April 12, 2024
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Do the Ends Justify the Means?

One of the greatest problems that has dogged religious life throughout the centuries is the place of material wealth and money in the structure of religious life. It is obvious to all that wealth and money corrupt and sully noble programs and plans. The question boils down to the old and eternal issue as to whether the noble ends – Jewish education, synagogue worship, social charitable endeavors – justify the means.

Monetary scandals have plagued all religious projects and ambitions from time immemorial. The fact that the goal trying to be achieved is so noble and so morally necessary, makes the temptation to deviate from correct probity and proper behavior in fundraising and monetary conduct all the more tempting.

Unfortunately, the history of religion is littered with monetary scandal and money-driven poor decisions. The prophets of Israel decried this situation during First Temple times, but apparently to little avail. Religion sadly has a tendency to transform itself into a business, a commercial enterprise, always leading to the desecration of G-d’s name and catastrophic disasters. Many commentaries and scholars have stated that this monetary corruption was the real basis for the destruction of the Temples themselves, and the continued cessation of Temple service until our very day. Even buildings and programs conceived in holiness and founded by the most righteous of people are susceptible over time to fall into the trap of monetary scandal. I need not and will not enumerate specific examples of this weakness, but all of us are well aware of their existence and sad influence.

Yet, in spite of all of this, these dangers are almost inevitable. This week’s Torah reading combines the ideas of holy service to G-d with the necessity of fundraising and material wealth. The Torah apparently is of the opinion that the benefits of channeling and using money for noble good outweigh the dangers inherent in combining religion with wealth and money.

In fact, this is the pattern of the Torah in all matters of everyday life events and society. Judaism does not allow for excess asceticism or hermit-like lifestyles. We are always somehow to be engaged in this world, tawdry and flawed as it may be. Yet the challenge is to somehow remain a holy people, a kingdom of priests while dealing with these challenges that mark our daily lives and society.

The holy Mishkan (tabernacle) is to be constructed through human donative intent and through heartfelt donations of material wealth and personal volunteerism. Religion and faith are corrupted by wealth. But wealth applied correctly and through a generous hand can enhance and even ennoble religion.

Moshe was shown a coin of fire. It can burn and destroy. It can warm and light the way. The word Terumah itself in its literal sense means to uplift and raise. Wealth properly used and applied can be the engine that propels all holy endeavors forward. As it was in the time of Moshe, so, too, does it remain one of the greatest challenges in Jewish life.

Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Berel Wein is senior rabbi of Beit Knesset HaNassi in Jerusalem and director of the Destiny Foundation.

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