TOO MUCH IS NOT ENOUGH
The Exodus:5 Project
They said to Moses, “The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the LORD has commanded to be done.” Exodus 36:5
Every clergy person who is called upon to speak on this verse will make the same joke: if ever there were evidence that the Bible isn’t true, it is Exodus 36:5 – “the people are giving more than is needed.” (When the laughter subsides, generally very quickly, the congregation starts a-squirmin’ because they know they are about to be asked to contribute to the capital campaign.)
There is a better use for these words in this day and age, and I never understood it quite the way I do now that I am responsible for the operation of a small non-profit. And here is how it hit home most recently.
I was invited to a screening of a new documentary produced by a non-profit that enjoys tremendous support for its humanitarian work, deservedly so. The documentary was well done even if it is a bit more than hagiographic in its treatment of its subject. Before the first scene appeared on the screen, credits rolled listing the contributors to the production. Dozens of people were acknowledged for contributions of over $100,000. A smaller number contributed $250,000. One donor gave a million dollars. A few donors and funds seem to have given more than that. I was, frankly, jealous.
Look, it takes a lot of money to make a movie, especially one with such admirable production value. Arguably, it is a story that is important to tell. Whoever secured the funding had a great pitch, persuading very wealthy people to be a part of an admirable project.
But the people brought more than was needed for the tasks entailed. Regardless of the destinations, hundreds of groups focused on human dignity (the essential value of the documentary’s subject) could have accomplished so much more if the film were less lavish, the screening in a less prestigious location, the aim (an Oscar) a little lower because those charitable funds went to the less-glamorous work of stuffing envelopes, organizing communities and challenging the undignified occupants of some of the highest offices in government, business and, well, filmmaking.
I am not a saint with people who offer us gifts that are more than generous (not a very usual experience). But I like to tell people who mention to me that they give to major and high-profile organizations that they can have more impact by supporting niche organizations that struggle to meet payroll but get more bang for the buck. The current malfunction of the executive branch’s moral compass has created a windfall for groups whose legal staff files lawsuits and who airlift supporters to demonstrate in DC or confer with foreign dignitaries – all very, very good work. I contribute my own funds to some of them. I also know the essential work of smaller non-profits (not just my own) that is frustrated because of lack of immediate resources.
I have made this argument before and it did not make me very popular. When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was initiated, I was alarmed at the amount of money that was collected for its construction and operation. I most certainly did not object to Holocaust education nor to paying tribute to the vital holy communities that were lost to the Nazis. But Jewish education in general was woefully underfunded at the time, and the cost of providing children with quality learning, cultural literacy, camping and informal education has only gone up in the intervening generation. The money brought to the Museum is not squandered, but the people brought more than was needed.
The lesson of this verse from Exodus is not the set-up of a punchline. It is an instruction about triage. The people who constructed the tabernacle, which was as opulent as a pop-up could get, understood its specific instructions to be both minimum and maximum. The project captured the imaginations of the donors and inspired them to be generous beyond expectation. But the project managers set an example, too infrequently followed, to see every project of the community as part of the whole. No matter how holy, or heart-rending, or high profile, or hyped, the physical and philosophical ventures we undertake should be considered comprehensively. Every leader should know not only how to plead when there is too little, but how to determine when there is too much.
I could end right there, but I will risk violating my own advice in this context. In the United States right now, the “too-much” syndrome is being encouraged from the top. Money is part of it, of course, but not the whole of it. In large-scale efforts such as reducing the size of government to policy initiatives such as addressing immigration to matters of personal character such as dignity and respect, those in power have encouraged their supporters to bring too much. If we find it objectionable, as I hope you do, then I commend setting a better example rather than responding in kind.