Supporting the Supporter
"Take for me an offering." (Exodus 25:2)
The donations requested of the Israelites for the construction of the Mishkan (tabernacle) are described as being "taken" rather than "given." What does that mean? Moreover, God is the Master of the Universe and all that it contains. Did He need contributions and materials from human beings to construct His Mishkan??
The purpose of the contributions was to enable the Jews to participate in the construction of the Mishkan. Thus the giving was in fact a receiving - "Take for me an offering."
The heads of the tribes responded to the call for contributions for the Mishkan by declaring that they would donate what was still needed after the rest of the Jewish people gave all that they could. In the end, all that was left to bring were the precious stones for the Ephod and the Choshen (breastplate of the High Priest), the oil and the spices for the incense, and the Menorah. The leaders were censured for conducting themselves in this manner and the letter yud was removed their title (see Exodus 32:27). Since they were prepared to contribute whatever was necessary, no matter how great, and did in fact contribute valuable items to the Mishkan, the question remains, however, why were they censured?
The leaders misunderstood the purpose of the giving. There was no "deficit to be made up." God has no deficit. The giving was an opportunity for self-development, the purification of one's soul through attachment to a holy undertaking. Approaching the Mitzvah as if God needs our contributions was ludicrous.
The Talmud (Baba Basra 10a) relates that the wicked Turnus Rufus once asked Rabbi Akiva, "If your God loves the poor so much, why then doesn't He provide for them?" Rabbi Akiva responded that God could easily provide personally for the poor, but He chose to give us the merit of giving tzedakah (charity) to save us from Gehinnom (netherworld).
For this reason, says the Midrash (Ruth Rabba 5:9), the poor person does more for the rich person than the rich person does for the poor person. When Naomi asked Ruth who had provided Ruth with the food she brought home that day, Ruth answered, "The man I did for today was named Boaz." Boaz provided her with what God could have provided Himself, but she provided him with a Mitzvah - a chance to be God-like by giving to another.
In this light, we can understand the words of Maimonides in his commentary to Avos (3:19), "All is judged according to the number of deeds." Maimonides explains that it is better to give one dollar of charity 100 times, than 100 dollars one time. The more times a person acts in a way that is meritorious and God-like, the more he conditions himself to the performance of Mitzvot and purifies his soul. Tzedakah is not performed for the poor person's sake, but rather to enable the giver to emulate God and merit Olam Haba.
So, too, with respect to the support of Torah institutions, as the Chafetz Chaim explains the verse in Proverbs (3:18), "It is a tree of life for those who grasp it, and its supporters are praiseworthy." The word lehachazik means both to support and to cling or to grasp. God could provide for the Torah institutions without any human help, but He chooses to funnel His support through human agents. Those agents must realize that their "support" for Torah is in fact support for themselves. When they recognize that, they will cling to their support for Torah institutions as one clings to a log in a raging river. For them, then, their support is a tree of life. Those who think that they are in fact supporting the Torah will also be rewarded - as God does not deny reward for any good deed - but for them Torah is not a tree of life.
The Chafetz Chaim himself was once approached by a wealthy benefactor who offered to underwrite the entire operating expenses of his Yeshiva in Radin, Poland. He politely refused. "I cannot permit you to monopolize the merit for supporting my Yeshiva and thereby deprive others of an opportunity to do so," he told the man.
The staves, with which the Holy Ark was carried, represent the supporters of Torah. They are an intrinsic part of the Torah community, inseparable from the Torah scholars, just as the staves could not be removed from the Ark. But those who carried the Ark were miraculously lifted off the ground and literally carried by the Ark itself. Their apparent support was in reality that which supported them.
After his marriage, Rabbi Eliezer Gordon, the founder of the Telshe Yeshiva, was supported by his father-in-law, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Neviezer, so that he could devote himself fully to Torah learning and develop into a Gadol (Sage). As his family began to grow, and he was offered various rabbinical positions, Reb Eliezer sought to relieve his father-in-law of this financial burden. He asked his permission to accept a rabbinical position and begin to support himself. Despite difficult financial times, Reb Avraham Yitzchak refused to permit him to do so. When Reb Avraham Yitzchak's wife asked him how long he intended to support their daughter and son-in-law's family, he responded, "My dear wife, who knows who is supporting whom..." Finally the prestigious rabbinical position in Eisheshok was offered to Reb Eliezer, and his father-in-law could no longer detain him. The day after the Gordon family left for Eisheshok, Reb Avraham Yitzchak died. It then became clear who had been supporting whom.
In this light, we can appreciate the significance of the deletion of the letter yud from the title of the leaders. With a yud, the word nesi'im (leaders) denotes "those who carry" Without the yud, the vowels can be rearranged to read nis'aim - those who are carried. The yud was removed to instruct them that, though they viewed themselves as making up the shortfall, they were in reality being carried by the merit of the Mitzvah.
The Sages tell us that we will be redeemed through the merit of tzedakah. May we recognize the great opportunity offered us when we are called upon to support Torah institutions and the poor, and thereby merit redemption.