3/15/2007

Volunteerism and Compulsion

And Moshe commanded, and they passed a rumor throughout the camp, saying that every man or woman should no longer make any more work for the offering of the Sanctuary; and the people stopped bringing. -Shemot 36:6

One wonders why the Torah communicates something which seems so obvious, that when the news that the Mishkan had raised sufficient funds spread, the people immediately ceased making contributions. Furthermore, one may wonder at the way that the message was communicated: not, as usual, by direct command from Moshe to the people, but by the spreading of a rumor. It’s almost as though the people’s response to the news was purely spontaneous, that they were not commanded to stop just as they were not commanded to contribute, and that the same spirit which moved them to give also moved them to cease.

Volunteerism, like anything else, can devolve into a compulsion. Pressures, internal and external, can induce a person to volunteer where he or she otherwise wouldn’t. The degree to which volunteerism is compelled is the degree to which it’s not actually volunteerism. Although generally these pressures are positive in that they produce good, they detract from the ‘purity’ of the volunteerism, and can sometimes generate situations where the goals of the volunteer are personal, and not aimed at the good of the Other.

This lesson was not an easy one for the Israelites in the desert. This event is set in the wake of the Golden Calf episode, when a legitimate concern quickly spun out of control. The building of the Mishkan provided the opportunity to correct those wrongs by remaining in full control, and not allowing inspiration to become frenzy. When one’s motivation is truly the concerns and needs of the other, then one will stop giving once the recipient is no longer in need. This sounds deceptively simple, but in truth it is very difficult to hold back once one has dedicated herself to a particular cause, even if continuing is not necessary what is best for one’s intended beneficiary.
It is no accident that the Sabbath is invoked at the beginning of the account of the building of the Mishkan (Shemot 35:2-3). All of the craftsmanship required in this grand construction project was prohibited on the Shabbat. For if one cannot stop producing, creation becomes a compulsion. We demonstrate our control by stopping.
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