A parable, courtesy of Midrash Shemot Rabbah (51:6) –
A young man came to a city and found the people collecting money for charity, and when they asked him also to subscribe, he went on giving until they had to tell him that he had already given enough. Further on his travels, he came to a place where they were collecting for a theater, and when asked to contribute toward it, he was also so generous that he had to be told, ‘Enough!’
The young man of the story (and it seems important that he is young!) ‘has to be restrained from a kind of obsessive drive to give,’ in Aviva Zornberg’s words. Zornberg also points out the sequence of his giving. First he gives to ‘charity’ an unalloyed good in the mind of the rabbinic author of the parable. Next he gives to ‘a theater’ an equal and opposite evil in the eyes of the rabbis. As Zornberg pithily puts it, ‘instead of progressing, the young man is regressing.’ A few more Zornberg phrases are worth repeating. The young man exhibits ‘compulsive, morally opaque generosity,’ or, if you prefer, ‘promiscuous generosity’ which renders him ‘undiscriminating.’
Obsessive, compulsive, promiscuous, undiscriminating, morally opaque…it’s quite a collection!
[Nuremberg Bible, 1483, colored woodcut]
The Midrash applies the parable to the fashioning of the Golden Calf and the building of the Mishkan. They both require gifts from the people and, in both instances, the people over give. What’s underneath the ‘promiscuous generosity’ of God’s ‘undiscriminating people’?
Another Midrash (Avot d’Rabbi Natan A, chapter 11) offers a hint.
Said Rabbi Nathan: So long as Moses was engaged in the work of the Mishkan he did not wish to take counsel with the rulers/chieftains of Israel (n’si’ei yisrael), and the rulers/chieftains of Israel sat in silence, thinking, ‘Now Moses will need us.’ When they heard it proclaimed in the camp, saying ‘their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done’ they cried: ‘Woe unto us that we had no part (shutafut) in the work of the Mishkan!’ So they arose and added a large gift of their own accord, as it is said, ‘And the chieftains brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece; and spices and oil for lighting, for the anointing oil, and for the aromatic incense.’ (Exodus 35:27-28)
‘Now Moses will need us!’ and ‘Woe unto us that we had no part in the work of the Mishkan!’ are statements of longing and desire. The chieftains wish to belong, to participate in the great project of their day, to not feel left out. So too, the young man of our parable. So great is his desire to belong and to participate, that he will give (and give) without restraint or discrimination.
And what of us? We too wish not to feel left out; we too desire to be needed; we too long to participate in the great projects of our day. Hopefully, we can be a bit more discriminating than the young man of the parable. Roman theaters and righteous charity are, after all, not the same thing. Nor are the Golden Calf and the Mishkan of equal moral value. Smart restraint and discriminating wisdom, coupled with passion and participation, are the order of the day.