It’s true — there can be too much of a good thing. It’s that final bit of cake that moves us from pleasure to discomfort, the rain that becomes a flood, or the Netflix session that morphs into a binge-fest.
So many good things have rather obvious caps. But some don’t. Who would want to set limits on something like kindness, selflessness, or generosity? Apparently Moses.
In Parashat Vayak’heil/P’kudei, the artisans building the ancient Tabernacle as a place of worship during our desert wanderings say to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the Eternal has commanded to be done” (Exodus 36:5).
The people are so eager for this building campaign, so moved by the vision of what it will do for the community, that they are exceedingly generous with their gifts. So how does Moses react? He tells them to stop. “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary.” So the people stopped bringing (Exodus 36:6).
It’s hard to imagine a synagogue or a nonprofit organization of any kind turning away an excess of donations today. There is always more that can be done in service of the community. Our Rabbis also seem confused by Moses’ call. There has to be an explanation for why he would turn away the gifts.
According to Rabbi Yochanan in the Talmud, the reason Moses called for the cessation of gifts was because they were approaching Shabbat and he didn’t want the people to violate the Sabbath with their contributions. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 96b). But Rabbi Yochanan fails to explain why they did not simply resume with the giving once Shabbat ended.
The commentator Sforno offers a slightly more plausible explanation. God was very specific about what this house of worship should look like. “God wanted no additions, nor omissions.” He explains, “This is expressed by the words ‘to perform only this task alone.’” Yet even if this were true — the overwhelming generosity of the people did not have to be shut down — it could have been redirected.
Moses was simply myopic. He was so intensely focused on the task at hand of building the Tabernacle, he forgot that he was the leader of more than just a construction project. The people demonstrated how eager they were to be called to a higher purpose. Moses’ speech looked less like President John F. Kennedy’s call to action, “Ask not what your country can do for you,”1 and more like a request for us to go shopping in the wake of terrorist attacks.
As easy as it is to criticize Moses for his lack of visionary leadership in the moment, we can also feel for him. How many of us have experienced an overeager coworker or volunteer we don’t know how to channel? How many of us have dismissed an idea someone generated because it would just take us off track — even if it was good? The challenge for us when we find ourselves in positions of leadership is how to transform that eagerness and good will into something collectively needed and valuable.
A midrash offers what a more visionary leader’s response might have looked like in this conundrum of excessive generosity:
“The leaders were deeply distressed by not having been privileged to bring anything to the work of the sanctuary. They said, ‘Since we did not merit to participate in the offerings for the Tabernacle, let us give the garments for the priesthood.’” (Midrash Tanchuma on P’kudei 11:3)
These leaders under Moses understood that need existed beyond the immediate project. After the Tabernacle was done, the priests working in the Temple would need garments. The assets and the efforts could be redirected to the next anticipated need. They didn’t have to turn away people’s gifts.
Let’s be clear that we should not amass assets and spend good will for their own sake. We should not take advantage of people’s generosity simply because it exists. Some religious institutions prey off of people’s kind-heartedness and invest it in frivolity. It is a sick kind of spiritual abuse. But in the vast majority of cases, our religious institutions have the power to be conduits of good — so long as there is vision. We have the power to be conduits of good.
Moses helps us learn through his mistake that when people express an eagerness to help, they are actually expressing a spiritual desire. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. When we are leaders, our charge is twofold — to give them an outlet for that generosity and to make sure that it does indeed matter.
1. Inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy