“Thou Shalt Donate to Overhead Costs”: The Biblical Commandment of Keeping the Lights On
by Rabbi Mishael Zion
This summer the nonprofit world was rocked by a campaign to “Debunk the Overhead Myth.” With a growing body of research and years of experience behind them, a coalition of experts claimed that, counter to popular belief, “overhead is a poor measure of a charity’s performance.” While 62 percent of Americans believe that a typical charity spends more than it should on overhead, these researchers believe that “charities should spend more on overhead” in order to be healthy and effective. Instead of seeking miniscule overhead percentages, donors should focus on a nonprofit’s “transparency, governance, leadership and results.”
I was sorry my late grandfather couldn’t read these reports. He always made it a point to earmark his charitable donation specifically for “overhead.” When I once asked him about this, he answered with his typical evasive smile: “Well, we are Levites.”
I was confused. I already knew we came from the Tribe of Levi, and it was a fact I mostly resented. The underappreciated cousins of the Kohanim (singular, Kohen) – the priestly tribe that descends from biblical Aaron – we Levites were consigned to washing the priests’ hands. If the Temple were ever to be rebuilt, our best career prospects would be as glorified song leaders, lyre in hand. Levites are the Art Garfunkel of the Jewish tribes.
In any case, what did this have to do with overhead costs?
When I pushed him, my grandfather said that, as a rabbi, social worker and activist, he had gained insight into the costs and benefits of Jewish communal service. And as a Levite, he had a “genetic appreciation” for the gray work of communal professionals. Since he saw how others underappreciated these professionals and the true costs of doing communal work effectively, he felt it was his responsibility to donate specifically to overhead expenses.
Thus, it was gratifying to find the nonprofit world opening up to the importance of overhead costs. To this formidable campaign I contribute the modest offering of biblical precedent: “The Commandment of Donating to Overhead.” This week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh, which discusses the building of the Tabernacle, opens with the following commandment (Exodus 27:20-21):
Command the Children of Israel, to bring you pure oil of pressed olives to keep the lamps burning continually… Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before God from sunset until daybreak. [This shall be] a law for the ages, throughout your generations, on the part of the children of Israel.
The Torah commands us to “keep the lights on.” Of the many donations the people of Israel are asked to make to support the sanctuary, this is the only one that is required on an ongoing basis.
Fittingly, this commandment became an actual “law for the ages,” long after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. An ancient rabbinic commentary makes the shift clear:
[This shall be] a law for the ages, throughout your generations, on the part of the children of Israel.” Even though the Temple has been destroyed and its candles extinguished, there still stand houses of prayer and houses of study in which we must light candles, for those are called “micro-temples” (Midrash Ha’Gadol, Leviticus 6:2).
In Jewish communities throughout the ages, the commandment of “keeping the lights on” became one of the most powerful guiding principles. In every community – from 11th-century Spain, through 16th-century Italy, to 19th-century Lithuania – there were always associations called “Shemen la’Maor” (Oil for Lighting) or “Ner Tamid” (the Constant Candle) whose key mandate was to fundraise for the oil to illuminate the sanctuary and other overhead costs. It comes as no surprise that these two names are taken directly from the biblical verses quoted above.
While in the Jewish world the personal touch of candles has been replaced by electricity, visiting the sanctuaries of other religious communities reminds us of how this commandment continues to be played out literally in some churches and temples, where devotees bring candles and light them in the sanctuary. This individual, humble and illuminating act speaks volumes of the individual responsibility to keep our communal institutions running.
Not as directly illuminating as the candles – nor as humble – the plaques at the entrance to our communal institutions also remind us that these institutions depend on our donations. But while the appearance of these plaques might lead us to believe that the responsibility to sustain our institutions lies primarily with the wealthy, the candles remind us that it is up to each of us to contribute to the effort. Indeed, in one synagogue in Jerusalem every lightbulb is donated by a different member of the community!
The commandment of contributing toward the “oil for lighting” has become symbolic of the debate about overhead costs. The modern day priests (and Levites!) who toil in the sanctuaries of our communal institutions deserve support and recognition. Understanding the complicated inner workings of our communal organizations, it is incumbent upon us to “bring to light” the importance of this sacred work.
Rabbi Mishael Zion is the co-Director of the Bronfman Fellowships, a diverse community of 1,000 young Jewish leaders from North America and Israel. He is the author of “A Night to Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices”. Mishael blogs at Text and the City and in 2013 was named one of ten “Rabbis to Watch” by Newsweek/the Daily Beast.