Vayekhel: Stewardship of Money and Mission

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel

Greetings from snowy Swampscott!

I just got back from the joint conference of COEJL (Coalition on
the Environment and Jewish Life) and JCPA (Jewish Council for
Public Affairs); I’ll have some thoughts on what I learned as part
of next week’s parsha study. What follows is an idea I presented
as part of a d’var Torah to the national board of COEJL at its
meeting after the conference.

In the Torah portion Vayekhel, we learn about the building of the
Mishkan by skilled artisans. Even though we’ve been reading
about the Mishkan for weeks now, before this portion it’s all been
instructions- now the plans are implemented and reviewed. The
entire people participate in the building of the Mishkan, by
bringing materials to be used in its construction: precious
metals, gems, fabrics, wood, skins, etc. In fact, the people bring
so much that Moshe has to call off the collection efforts:

“And they spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘The people are bringing very
much, more than is enough for the labor of the articles which the
Lord had commanded to do.’ So Moshe commanded, and they
announced in the camp, saying: ‘Let no man or woman do any
more work for the offering for the Holy.’ So the people stopped
bringing.” (Exodus/Shmot 36:5-6)

Now, clearly, this is a problem many organizations would love to
have! Most synagogues- and churches and schools and other
non-profit organizations- are constantly struggling to balance the
budget while doing the work they’re called to do. Salaries,
insurance, utilities, and overhead all have to be paid every
month, and fund-raising is hard and often thankless work. Not
only that, but few people want to give money to pay the lease on
the photocopy machine- people often want to give for more high-
profile programs or building projects .

In fact, almost any non-profit executive or board member could
instantly recite a whole list of great things they’d be able to do
with more money, so the thought of telling the people to stop
bringing donations- as Moshe does- seems silly, even farcical.
At best, we might use these verses to inspire people to give
more generously; certainly it’s appropriate to be inspired by the
first-ever Capital Campaign in the history of the Jewish people!

Yet even though as a rabbi and board member I can hardly
imagine telling people to stop giving so much, I think this story is
much more about leadership than donorship (if that’s a word.) I
think Moshe was acting out of the highest ethics in keeping his
trust with the people, and in doing so, setting an example for
everybody who ever asked for a shekel in the years to come.
Moshe wanted all the people to participate in building the
Mishkan, and in doing so, laid out his vision, inspired by
revelation, of a beautiful, but finite, worship space, which would
unite the people in the center of their camp.

The people brought what Moshe asked for, in accordance with
the plans and needs. Had he taken even one board more than
necessary, the building of the Mishkan would have become an
end in itself, tied to the egos of the builders, rather than a means
of worship and spirituality. By stopping the donations, Moshe
communicated something crucial: that building the Mishkan was
something done by the people, through their gifts; for the people,
to deepen their relationship with God; in accountability to the
people, who gave willingly to build it.

When Moshe stopped the donations, and thus showed that he
respected the act of giving, he also stopped (or at least
curtailed) the potential for scandals, rumors, resentment, angry
confrontations, and questions about “where is my donation
actually going?” After all, Moshe got what he asked for, which
demonstrated that the people trusted him to ask for that which
was truly needed; to ask and then take more than what was
needed to build the Mishkan would have abused that trust.

Think about all the solicitation letters you probably get every
week- personally, I probably get about 15-20. They’re all pretty
good at making the case that my dollar is needed for some
important purpose; most are not so good at making the case
that the organization asking for my donation is a careful steward
of both money and mission. Moshe understood that effective
leadership creates a covenant of trust with the community, and
that’s the kind of leadership needed in the many organizations
which serve the Jewish community and wider society.

Not only that, but look at the other side of Moshe’s example: by
being clear about what he needed to build the Mishkan, and by
showing through his deeds that he was a careful steward of the
community’s resources, he also earned the right to ask the
community to give, and give generously. All of us who serve in
communal leadership would love to have fund-raising problems
like Moshe had, but to get there, we’re going to have to build trust
like Moshe did, which is truly the foundation of of our sacred
work, every day.

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