Now that we’ve read Mishpatim, we can proceed to T’rumah
The Beis HaLevi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l (d. 1892), makes a sharp point in his opening remarks on this week’s Torah portion. Parshas T’rumah begins the story of the most successful fundraising campaign in Jewish history: collecting donations for the Mishkan. Hashem informs Moshe of all the materials that will be necessary to construct a sanctuary worthy of housing the Sh’chinah. The Beis HaLevi notes that it is very telling that this topic appears immediately after last week’s reading of the civil laws of Mishpatim. In a sense, the Torah is teaching us the prerequisites for having the privilege of contributing to the Mishkan: In order for there to be a t’rumah (donation), there must first be mishpatim (laws). Only money that is gained legally and ethically can be accepted for G-dly endeavors.
Unfortunately, there are people who have the opposite perspective. They believe that gaining money by cutting corners in business or cheating the government can be justified by giving generously to shuls, yeshivos, or hospitals (see Maharsha, K’subos 67b). Even if there is no permission to commit fraud in the first place, perhaps it is, at least, a method to ease the conscience after the fact. Can there be anything wrong with donating more money to religious causes?
The order of our parshiyos addresses that question. Building a Mishkan cannot be the impetus to rationalize or whitewash ill-gotten gains. In fact, the holier the undertaking, the more important that it be funded by clean hands and with legitimate profits.
Additionally, one who uses dishonest means to accumulate money for charity exhibits a flawed perspective on the mitzvah of tz’dakah. Such a person assumes that the pauper or institution is the beneficiary of the generosity, and that the donor is providing an altruistic service worthy of honor. The reality, however, is quite the opposite.
Chazal ask the existential question of why poverty exists, and they answer that Hashem did so to provide an altruistic service to the wealthy, allowing them the privilege of sharing their G-dly blessings (Bava Basra 10a). Similarly, while we would have expected the Torah to use the word “v’yitnu” (and they shall give) to instruct on the donations to the Mishkan, our parshah actually opens with the word “v’yikchu” (and they shall take). This paradoxical word for “donate” teaches us who is truly gaining by pledging to G-dly causes. In reality, all money belongs to Hashem, but He allows us to “take” an active role in holy endeavors by using His gifts as intended (Alshich, Sh’mos 25:2). It is an honor to be able to participate in a meaningful cause like the Mishkan, and generous “givers” should really see themselves as fortunate “takers.”
Now consider how foolish it is to use ill-gotten gains for charitable causes. The whole point of donating is to recognize that money is a gift from Hashem, and to remember the obligation to use “our” money properly. By cutting corners to achieve these means, we are not only legitimizing deceitful behavior, but demonstrating a complete misunderstanding on Whose money it really is.
Living a frum lifestyle can be exorbitantly expensive. But let us not kid ourselves that Hashem would want us to engage in tax fraud, insurance scams, or dishonest Amazon returns in order to afford yeshivah tuition, fancy weddings, and Pesach programs.
After all, we can only consider T’rumah after having internalized Mishpatim.