Give Like It’s 15th Century BCE
[From the Tzedaka’s Present Column]
Lessons from Machzits Hashekel
By Moshe Hecht
There are two tiny, impish little “Mini-Moshe’s” (or “Mini-Mimi’s”) – one with a harp and a halo, the other, with horns – that pop up on our shoulders when we think about charity. The Tzadikel “Mini Moshe” understands the necessity of the mitzvah of tzedakah, and knows that regardless of what I give – whether it’s just a penny or a million dollars – I’ll be fulfilling G-d’s commandment to be just and generous. “Give l’shma, Big Moshe,” he whispers. “Don’t ask, just do.” Before I can remind myself that he’s just in my head, the second Mini-Moshe voices his doubts – it doubts that if I only have a small amount to give, that I can still make an impact, and as a result, it doubts the necessity of even donating at all. After all, if I only have $5 to give, I can’t build a school with that money, or house those who are homeless in their community all by myself. “Don’t listen to that guy, Big Moshe – think!” Horned Mini-Moshe mutters. “What good can your five bucks do anyways?” Because of this, we’re faced with a problem of motivation (and me, questioning my sanity) – how do I entice myself to give when I – and Horned Mini-Moshe – might feel that my contribution would be worthless and can’t make a difference; is charity reserved for merely the uber wealthy, or those few who can actually directly see their effects?
What Horned Mini-Moshe fails to take into account, however, is just how limited his perspective really is, aside from the fact that he’s a fun-sized figment of my imagination. See, what he doesn’t get is that Tzedakah doesn’t exist in a vacuum – there is something so much more profound in motion than the mere dollar value of our donation when we make a small charitable gift; it is a simple fact that we are not giving alone. At the same moment I drop my nickel in the pushka, there are millions of other people doing the same, giving whatever they can give – no matter how small it may be – and all working together to get something done.
To demonstrate the consistent power of this “giving matrix,” I’ll be going back to the very first fundraiser that I know of, in fact, the very first fundraiser ever, where the stakes and costs were both fearsomely high, and many people from the community didn’t have much to give at all.
The first public fundraising campaign wasn’t, as some might think, a product of the 21st Century, but in fact, described vividly in the Torah nearly 3000 years ago. As Shlomo Hamelech famously once said: ”There is no new thing under the sun,” and as such, we will venture to a time before even Solomon to find it.
After the emancipation from Pharaoh in Egypt, the Jewish people found themselves adrift in the desert, destined to wander for a generation before being able to return and reclaim their rightful land in Canaan. This – aside from a plethora of other difficulties – brought with it a particularly dire problem – if they were to be constantly moving, where would the people bring their sacrifices, or communicate with God? Thus, God commanded that the Mishkan be built, a grand mobile sanctuary for G-d, so that he would be able to live with his people as they travelled.
The Tabernacle wasn’t just an ordinary tent – it was, after all, the house of G-d on Earth. It was furnished with copious amounts of gold, silver and fine acacia wood, interlaid with exquisitely dyed and woven curtains and tapestries; it would have been an expensive undertaking for even Egypt’s Royal Architects, let alone the presently-nomadic Jewish people. Thus, G-d ordered the very first crowdfunding campaign in written history – he ordered every single Jewish family to donate a mere half-shekel. In addition to serving as the method of taking the census of the Jews in the desert, it was used to fund the construction of the Mishkan. The silver coins where to be melted down and become the foundational sockets of the entire Temple.
Astoundingly enough, every single family answered G-d’s call, and gave their small portion towards the project. Now, we all know that had they disobeyed, this wouldn’t have been the first, and definitely not the last time that the Jewish people didn’t listen to G-d. Keep in mind that this event happened fairly close to the Chet H’aigel (Golden Calf) incident, so it’s safe to say that they weren’t exactly batting a thousand in the desert. Given their history and future, there clearly had to be something that compelled all of these families to part with their money – what was it?
At first, I’m sure they felt the exact same way that our cynic in the introduction did: “What good will my half-shekel (the max value today of about $15) be for such a huge venture?” But then, it had to have hit them – G-d had effectively “CC’d” the entire Jewish people. Not only would they themselves be donating, but so would their friends, neighbors, and heck, even people they had never even met before; suddenly, the impossible Mishkan began to feel a little more possible. First of all, it felt beyond amazing to be a part of something that every single person in your nation participated in as well, filling each donor with an overwhelming sense of belonging. This, coupled with the pride that comes with something as tremendous as building G-d’s dwelling on Earth, also bestowed upon them the feeling of impact – because of their half-shekel payment, they could enjoy the spiritual benefit of giving their offerings and prayers directly to G-d Himself.
Clearly, if I’m to take anything away from G-d’s lesson here, it is that charity, since the dawn of time memoriam, has been meant to be done together. Donations shouldn’t only be done one at a time, but rather in concert with one another, as not only does it generate immediate bonds between the charitable, but also entices others – who long to be a part of something exclusive as well – to join in. It is this “togetherness” that not only helps those in need in ways that many might deem to be undoable, but also benefits the donors, spreading lasting happiness with just the thought of doing good with others, and giving whatever little you may have to spare. Perhaps, when the Gemera tells us “Kol pruta u-pruta mistarefes l’chezhbon godol” it not only refers to the individual, how each penny they give ads up over time, but also to the collective – that when you are giving, it matters, because you are not giving alone.
Moshe Hecht is a philanthropy futurist, public speaker and chief innovation officer of Charidy, a crowdfunding platform and consulting company that has helped 2000 organizations raise over a half billion dollars. Moshe is an accomplished entrepreneur whose passion lies at the intersection of technology and charitable giving. His articles have been published publications such as Forbes, Nonprofit Quarterly and eJewishPhilanthropy. When Moshe is not at the office, he is writing music and enjoying downtime with his wife and three redheaded children.