Parashat Teruma- The Fly in the Sugar Bag
** This week’s Parasha is dedicated L’iluy nishmat Natan ben Shoshana **
Many commentators noted the unusual phraseology used by G-d in commanding Beneh Yisrael to donate materials to the Mishkan: Ve’yikhu Li Teruma” – literally, “They shall take for Me a donation.” A donor gives his gift, yet G-d tells Beneh Yisrael to “take” a donation towards the construction of the Mishkan.
The Rabbis of the Mussar movement explained that the word “take” is used in reference to charitable donations to teach that when we give, we are really taking. We might suggest an analogy to somebody making a cash deposit in the bank. After he hands the cash to the teller, the teller is not going to thank the person for the money. The teller receives the money, but the money is going into the customer’s account where it will accrue interest. The customer not giving away anything; he is making a deposit that will yield more money. The same is true with charitable donations to the needy or to religious institutions. When we donate, we are actually receiving. Although technically we give money, we are actually depositing the funds into an “account” which will yield inestimable rewards.
It is told that Baron Rothschild once met with a king, who asked him how much he was worth. The Baron named an amount drastically lower than his actual worth, and the king was stunned.
“I am quite confident that you are worth far more than that,” the king said. “Are you lying to me? Are you trying to pretend you’re not as wealthy as we all know you are?”
“Certainly not,” the Baron replied. “You asked how much I am worth, so I told you the amount I have dispensed to charity – because that is all I am worth. Anything I currently own can be lost in an instant. It can be stolen, or the markets can crash and it will lose its value. But everything I’ve given is mine forever, and can never be taken away from me. And so I am worth only the amount that I have given to charity.”
We don’t truly “own” our material possessions, because they are “ours” only temporarily. They can be taken away from us at any moment, and at best, we keep them only until we leave this world, at which point we take with us only our Misvot. The only money that accompanies us to the next world is the money we donated to charitable causes.
Some have compared our relationship to our money to the situation of a fly trapped in a bag of sugar. Would we consider the fly fortunate? On the one hand, it has free, unrestrained access to more sugar than it can possibly eat. On the other hand, it can’t take it anywhere.
We are that fly. We can enjoy our material possessions, but we can’t take it with us. Once we depart from this world, not a single granule of “sugar” accompanies us.
The Gemara in Masechet Sota notes that at the time Beneh Yisrael left Egypt, the entire nation was busy collecting the riches of Egypt, except for one person – Moshe, who was instead involved in an important Misva. He was retrieving Yosef’s coffin to bring it to the Land of Israel, in fulfillment of the promise made to Yosef that his remains would be interred in his homeland.
We might ask, why did Moshe choose to involve himself specifically in this Misva while Beneh Yisrael collected the spoils of Egypt?
The answer, perhaps, is that Moshe wanted to teach the people an important lesson. After living as slaves for over two centuries, with no property and no rights, they were now suddenly becoming not only free, but fabulously wealthy. According to tradition, the poorest among Beneh Yisrael had dozens of donkeys loaded with riches. Moshe wanted to draw the people’s attention to the remains of Yosef, who, like them, went from “rags to riches” in an instant. After languishing in an Egyptian dungeon, he suddenly found himself appointed to the position of second-in-command, ruling Egypt alongside Pharaoh. He then turned Egypt into the wealthiest kingdom on earth, as all the surrounding nations came to purchase grain from Egypt. Yosef became phenomenally wealthy – but he took not a penny with him to the next world. As the people elatedly collected their riches, Moshe showed them the remains of Yosef, who was one of the wealthiest people in the world, but who ultimately, like all people, passed on and took no material possessions with him.
“Ve’yikhu Li Teruma” – the only possessions we truly own are our good deeds. And thus when we give money to charity, we are not giving – we are taking.