G-d spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Speak to the children of Israel, that they take an offering for me; from every man whose heart desires [to give], take my offering.’ (ibid. 25:1-2)
This week’s Torah portion begins with the collection of donations for building of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that accompanied the nation throughout their desert sojourn. One of the central ideas concerning this structure is that it was part of the atonement process for making the Golden Calf. The problem is, we haven’t read about the Golden Calf incident yet; isn’t it historically inaccurate to have this portion before the one dealing with the Golden Calf? Yes; the commentary of Rashi points out a fundamental principle in reading the Torah. It’s not a history book and therefore the incidents mentioned don’t necessarily follow in chronological order. Why certain parts are chronically correct and others aren’t is not the subject at hand but what’s important is to take notice of the significance of why one Torah portion is next to another. If it doesn’t follow chronologically, there must be some other reason. What connection is there between last week’s Torah portion, which was very technical and dealt largely with the laws of theft, unethical business practices, and how the individual and society should deal with them, and this week’s Torah portion that deals with donating money to charity? The answer is that before a person donates money to a worthy cause, (s)he must first make sure that the money was obtained honestly. Money gained by theft or unethical business practices can never be used.
Doesn’t this point seem obvious; what explanation could one give to justify stealing money and then giving it to G-d? The rationalization comes from a warped notion of G-d. A person might think, “I know that I acquired this money through wrongdoing but I’m not getting any personal benefit from it. The money I’m giving is going to help feed the poor, build a sanctuary, provide medicine for third world countries, or some other noble cause.” If the donor has no personal gain from the donation, isn’t it noble to give to those who need it? This justification might seem preposterous but it is the very explanation given for Robin Hood’s “noble” acts. We have a soft spot for people in need that sometimes allows our moral compass to be inaccurate.
Here is one of the many examples in which our own good intentions have the ability to lead us astray. The most significant contribution to the world made by Jews-even more important than bagels, Einstein, or junk bonds-is monotheism and the morality it entails. We were the first ones to say, we don’t care about what the prevailing culture in which we live says because we have our own standard of morality; it’s called the Torah. This Torah concept presents a challenge for every generation of Jews: does Judaism as I understand it differ in any way to the moral, social, and political agenda of the day? If my Judaism has the same agenda and is guided by the same principles of the modern day, then (and here’s the crucial question) what value does Judaism, as I understand it, have in my life? If my life’s philosophy and morality are exactly the same as the culture in which I live, then Judaism is obsolete.
Robin Hood is just one example of how the Jewish perspective is different from everyone else’s; we don’t consider him a hero, he’s a villain who needs to be prosecuted. A front-page article in this week’s New York Times provides an example of another area in which a Jewish/Torah perspective differs and almost sounds cruel. In “The Food May Be Fast but These Customers Won’t Be Rushed,” the author reports a phenomenon in which people buy one drink at McDonald’s and they sit there for hours. “If Mike Black’s friends are looking for him, they know to check the McDonald’s on Utica Avenue in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, he said. That is where Mr. Black, who is in his 50s, spends hours reading his junk mail. ‘I don’t eat fast food,’ he said, arguing that his one coffee entitled him to all the leisure time he needed. “I just come here to hang out and deal with my mail.'”
“A few miles away at another McDonald’s, a fedora-wearing crew holds court daily. “Old-timers, we have been here for years; we’re kids who grew up in the neighborhood,” said Jerry Walters, 70, who was sitting with two friends. On the tables there was nary a coffee, but there was a Budweiser secreted in a paper bag. “We’re accustomed to being here.”
One afternoon last week, Vincent Diehel, 39, sat at his usual table in a McDonald’s near St. Marks Place in Manhattan, scribbling spontaneous bop prosody and then rapping violent lyrics aloud. He was back even though police officers had asked him to vacate after hours of sitting the weekend before, he said.
“I wouldn’t leave; I refused to move,” said Mr. Diehel, who said he had fallen on hard times and saw McDonald’s as a refuge where he could gather his thoughts. He felt being kicked out was unfair. “I wasn’t ordering no food, no soda, no coffee, no beverages nor any of that,” he said. “That’s probably the reason why.”
One reading the article feels for these people and might even view McDonald’s as a villain. The article ends with the words of an employee who refuses to kick out anyone who “find refuge” in her McDonald’s, “For myself, I could be in the same situation…Tomorrow, it could be me.” Is this a Jewish perspective? If one sees someone steal or do some other ignoble act, do we tolerate it because we might be in the situation some day? McDonald’s is running a business; basic human decency forces one to realize rent and other overhead are there for people who support the business. The company can be approached for charity to help people who have fallen on hard times, lonely people, or people who need a place to meet but to just expect that the local business is there for me and my needs without me giving anything back, is simply narcissistic and arrogant.
How might a Jew look at this? We want to encourage acts of kindness and that doesn’t contradict the reality that a business is in business to make money. A teenager recently asked me to adjudicate an ongoing argument he was having with his father. He tutors at a local Starbucks, which is located inside Barnes and Noble, and neither he nor the one he tutors orders anything. His father thinks it’s wrong; he doesn’t. I asked, ‘is Starbuck entitled to expect that the rent, heat, and other expenses they pay for will come from revenues generated by sales? When he sits there, not only is he taking up space without paying for it, he’s taking a table from a potentially paying customer. The teen instantly acquiesced and realized the correctness in his father’s words.
Abraham, the first Jew, was called ivri (“other side”), a word derived from the fact that his life’s outlook and world perspective was on the “other side.” It differed from the culture around him. In every generation each Jew must ask, “which side am I on?”