Terumah: Paying our "voluntary" dues

When I became bar mitzvah in the Fall of 1968, my father, z”l, had recently completed two terms as President of the local synagogue.  That must be why my speech was about the "ten percent tithe."  Donations wouldn’t have been an obvious topic for that shabbat’s Torah portion – and surely, in that momentous, tumultuous year, not one that any bar or bat mitzvah would have chosen!    

Still, as many of us come to do, I now acknowledge my parents’ wisdom, values, and influence upon my own life. My father was right to stress, both to and through me, our obligation to ensure the financial health of Jewish organizations.   

So it was that, a month ago at this time, my wife and I hectically finalized our 2013 deductible contributions to diverse Jewish organizations in the US and Israel.*   

Our motivations for donating were mixed.  We wanted to share our blessings, fulfill our obligations, support our communities, continue setting an example for our children and grandchildren – and, admittedly, reduce our taxable income.

But we also wanted to act against our yetzer ha’ra, that ever-present inclination which, in this context, says: “No one is making you donate money.  You already pay synagogue dues (on two continents, in our case)!  You made less this year.  Expenses are up.  Life is uncertain. The economy is shaky.  You’re getting older and closer to retirement.  You may soon regret donating.  Better to pay the tax and hold onto what’s left.  Or, just give ‘the minimum.’”  And so on.  We certainly heard that internal voice as we debated how much to give.     

Yet, we also knew that if we care about the future of Jewish life, especially in the US, such stinginess is extremely destructive.  Especially so when synagogues and umbrella organizations are increasingly moving to “voluntary dues” for their support. 

In this week’s parashah, T’rumah, G-d instructs Moses to accept gifts for G-d from “every person whose heart so moves him” [Ex 25:2].  That model worked for building the Tabernacle, but it’s untenable to sustain the needs of the Jewish people, particularly in these times.  

This year, may I suggest that none of us do what I did last year -- wait until the last minute to fulfill my annual "voluntary" tsedakah obligation -- obligation meaning not voluntary, although no person or organization was "making" me pay more than required "dues."  Neglecting the needs of voluntary contribution-reliant Jewish organizations until the annual tax-deadline risks deciding, at the last hour, that our hearts don't move us to donate, or not to donate enough.  It risks not being able to wrest from our Yetzer Ha'ra funds critical to the health, or even survival, of Jewish organizations.   

Many Jewish organizations will be more than happy to accept monthly contributions via regular, automatic credit card deductions, easily set-up on their websites.   This has many advantages for both parties.  They can better budget and manage their cash-flow, ease their anxiety, and provide more services to our communities. We can ease the pain of lump sum, year end contributions and combat the voice of “I can’t afford to give this year.”  

Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you – said the Lord of Hosts.  But you ask, “How shall we turn back?”  Ought man to defraud G-d?  Yet you are defrauding Me. And you ask, “How have we been defrauding You?”  In tithe and contribution.  You are suffering under a curse, yet you go on defrauding Me – the whole nation of you.  Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, and let there be food in My House, and thus put Me to the test – said the Lord of Hosts.  I will surely open the floodgates of the sky for you and pour down blessings on you.”  Malachi 3:10

Shabbat shalom.   

* Need a few suggestions to jumpstart your own “voluntary” contributions (in addition to dues to your own synagogue)?  There are innumerable deserving organizations, but in recent years my wife and I have contributed to: Academy for Jewish Religion-California (Judith Ann Glick z"l Memorial Scholarship Fund), AmOrhOlam (Jewish inmates at California Institute for Women-Pomona), Birthright, Bureau of Jewish Education, Conservative Yeshiva (Jerusalem), Jewish Federation of Orange County, Hadassah, Hebrew Free Loan, Hillel, Israel Religious Action Committee, Jerusalem Society for Protection of Street Cats, Jewish World Watch, Mazon, Men of Reform Judaism, MogenDavid, Mussar Institute, and several rabbis’ discretionary funds. 

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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb