Generosity: Too Much of a Good Thing? by Danny Shlian


Parashat VaYakheil comes immediately on the heels of Parashat Ki Tisa, which contains the description of the Cheit HaEigel, one of the most grievous and costly errors the Jewish people have ever made. This week, the Torah resumes the description of the construction of the Mishkan and related items. Although the two topics seem unrelated, there are strong parallels between the two. For example, in the two Parshiyot, Bnei Yisrael’s generous nature is highlighted, but is not necessarily viewed as positive.

After the Jews calculate that Moshe has delayed in descending from Har Sinai, they beseech Aharon, the de facto chief leader, to create a new authority figure. Rashi understands, based on the Midrash Tanchuma, that Aharon was reluctant to comply with their request. In order to dissuade the people from continuing their plan, he employs a stalling tactic: he asks the Jews, “Pareku Nizmei HaZahav Asher BeOznei Nesheichem Beneichem UVnoteichem VeHaviu Eilai,” “Remove the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me” (Shemot 32:2). However, the people do not comply with Aharon’s request; instead, they immediately remove “Nizmei HaZahav Asher BeOzneihem,” “the golden rings that were in their ears” (32:3), and hand them over to Aharon. Aharon, who, according to this approach, is dumbfounded at the sudden outpouring of riches, casts the gold into the fire, a calf emerges, and some of the people deify it. Upon descending from the mountain, and after shattering the Luchot, Moshe’s reaction is telling. Once he interrogates Aharon, and the truth of the incident comes to light, Moshe reaches a conclusion: “VaYar Moshe Et HaAm Ki Faru’a Hu Ki Fera’oh Aharon LeShimtzah BeKameihem,” “And Moshe saw the nation, that it was uncovered, for Aharon had uncovered it, for a disgrace in those who rise” (32:25). Perhaps the word “BeKameihem” refers to those who rose early, above and beyond their call of duty, and gave of their own gold to further their mistaken cause. Moshe views this as a grave error. In his view, the people should not be so overtaken by a movement that they are willing to actually donate much of their own property to that cause. They should investigate to see what is actually necessary before they donate so much.

However, this mistake appears to be repeated in the very next Parashah. In Parashat Terumah, Moshe had called for a mass donation of goods, such as stones, textiles, and oils that could serve an important purpose in the construction and operation of the Mishkan. However, Moshe finds in VaYakheil that there are simply too many donations than his architects know what to do with. The workers report, “Marbim HaAm LeHavi Midei HaAvodah LaMelachah Asher Tzivah Hashem LaAsot Otah,” “The people exceeded in bringing more than the labor of the work that Hashem has commanded to perform” (36:5). The Jews have repeated their mistake. Once again, they fail to investigate whether their supplies and donations are really necessary, and instead give with abandon. While this time, Bnei Yisrael are motivated by nobler pursuits, they are still mistaken. Moshe feels the need to make a proclamation throughout the camp: “VaYa’aviru Kol BaMachaneh Leimor Ish VeIshah Al Ya’asu Od Melachah LiTrumat HaKodesh,” “They proclaimed in the camp, saying, ‘Man and woman shall not do more work toward the portion of the Sanctuary’” (36:6). The Jews’ reaction at the end of the Pasuk, though, is more positive: “VaYikalei HaAm MeiHavi,” “The nation refrained from bringing.” The Jewish people begin to get the message that giving too much, even of a good thing, is a negative.

Halachah also mandates that we not be overly generous, even to a good cause. The Gemara (Ketubot 50a) records a Takanah that even an extremely generous individual not give more than twenty percent to Tzedakah, a figure only twice what we are obligated from the law of Ma’asar Kesafim. There are many Halachot in the Torah regarding a case of an individual who is too poor to pay for a Korban or other donation to the Beit HaMikdash, whether he intentionally incurred this donation or not. In many cases, the Torah varies the obligations in accordance with what the individual can afford, so that the person does not overextend his finances. While donation is praiseworthy, restraint is valuable and necessary as well.

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