In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides spells out that tzedakah is, at its heart, about justice (as the Hebrew word implies); not mercy or compassion. “The fulfilling of duties with regard to others imposed upon you on account of moral virtue is called tzedakah (Part 3, Chapter 53).”
Indeed, our tradition imposes or mandates this justice from us, to the extent that the Talmud (Bava Batra 8b) allows for the taking of charity by force if someone is reluctant to part with their money. Our tradition says that it isn’t optional to take care of everyone in society, to give tzedakah.
Yet in this week’s Torah portion, Terumah, we are told of a contribution that *is* optional. “Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity (Exodus 25:2).” Why make the building of the tabernacle, an essential part of Jewish ritual and worship, voluntary instead of mandatory?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik suggests that agreeing to be present with the people — choosing the confines of the temporal world over the freedom time, space, and all reality — was a sacrificial act by God. It was worth it, perhaps, but only when we are willing to uphold our end of the bargain. We have to do our part, voluntarily, to experience God’s presence.
This entire dichotomy feels very Jewish. Experiences of God? That depends on the amount of work you are willing to put in. Your obligations to your fellow human being? Those are not optional in the least.