Terumah: Why Do You Do Good?

menorah“Take for Me an offering from everyone whose heart impels him to give.”

Exodus 25:2

Rashi, the great commentator, tells us that “Take for Me” means that all donations for the Tabernacle should be given for the sake of the Almighty. The question: What difference does it make what a person’s intentions are as long as he does a good deed?

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Chasman clarifies the role of intentions with an illustration. Suppose there is a man who wants to ensure that every child in the community has wholesome milk for breakfast. Rain or shine he delivers milk every morning. What would you say about that man? Likely you would count him amongst the great tzadikim, righteous people, a person of great kindness.

However, what would be your opinion of the man if you knew he delivered the milk only because he was getting paid? No longer is he a great tzadik, now he is just a plain milkman.

Similarly, in everything we do. If we keep in mind that we are fulfilling the Almighty’s command to do kindness, even the mundane interactions at work can be elevated to a higher spiritual level. The bus driver is no longer just driving the bus, he is helping people get to work or to shop for their families. The deed may be a good deed with or without one’s intention, but our growth in character and spirituality depend on our intentions!

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Terumah

I suppose you could link this back to commentary on last week’s last week’s Torah portion. In the Aish.com commentary for that week, we looked at the story of a young Jewish woman who was seeking spirituality and felt actually insulted that her Jewish teachers suggested she could find it in “the (Torah) laws regarding returning a lost item.” She abandoned her pursuit of spirituality within the context of Torah and Judaism and proceeded to India. But she found that the behavior of her guru in response to his finding a lost wallet containing a large sum of money showed her that spirituality, responsibility, justice, and mercy must all go together.

In this week’s commentary, we see that even doing what is good may not be enough if the motivation of the person performing the action is less than stellar.

But let’s take two people performing an identical mitzvah. Say both of our hypothetical people are donating food to a local food bank. They both give abundantly in money and goods and many people are fed through their efforts. The first man is primarily motivated by the desire to do good to the people of his community and to serve God. The second man is primarily motivated by the tax break he’ll receive and the recognition he’ll get from his friends and family as a “good guy.”

Which one would you say is the more “spiritual” man? Obviously the first one. But regardless of motivation, people are still fed. Even the man whose motivation is only for his self-interest is doing better to serve others than the person who has “nice, warm, fuzzy” spiritual feelings toward his neighbor but donates not even a single hour, dollar, or can of chicken soup to the food bank (or any other mitzvah).

So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.

James 2:12-26 (ESV)

charity-tzedakahJesus said that you shall know a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:20) and every tree that does not bear good fruits will be cut down and thrown in a fire (v19). James, the brother of the Master, connects faith with actions, the latter arising from the former. Jesus tells us that our very nature is revealed by our behavior. In this week’s Torah reading, God commands Moses to “accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him,” (Exodus 25:2) connecting the nature and amount of the gift with the nature of the giver. Rabbi Packouz says that regardless of motivation, an act that helps others is still of value to those being helped, “but our growth in character and spirituality depend on our intentions!”

If all we want is a tax break and to look good to others, we can perform acts of charity and help many people…as long as we are unconcerned about our relationship with God and growing within that relationship spiritually. On the other hand, if we are trying to take our relationship with God seriously, it’s not just what we do but why we do it that matters. Human beings can only see our behavior but God sees the heart.

This should be a no-brainer, but I find that in the community of faith, we are just as vulnerable to bad motivations, bad attitudes, the desire for self-righteousness rather than God’s righteousness, and the need to “be right,” as anyone operating in the secular world. Just look at the various religious blogs and discussion boards on the web and you’ll see what I mean.

Even a casual reading of the New Testament should tell any Christian who is having trouble with this concept of what to do and why to do it. It really isn’t hard to pick a mitzvah representing “the weightier matters of the Torah,” such as donating a couple of cans of soup of chili to the food bank, shoveling snow off your neighbor’s driveway and sidewalk, or holding the door open for someone who is entering the same place right behind you because it’s what Jesus has commanded us to do.

If you find yourself paying more attention to a belief that certain “ceremonial” mitzvot are your “right” while neglecting matters of “justice and mercy and faithfulness,” (Matthew 23:23), or worse, performing no acts of charity and kindness at all thinking your “faith” is all the covering you’ll need, then you might earn the same ire from the Master as did the scribes and Pharisees Jesus was originally addressing.

There is much in the Torah of Moses for everyone and it acts as the rock upon which the Prophets, the Writings, and the Apostolic Scriptures firmly rest. However, as we see, application isn’t meaningful in a spiritual sense unless we are actually using what we know to do good to others and for the right reasons.

The words of Torah should be as fresh to you as if you first heard them today.

-Rashi, Deuteronomy 11:13

Excitement often comes from novelty, but novelty is exciting only as long as it is new. Someone who buys a car fully loaded with options may feel an emotional high, but after several weeks, the novelty wears off and it is just another vehicle.

Spirituality, too, suffers from routine. Human beings may do all that is required of them as moral people and observe all the Torah’s demands in terms of the performance of commandments, yet their lives may be insipid and unexciting because their actions have become rote, simply a matter of habit. The prophet Isaiah criticizes this when he says, “Their reverence of Me has become a matter of routine” (Isaiah 29:13). Reverence must be an emotional experience. A reverence that is routine and devoid of emotion is really no reverence at all.

Path of TorahThus, the excitement that is essential for true observance of Torah depends upon novelty, upon having both an understanding of Torah today that we did not have yesterday and a perception of our relationship to God that is deeper than the one we had yesterday. Only through constantly learning and increasing our knowledge and awareness of Torah and Godliness can we achieve this excitement. Life is growth. Since stagnation is the antithesis of growth, it is also the antithesis of life. We can exist without growth, but such an existence lacks true life.

Today I shall…

…try to discover new things in the Torah and in my relationship to God.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 4”

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”

The End (from the Abbey Road album)

Good Shabbos.

5 thoughts on “Terumah: Why Do You Do Good?”

  1. Great post, James. From a standpoint of a child who is hungry, it doesn’t matter WHY he/she is being fed. So, do good to others even if your motives are selfish in some way. I think we all may have some at least some selfish thoughts when doing good. Nevertheless, get your motives in line to truly do good for its own sake. (Source: my rabbi).

  2. I’m always reading and re-reading Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel… I’m not sure his view of faith vs. deed is exactly my view, but his dissection and discussion is absolutely liberating to me. For instance, he writes in “God In Search Of Man:”
    “The meaningfulness of the mitzvot consists in their being vehicles by which we advance on the road to spiritual ends.”
    He takes issue with the Pauline emphasis on “faith alone” and cites Luther and Ritschl (?) and Barth and Kierkegaard on this matter. He also writes:
    “Faith is not a silent treasure to keep in the seclusion of the soul, but a mint in which to strike the coin of common deeds.”
    Very Jamesian, I think.
    “Right living is like a work of art, the product of a vision and of a wrestling with concrete situations.”
    “Life is indivisible. The inner sphere is never isolated from outward activities.”
    I thought that perhaps these thoughts would edify the discussion… (LOVE the Lennon/McCartney lyrical equation of love…)

  3. Dan, I think that it is faith alone that saves us, and Paul was probably emphasizing this so that the newly minted Gentile disciples wouldn’t get the idea that it was the performance of deeds alone that saves (a common enough misunderstanding people outside of Judaism might make when seeing all of the apparent focus on performing mitzvot). However, James, the Master’s brother, is also correct in that living a life as a disciple requires faith and the deeds that spring up from faith. If you’re not living a transformed life on a day to day basis that is the lived result of your faith, you probably aren’t a person of faith at all.

  4. “However, James, the Master’s brother, is also correct in that living a life as a disciple requires faith and the deeds that spring up from faith. ”

    May be James and Paul simply disagreed on this matter and James wrote a rebuttal to Paul’s letter. What a novel thought! (Perhaps this is why Martin Luther – the “faith alone guy” – called it the “An Epistle Of Straw”.)

  5. That’s an interesting thought, Gene. If people expect the Bible to be internally consistent and to always “agree with itself,” believing that Paul and James documented their disagreement and that both letters became canonized would result in us having to re-evaluate what we think the Bible is and how it should work in our lives. We might have to choose which emphasis in the Bible to follow (in this case, Paul’s “faith alone” vs. James’s “faith plus works”).

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