In October 2001, the nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, Prince Al Waleed toured the ruins of Ground Zero with New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The Prince, the world’s sixth-wealthiest person, gave the mayor a $10,000,000 donation followed by this statement: Our Palestinian brethren continue to be slaughtered at the hands of the Israelis while the world turns the other cheek. At times like this, we must address some of the issues that led to the criminal attack of 9-11.
Rudy returned the check.
In 1952 Israel faced a somewhat similar issue. West Germany had agreed to compensate Israel 3 billion marks (800 million dollars) in Holocaust reparations. The pragmatic Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, argued that Israel’s economic future was in peril, and in order to integrate all the new immigrants they could not refuse the money. His political rival, Menachem Begin, rebutted in an impassioned speech. “To sell the honor of the Jewish people for German money is national disgrace.”
The vote was close. Ultimately, in the argument between money vs. honor, money triumphed.
What is Torah’s approach? I am not 100% sure. Certainly, one should not to judge either position. In some cases, G-d commands the Jews to borrow, i.e., seize Egyptian property at the Exodus. Conversely, we are prohibited from Amalekite spoils. One thing is clear. Money alone does not make everything kosher. One must know its origins.
In this week’s Biblical reading G-d commands an annual half-shekel contribution as a yearly atonement. The medieval commentaries (Tosefos, 1100-1300 CE) explain that G-d showed Moses a half-shekel of fire, because he could not grasp how seven measly grams of silver offered atonement for the soul.
In order to understand what baffled Moses, let’s meet Bezalel. He supervised the Desert Sanctuary’s construction and is introduced as, “filled with the spirit of G-d, wisdom, intelligence, knowledge, skills…and with the ability to know thoughts.” (Exodus 31: 3-4) This sounds strange: We understand why Bezalel had to have wisdom and skills. But why was it necessary for him to know people’s thoughts? He was a builder, not a psychic?
The famed Volozhin Yeshiva employed fund-raisers to travel across Europe. One day, a regular contributor refused to help. So Rabbi Chaim, (1749-1821) the head of the yeshiva, decided to pay a visit. The wealthy donor explained that when he saw the flashy appearance and the beautiful new carriage of the fund raiser he decided that his money should not be wasted sponsoring fancy clothes and coaches. “I want my money to go only to the students learning Torah.”
The philanthropist concluded that he is ready to give a large sum, but on condition that his money supports students, and nothing extraneous. Rabbi Chaim answered: That is why Bezalel needed to discern donors’ thoughts. He was able to perceive which gold was given with pure motives for the sake of Heaven versus those contributed with selfish intentions of honor and prestige. Consequently, the gift from those with holy motives found its way to the Holy Ark that housed the tablets. Other gifts from those not so selfless were used for lesser items, like the shovel that removed the ashes.
So too, Rabbi Chaim explained, with donations to the yeshiva. “It is the donor himself, not I nor my staff, who will make the eventual determination as to where the monies donated will be allocated. It depends on your heart.”
Now we can understand G-d’s fiery coin. It is not only the coin that counts; it is the fire and passion that comes with it. When a Jew gives a coin with a fire in his heart, with enthusiasm, zeal and a feeling of love, a half-shekel becomes a coin of fire! The physical money catches on the fire of the soul. Such money can atone for your soul, for it is soulful money. Such money makes it into the Holy of Holies, and elevates the giver to the greatest of heights. (Likutei Sichos, vol. 2)
When I do a favor to another, give tzedaka, provide helpful advice, offer a kind word, I must not only consider the act itself. I must focus on my emotions. More than just compassion, there must also be passion. If I remain cold and detached, my coin remains cold and dead. We need the fire. So the next time you extend your wallet or mind, put your soul into it.