My Uncle Max, of blessed memory, used to put a few coins into the pushke of a little yeshivah in Jerusalem every time its representatives would come to America, knocking on doors. He did this every year for most of his life, but unbeknownst to most of our family, he steadily increased his donations until he was truly supporting this yeshivah. When he found out I was going to Israel to study, he insisted I visit "his yeshivah" and gave me the pile of yellowing Yiddish letters of thanks to him for his generosity. Surely I could take a class or two there! I was Max's niece! So there I stood, in Mea Shearim, and trosh yeshivah sang my uncle's praises. And then he looked at me solemnly and said, "But there are some things that half a shekel cannot buy."
I think of this story every year at the reading of Parashat P'kudei. The children of Israel contribute gold for the building of the sanctuary — gold, Rashi suggests, as atonement for the golden calf. Guilt money. They wanted a God they could see, and so they built an idol. Now, to atone for that idol, they want to build a house they can see for a God they cannot. So do we, every time we contribute money to places that "seem more Jewish." We see something in that building that we do not see in ourselves.
And why only half a shekel for each person entered in the records? (Exod. 38:26) Because, a hasidic midrash suggests, the shekel represents the Jewish neshamah, the Jewish "soul." Half is from above, and half is acquired by our own efforts. We must acquire by our own efforts the beauty, strength, and life of our sanctuaries.
When we start seeing ourselves as whole Jews, we will give as much as is needed to our own institutions and stop supporting those that continue to close their doors to our "nieces" and secretly or openly bite the hand that feeds them. Then our leaders, like Moses of old, will say, "We have enough." And then we will be blessed, just as Moses blessed the Israelites who performed the work of building their sanctuary in their time.
For further reading
Down to Earth Judaism, Part Two on "Money," especially pages 212-239, Arthur Waskow, (William Morrow and Company, 1995).
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the rabbi of City Shul in Toronto, Canada.