5756 - #10

The Mishkan and the Allocation of Funds

A challenge that is often directed against many religions focuses on the use of funds. There are numerous situations where, even within slum areas populated by individuals lacking in the most basic human needs, superior edifices of religion stand with the most expensive of ornaments and housing much wealth. How much gold, silver, jewellery, expensive tapestry is used in the beautification of religion that, if sold, could relieve the suffering of so many? Religions are challenged: do their deities need these trinkets of wealth? Would these deities not wish these funds better used to meet the needs of the less fortunate? Asked rhetorically, these challenges have fuelled many rebellions not only against religions but against faith itself. Yet these questions are powerful and legitimate as they tug at the world's core understanding of religion and its purpose.

The essence of this question must also be raised within the realm of Torah. The allocation of resources, personally and communally, is one of the most important decisions that we must undertake.[1] Clearly the question of how we apportion funds between charitable needs and the call to enhance our service of G-d is an important aspect of that decision. If our places of worship are to be superior works of architecture, how do we explain this cost at the expense of the needs of the poor? Should, in fact, we make this type decision, and use gold and silver in the fashioning of our articles of worship or should we rather direct this money to the needy?

The Mishkan, built in response to the command of G-d, would seem to support a requirement to adorn our articles of worship. This first structure built by the Jewish people as a place to worship was most wondrous. No expense was spared in its construction. Yet the challenge of resource allocation was also non-existent; G-d provided for all the needs of the people. What better way for a member of the Desert Generation to use his/her wealth than in the glorification of Hashem? The Mishkan, though, did set a precedent for the future as the Temples in Jerusalem were also splendid structures, culminating in the Talmudic statement "that one who has not seen the Temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building."[2] This, though, was the creation of Herod; are we to learn a lesson in resource allocation from him? Shlomo Hamelech's Temple was built in a time of unique prosperity for the Jewish nation; the Second Temple of Ezra was built with the assistance of the Persian kings.[3] The fact that the Temples were magnificent expressions of our desire to glorify G-d does not, in itself, indicate that we are to choose expenditures of this nature over the needs of charity. Zeh keli v'anveihu, "this is my G-d and I shall exalt him".[4] Clearly it is proper to expend funds in the glorification of G-d and in the worship of Him. The question is: to what extent? and at what expense in resource allocation? Perhaps, when we are forced to choose, it is still the needs of charity that should prevail.

Yet, T.B. Baba Batra 4a informs us that it was the Sage, Baba ben Buta, who advised Herod, in penance for his sins, to re-build the Temple. It is most interesting that Baba ben Buta chose an expenditure of this nature over another type of disbursement, such as charity. Was there no need for further charity?[5] In fact, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 249:16 presents the view that the needs of the synagogue do stand before the needs of charity. Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De'ah 249:18, though, clearly quotes other authorities that take the opposite position, that charity must supersede. In fact, he, further argues that, even according to the Shulchan Aruch, the superior position of the synagogue doesnot apply if "the charitable need is the feeding of those who are starving or a similar matter." The Shulchan Aruch himself places the needs of the sick before the synagogue. Should we thus not invest in synagogues until all poverty and illness are eradicated? Perhaps, in fact, we should not.

Ultimately, all our expenditures could be subjected to the same question. Is it right for us to spend beyond our most basic of needs when there are homeless, those without food or without medicine? Yet, clearly, we are allowed the disparity of placing our own desires even above the more basic needs of others.[6] Should not the decision of tzedakah versus the synagogue also be personal?

Our personal choices flow from within ourselves, indicating our needs. Tzedakah and the demands of the synagogue flow, though, from without. They are obligations placed upon us, indicating our commitment to community and our commitment to others. We are not called upon to evaluate our priorities but rather the communal priority and thus the need for further objective direction. With these words, though, the tremendous desire of the Jewish people to give to the Mishkan takes on new meaning. Enhancing our service of G-d is not solely a demand from without but also arises from a personal desire, reflecting our attachment to Hashem and our desire to enhance His worship. As a communal obligation, we must weigh these expenditures against the needs of tzedakah, but as personal desires they indicate a power of the soul.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


[1] My article, Beyond Tzedakah: Understanding the Torah Expenditure, NISHMA Journal Special Edition was Nishma's first entry into this most significant topic, one which we continue to investigate.

[2] T.B. Baba Batra 4a.

[3] See Ezra, chapter 6. For a fuller description of foreign financial support of the Temples, see Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 15, "Temple".

[4] Shemot 15:2.

[5] What, though, is a synagogue need and to what extent is beauty such a need?

[6] In fact, the need for self-concern and the necessity of its application are fundamental. A full explanation of the Torah model and the hashkafa principles underlying the role of self-concern are, though, beyond the realm of this article. This most important issue of personal resource allocation, however, will be addressed iy"h in a future Nishma article.

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