Pretend you're designing and building a new state Capitol. Imagine in precise detail the stones, woodwork, glass, tools, glue, joints, wiring and metalwork you'd need: such immense architectural plans could fill books. Now imagine getting the materials – not with tax revenue or apportioning needs directly to people able to fulfill them, but simply by saying the public, "Anyone whose heart moves them to donate, please do." Could you imagine building anything that way, much less a Capitol building whose architectural plans depend on fulfilling each exacting step that depends on the one preceding it? How could anything get built?
But that's exactly what our ancestors did to build the Mishkan, their first traveling Capitol in the desert – and their experience offers us a lesson in how we can build trusting hearts in spiritual community.
In this week's Torah portion (Vayakhel), the stones, jewels, wood, fabric and ornaments needed to build the Miskhan – physical focal point for God's indwelling presence – were sought directly from the people, not in any fixed amount but from all who were n'div lev (had a willing heart). So important was the voluntary and unaccounted measure of asking the people that Torah repeats it over and over (once in Ex. 35:5, again in Ex. 35:21, a third time in Ex. 35:32). Even though nobody was told how much to bring, together they brought so much that they had to be stopped: "don't bring any more" (Ex. 36:5-6). The Mishkan then was built from not only their physical donations but also the trusting hearts of the people who donated them.
Surely we couldn't imagine running a modern government this way, when basic effectiveness depends on making and fulfilling plans in a complex world. Could we build adequate roads depending only on voluntary gifts of concrete? What would happen if too few pipes meant insufficient fire hydrants to help bring water to extinguish fires? If everyone paid only the taxes they wanted, if every government decision depended on voluntarism, could government fulfill its basic social contract?
American society debates these matters regularly. Economists know that all societies struggle to provide public goods that benefit all amidst the free-rider problem that people can (and do) consume public goods without paying for them, which imperils their efficient provision. This is one reason that government exists and collects taxes, and it's one reason that synagogues and other spiritual communities charge dues. Taxes (for governments) and dues (for synagogues) are traditional measures to ensure a predictable minimum level of financing to achieve important public purposes. This idea is so obvious, it makes such wise business sense, that it's almost beyond dispute.
And yet, dispute it we do. My teacher, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, zeide (grandfather) of the Jewish Renewal movement, famously quipped that it's okay for Jewish spiritual community to be a business – so long as we know what kind of business we're in. Ideally revenues and costs will balance, but if that's the goal rather than the means, then what are we? Maybe it can't work for government, but n'div lev (giving of the willing heart) maybe can work – and must be tried – for all who care about Jewish spiritual community. It was precisely God's trust of the people, and the people's trust in God, that allowed the Mishkan to be built out of the trusting heart that, by being given the trusting space to be free, naturally responded with generosity sufficient to build the Mishkan. Maybe it's precisely that inner spaciousness of trust and inwardly-felt mutual dependence that is the best possible space for the holy presence we call God to dwell among and within us.
Maybe voluntary dues for synagogues and Jewish spiritual communities, the subject of a 2014 Federation study of 26 congregations that tried it, is exactly the way to go in an era when all of us are Jews by choice. That's why The Jewish Studio events have been free to all, depending entirely on voluntary contributions to prime the pump of continuous community innovation. Maybe n'div lev – trusting others to have giving hearts – is precisely the spiritual purpose of the "business we're in." Perhaps that's the only way to be sure we have something truly precious – a people of trusting hearts – to building for. In Torah's spiritual language, that's how trusting hearts can send into the world the treasures of all kinds that we need to build a Mishkan for us and God to dwell together.
It's up to you.
Rabbi David Evan Markus