Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Torah Observance: Doing What We Must
The Torah tells us at the beginning of parshas Terumah that the
Mishkan (Tabernacle) is to be built through the donations of B'nei
Yisrael. Later on, in parshas Vayakhel (chapter 36), the Torah
describes the outpouring of materials contributed towards the
construction of the Mishkan and its accessories. One gets the
impression that the Torah is encouraging goodwill and voluntarism;
that it praises the Jewish people for their voluntary contributions.
In fact, however, the "terumah" or separation described at the very
beginning of this week's parsha (and for which our parsha bears its
name), actually refers to the obligatory half-shekel donation every Jew
had to give, whether rich or poor. Rashi (25:2) writes that the
sockets, which supported the beams of the Mishkan, were
manufactured not from the voluntary donations, but rather from this
mandatory half-shekel tax.
It is somewhat strange that the Torah seems to mix and mingle two
distinct types of donations, mentioning both the obligatory and the
voluntary contributions in one breath: Speak to B'nei Yisrael, and
they shall take for Me a separation - referring to the mandatory half-
shekel. From every man whose heart motivates him with a spirit of
generosity shall you accept My separation - the "spirit of generosity"
seemingly referring to the non-compulsory donations of additional
materials needed for the construction of the Mishkan. Why does the
Torah insist that the Mishkan be constructed with a combination of
both voluntary and obligatory donations? And why does it mix them
together in one verse?
The following conversation was once overheard between a Yeshiva
rebbe and his student:
Rebbe: "Yosef, I'm very proud of you. Your learning has improved
tremendously these past few days. Keep up the good work!"
Student: "Don't worry, Rebbe, next week I'll be back to my old, lazy
Rebbe: "Why's that, Yosef? Doesn't it feel good to put an effort into
your studies? You're participating in classroom discussions, you're
asking great questions, and you really understand the Gemara! Why
wouldn't you want to keep it up?"
Student: "I'm only learning like this because the principal is on
vacation this week. I enjoy sense of freedom and independence. But
next week, when he's back patrolling the halls, my head will be on the
table like it usually is..."
There are some people who fight tooth-and-nail to get the biggest
tuition reduction they can possibly negotiate, yet when approached
for charity, are found to be generous and kind-hearted individuals.
When you have a bunch of things to take care of, how often do you
find yourself having completed the less-important and peripheral
tasks, while endlessly pushing off those things your really need to
take care of? (Or is it only me?...)
The nature of man is such that things done out of a sense of choice
and free-will come easier than things we must do. Who deserves a
greater reward - one who did a mitzvah he was obligated to do, or
one who, out of the goodness of his heart, performed a mitzvah from
which he was halachically exempt?
In a most surprising ruling, the Gemara decides that "One who
performs a mandatory mitzvah is greater that one who performs a
mitzvah voluntarily. (Kiddushin 31a)" This means that a person who
sleeps in the sukkah when the weather is great and there is no
reason not to deserves a greater reward than one who shivers
through a bitter-cold night when he would halachically be permitted
to sleep inside. Why? Perhaps it is precisely because it is easier for us
to do something when we feel we have chosen to do so than it is
when we feel we have no choice. No one will put us on a pedestal for
davening Shacharis; but to recite some extra chapters of Tehillim -
that makes us feel good.
Maharal (Gur Aryeh) explains that implicit in the above-mentioned
Rashi is a critical lesson regarding avodas Hashem: Before we serve
Hashem out of generosity and goodwill, we must first do so out of a
sense of obligation and responsibility. There is reason to fear that,
given the opportunity, a Jew might indeed give away everything he
has in a most magnanimous donation to the Mishkan, and then have
nothing left when the gabbai (beadle) came around for the half-
shekel collection. ("Sorry - I'm broke.") Thus the Torah stresses that
before one becomes captivated by the "heartwarming" spirit that
accompanied the voluntary donations, it is critical that one first give
the terumah, which, as Rashi explains, refers to the mandatory
It is likely no accident that the half-shekels were used to form the
sockets which supported the very base of the Mishkan. Once there
is a foundation of sense-of-responsibility upon which to build,
generosity can indeed be used to construct the most grand and
majestic structures. If, however, one tries to build upon voluntarism
alone, then like a skyscraper built without a proper foundation, his
structure is likely to come toppling down when the winds of reality
begin to blow, and the once-grand spirit of generosity withers and
It is no secret that in the secular world, in recent times more so than
ever before, everything is about avoiding a sense of burden and
obligation. (Perhaps this is why so many couples now choose not to
"tie the knot" with official marital vows, preferring instead to commit
to one another voluntarily.) This tendency has, as all things do,
seeped into the Torah world as well. It is an attitude that encourages
one to do only that which he understands and feels good about, and
any type of coercion is considered harmful and threatening, if not
unconstitutional. ("Don't tell me I have to do it - or I won't.")
As observant Jews, we must struggle to rise above this dangerous
attitude. We must understand that Torah study and mitzvah
performance must be based primarily upon a sense of commitment;
only afterwards may one speak of the enjoyment and interest
generated there from. Especially when educating our young, it is
crucial that we instill within them an attitude that promotes doing the
right thing because that's what Hashem said to do, and not because
it feels good, or because it gives us a sense of satisfaction or
pleasure. While Torah is and should be enjoyable, it is commitment
that forms the very basis and foundation of serving Hashem - its
bottom line and ultimate purpose.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication has been sponsored by Mr.
Tom Deutsch in memory of his father, R' Yekusiel Yehudah
ben R' Shimon z"l.
Text Copyright © 2002 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.