy. Instead of poor people feeling indebted to the wealthy people who gave them charity, the opposite is the case. The wealthy person feels indebted to the poor person for giving him or her the opportunity to participate in this mitzvah.
Cost vs. Investment
These three approaches to philanthropy stem from how one views of money, wealth and investment. I spend money on an object I buy, because I want the object more than the amount of money it costs. I invest money in a business or financial instrument when I believe my returns on the investment are likely to exceed the amount I invested. When I give money away to charity, what do I get in return other than the emotional pleasure of having been generous and possibly the reward of being recognized for having given? So, the only reason I would give money away to charity is out of religious or moral obligation, or because of my voluntary empathy and my ability to help. The Torah view of philanthropy stems from a fundamentally different philosophy of wealth.
In the Torah view of wealth, a balance sheets contains assets other than material assets. A person living a Torah life experiences the accumulation of spiritual investments in much the same way as a secular person views material assets. Torah people feel themselves becoming wealthier and more secure as they build their spiritual asset base. They feel these assets to be more enduring than material wealth and would gladly exchange material wealth for spiritual assets. Doing so is to them the finest investment one could make. It often strikes me when I visit Torah communities in Israel where the poverty is severe, how secure and deeply happy people there often appear to be. This is because people living an authentic Torah life genuinely feel the wealth of their strong spiritual bank accounts. Performing the mitzvah of tzedakah (charity) is something such people don’t give a second thought to. It’s an irrefusable opportunity to exchange cash for the spiritual assets that result from showing kindness to another human being in need and helping them out.
Davening one morning recently in a very poor neighborhood of Jerusalem, I noticed the people in shul all preparing their piles of coins to hand out to the poor who would inevitably pass by them during the service. I had little doubt that the people davening were as poor as the people collecting. It didn’t matter. Here was an opportunity for tzedakah and they weren’t going to miss it. The most beautiful part of all was watching their gestures of gratitude and greeting to the poor people who had come to collect from them.
This unique Torah idea of the ability to invest material cash into a spiritual asset works the other way around as well. One can convert spiritual assets into cash.
Consider the story in the Midrash at the end of Pikudei:
מעשה בתלמיד אחד של רבי שמעון בן יוחי שיצא חוצה לארץ ובא עשיר, והיו התלמידים רואין אותו ומקנאים בו, והיו מבקשים הן לצאת לחוצה לארץ וידע רבי שמעון, והוציאן לבקעה אחת של פני מרון, והתפלל אמר בקעה המלאי דנרי זהב, התחילה מושכת דינרי זהב לפניהן, אמר להם אם זהב אתם מבקשים הרי זהב טלו לכם, אלא היו יודעין כל מי שהוא נוטל עכשיו חלקו של עולם הבא הוא נוטל
“There was a story of a student of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai who travelled overseas and returned wealthy. The other students saw this and were jealous. They contemplated going overseas as well to seek their fortune. Rabbi Shimon, understanding their feelings, took them out to a valley and prayed for the valley to be filled with gold coins. Gold coins began filling the valley and Rabbi Shimon told his disciples “If it is gold that you want, then help yourselves. However, you should know you will be using up the assets you have accumulated in the spiritual world to come.”
The years of Torah study in which the students had invested became a treasure-house of spiritual asset. Rabbi Shimon knew how to convert spiritual asset back to material cash. To the G-dcentric Torah Jew, the person who lives with a yud in their title, (the word Yehudi, Jew, is a combination of the letter yud spelled out plus the other letter that represents G-d, the hey,) lives by a spiritual investment currency rather than a material one. He or she invests material wealth and time in the accumulation of a spiritual asset-base. They know its value.
By assuming that the community would fall short in their donations to the mishkan, a once-off opportunity to invest in G-d’s House, the Nesi’im underestimated the extent to which the nation was living a God-centered life in which the value of spiritual assets far exceeded that of material assets. Because they had removed the dimension of G-dliness from their perception of the community, the Torah removes the G-dliness, represented by the letter yud, from their titles. Contributing to the Mishkan was an investment every member of the community wanted to participate in to the maximum of their ability. There would be no shortage of contribution. That is how Jews are. This, the Nesi’im should have known.
Pesach is a Yomtov (Holiday) that costs most families a lot of money. Some of the costs are indulgent (like expensive Pesach programs and vast quantities of kosher lepesach candies and other luxury products) some are unnecessary (like paying significantly more for products that don’t require a hechsher – consult your rabbi). Nevertheless, how ever you look at it, a family’s outlay over this time of the year is substantial.
As an observant Jew there is nothing we can do about the cost, but there is a lot we can do about how we frame and experience the costs. Are we buying things, in which case the money we spend is a cost, or are we investing in a spectacular mitzvah celebrating the true meaning of freedom and, through it, our commitment to Hashem? In this case the money we spend is an investment in our heritage, our culture and in the spiritual assets we accumulate through our lives. The value of our investments is a function not of the sighs we let out as we hand over our money to the store-keepers who supply our Pesach needs. The value of our investment in Pesach is rather a function of the joy we’ll experience sitting around our sedarim with our families and our friends.