Cecil Roth called the postwar era of Jewish history the philanthropic age, since it required vast sums for the rebuilding of Jewish life. Philanthropy goes back at least as far as today’s sidra, which enumerates the three types of gift to the sanctuary – gold, silver and brass.
The givers of gold were the most generous, not just because of the nature of their gift but because they gave out of golden-heartedness. Those who gave silver were doing a mitzvah, but their motivation was a little lower. When they gave it may have been in the midst of misfortune; they may have felt that giving to the sanctuary might make things better. The donors of brass, the sages thought, waited to give legacies and bequests. The most praiseworthy group were the golden givers who gave at once and without ulterior motives.
Where did any of the three groups get the wherewithal to be generous? In the wilderness there were no shops, safe deposit boxes, or mineral excavations. Some rabbis thought the precious substances the people possessed came directly from God, carried on heavenly clouds. The donors were giving something back to God. His gifts were given by way of trust, as if to say, “All these things remain Mine. Look after them! Use them wisely!”
The wise way of looking after God’s gifts was and still is that of allocating as much as possible to sacred purposes.