The ancient discomfort of ‘the ask’


By Rabbi Rachel Ackerman

This week’s Torah portion is Terumah, Exodus 25:1-27:19.

A number of years back at a seminar with American Jewish World Service, I attended a 30-minute session on fundraising. “What can you possibly learn about fundraising in 30 minutes?” I thought to myself. As it turned out, in that amount of time you can learn two very important lessons

Lesson 1: Generally, 80 percent of donations come from 20 percent of the donors.

Lesson 2: The seminar leader said to the group, “Raise your hand if you like asking people for money” One or two people hesitantly raised their hands. “Now, raise your hand if you like giving tzedekah to worthy causes, “the leader said. Everyone raised their hands.

“When it comes to fundraising,” the leader said, “you have the opportunity to help people direct their tzedekah to worthy causes.”

Lesson 2 is crucial, because it allows us to recontextualize our role when we are on the fundraising end. We have the opportunity to guide people to fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedekah (righteous giving).

As it turns out, many believe that this discomfort with asking others to donate to worthy causes has existed since the times of the Israelites wandering in the desert.

In this week’s parsha, the Israelites are wandering in the desert, and God gives instructions for building a sanctuary. The instructions begin: “Tell the Israelite people to take [v’yikchu] for Me gifts; you shall take gifts for Me from each person whose heart is so moved” (Exodus 25:1-2).

The language is a little choppy, but it is the use of specific words that ought to really draw our attention. God could have instructed Moses to tell the Israelites to give gifts for building the sanctuary, but instead God instructs the Israelites to take gifts.

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin taught in “Oznayim La-Torah,” “Why doesn’t the Torah state, ‘They will give Me’? This is a hint at the difficulty involved in raising money for any worthwhile cause. Often, the problem is not finding those who are willing to give, but a failure to find people who are willing to do the work involved in ‘taking,’ in raising the money. …The Torah therefore commanded, ‘let them take’ — that people should be willing to work to raise money for worthy causes.”

Sorotzkin implies that it was really hard to find people who would want to do the work of collecting the gifts from others. And so God commanded that people do it. And, it worked. We later learn that so many gifts were brought to build this sanctuary that they eventually had to be told, “Enough! Stop bringing them!”

We have seen this generosity at our synagogue over the past year, as gifts poured in to furnish a home and raise money for food and rent to help the Syrian refugee family our synagogue is supporting, as our students have raised money to go on seminars to do social justice work.

People are ready to give. People feel obligated to give, to protect and create modern day sanctuaries. But people don’t always know where to direct their giving.

And that is where our Torah portions offers a critical message.

We need to be willing to step up and help in the “taking” of the gifts. As uncomfortable as it may feel to ask one another to make donations to worthy causes, most are grateful for the knowledge, support and suggestions as to what to do. n

Rabbi Rachel Ackerman is associate rabbi of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.

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