I have a few favorite teachings from the Torah, one of which is in the Torah portion this week, when we hear about the census of the Israelites. This week’s portion is Ki Tissa, and a word used in the beginning of the text is v’natnu, which means “and they gave.” In Hebrew, this word is a palindrome, and this fact is often used to explain that giving is cyclical; sometimes we give, sometimes we receive. The circle works because we’re equally committed to opening ourselves to both experiences.
Here’s where we are in the story: the Israelites are in the desert, they have received the 10 Commandments, and they’re set to continue on their journey, with Moshe and God leading the way. But Moshe is delayed in coming down from the mountaintop. This makes the Israelites scared and unsure of this God that they have yet to trust, so they gather their gold, make an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible.
Their journey is about more than just covering ground; it’s an emotional journey as well. On this journey they’re learning to accept help and to live in the unknown, neither of which is an easy task. They’ve put their trust in Moshe, the one who led them out and has kept them relatively safe. So, when Moshe doesn’t come back as quickly as they expected, that trust turns into fear, and the Israelites respond by doing one of the last things Moshe asked of them, by giving gold. Just a few chapters before, the Israelites were generous in giving gold and other materials so they could build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and start working on priestly garments. Now, they apparently turn to what they know, but this time for the wrong reasons.
The Jerusalem Talmud in Shekalim 1:1 posits that this makes the Israelites a peculiar people. How could they honor the God they believe in, who just a few chapters before told them no idols, and then flip and donate with the same honor to an idol, the exact object that was forbidden? When I read this section it makes me wonder if perhaps the Israelites were just looking for any type of connection, no matter the cost. Giving can feel good, and creating can feel validating, but doing so without a purpose is as fruitless as idol worship.
Our narrative reminds us that giving and receiving both have many benefits. However, we also learn that we must be discerning about how we use our precious resources so that they go towards good, towards building holiness rather than breaking it down. When we have in mind the results we’d like to achieve, that’s when the giving is truly beneficial.