This week’s Parshat, Vayakhel-Pekudei, which close the Book of Exodus,
describe the manner in which the people engaged in construction of the Mishkan. This was a great collective project to which the nation generously donated their possessions and skills.
One gets the impression that this endeavor was quite expensive. How could a people who had just been freed from a lengthy period of enslavement afford such a costly undertaking? Where were the vast sums of capital to come from?
Yet no tax was imposed on the people. Hashem instructed Moshe to take donations from “every man whose heart motivates him.” But wouldn’t it be more effective to specify the amount that each person had to contribute?
We can now understand the significance of G-d’s promise to Avraham that the Jews would not leave Egypt empty-handed, but with great possessions.
Hashem “placed the favor of the Jews in the eyes of Egypt,” and they showered them with their most luxurious items. This clearly enhanced the Jews’ self-esteem, which had been crippled by the degrading oppression.
However, it seems that the gifts were not just restitution for stolen labor but to make the Jews enormously rich. What is the philosophy of the Torah on the importance of wealth? Should our main preoccupation be with the accumulation of material largesse?
The Torah’s teaching about money is that it is a means to an end. Thus, if a person has corrupt values, wealth is bad, because it enables him to gratify
all his base instincts and become morally corrupt.
But if he has worthy ideals, financial prosperity can facilitate spiritual growth. In the prayer recited at the blessing of the new moon, we ask for “a life of wealth and honor.” Indeed, our patriarchs and matriarchs were people of enormous wealth who used it to fulfill their mission of teaching the world about the existence of Hashem and how to serve Him.
The Jews were given an abundance of wealth so they could use it for the most worthy objective, building the Mishkan. They were not commanded to pay a tax because Hashem wanted them to learn an important lesson. Most people long for money because they erroneously believe it will solve their problems and fulfill all their fantasies. They often discover that their hopes were illusory and their “winnings” only brought losses.
The Jews, however, through voluntary giving, experienced the satisfaction of investing money in objects of eternal value.The response to Moshe’s call was unanticipated generosity. It was reported to him that “the people are bringing more than enough” for what was required. This just might be the first and only time in history that donors were told to stop giving.
This taught an important lesson. A wise person must live with restraint and moderation, knowing when “enough is enough.” When Yaakov offered a bountiful gift to Esav to propitiate him, Esav initially demurred, saying, “I have a lot.” Yaakov persisted and said “please accept my gift ... inasmuch as Hashem has been gracious to me, and I have everything.”
Both expressions sound similar, but Rashi points out that Yaakov meant “everything that I need,” but Esav spoke with haughtiness. A tzadik (righteous person) carefully calculates his necessities, and when he obtains what he requires to live a life of Torah, cheerfully proclaims, "I have everything.”
But that was not the case with Esav. He viewed money as an intrinsic value and was involved in endless accumulation. He measured his net worth in terms of comparison to others and needed to know, who has more?
The bountiful contributions of the recently liberated slaves, who gladly used their newfound wealth to glorify Hashem in the Tabernacle, were in themselves a sanctification of G-d.
May we merit to achieve a true appreciation of “wealth and honor.” JN