Thursday, February 14, 2013

Question of the Week (Terumah): Why Does the Mishkan Come After the Civil Code Laws?

This week's parsha, Terumah, begins a long segment in the Book of Exodus concerning itself entirely with the construction of the tabernacle (mishkan) and the vessels (keylim) that were placed in it, and the design of the special priestly clothing. 

The parsha opens with a "fundraising campaign" - a call to the Israelites to donate materials needed for the construction and operation of the tabernacle. Gold, silver, copper, yarns of different colors, fine linen, goats' hair, ram skins, dolphin skins, acacia wood, spices and expensive stones - all are needed for the building of the sanctuary, and G-d asks the Israelites to open their hearts and donate generously. 


Why was this campaign announced  only after the Torah articulated at length the civil laws of Parashat Mishpatim? Wouldn't it be more appropriate to read first about building a holy sanctuary and only later about the civil code laws? 


It is no accident that the fundraising campaign was announced following the detailed set of laws dealing with the meticulous care one must take for other people's life and property. Rabbi Pinchas Peli explains that this teaches us that there are ethical requirements for donating money: G-d does not want such gifts that come from ill-gotten gains, riches amassed from exploitation or crooked business. Only money earned justly and honestly is qualified to serve as a gift towards the erection of a sanctuary.  

Indeed, centuries later, the rabbis postulated it as law that no donation can be accepted from money that is not earned properly. Unlike the Roman emperor Vespasian who proudly declared "pecunia non olet" (money doesn't stink), Jewish ethics was very sensitive to the odious smell money can have, and which even offering it as charity cannot purify. 

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