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Tisha B’Av – To Fast or Not to Fast

Although it is uncharacteristic for me I want to comment on a blog post published in the Times of Israel last week.

Elyse Goldstein, a Reform rabbi in Toronto, wrote that she will not be fasting this year on Tisha B’Av. She will be celebrating instead the religious democracy found today within the Jewish people as well as the sovereignty of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. The latter effectively puts an end to the lament our exile, according to Goldstein, and the former marks the advancement of Judaism to a maturity reflected by multiple expressions of Jewish observance. She celebrates the cessation of sacrificial offerings and the end of a governance led by “corrupt” (and male) priests and rabbis, both rendered impotent at the end of the second Jewish commonwealth. She also laments that the priests of the Temple would have supported and enabled the tradition to continue its non-egalitarian format of prayer and worship. Her entire post can be read here.

Elyse’s convictions are sincere. She writes from the heart and without the abrasive hostility that sometimes pervades feminist rhetoric. I believe every Jew should hear her approach with an open mind and a willingness to accept some of her criticism. Antipathy toward the Orthodox did not rise in a vacuum. The Orthodox establishment has not been perfect or completely fair in dealings with the broader Jewish society. The office of the Chief Rabbinate has long been under fire for its inefficiency and draconian bureaucracy, even while the Chief Rabbinate has protected the halachic character of the most sensitive elements of Jewish life.

And yet, nothing compels a tradition-conscious Jew to to weep on Tisha B’Av more than the sad commentary expressed in such an editorial. The fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews, perhaps millions, equally ignorant of the meaning and place of the Temple in Jerusalem, would blissfully concur with those thoughts is even more distressing. “Over these I weep, my eyes, my eyes flow with tears, for comfort is distant from me, far is the restoration of my spirit; my sons have become desolate, for the foe is overpowering.” (Lamentations 1:16)

My purpose here is not to refute all of her points. Such exercises just prolong quarrels and are counterproductive. The bottom line is that people are imperfect, only human. To toss out the baby along with soiled bathwater is to compound the tragedy of the Temple’s destruction. Life in the setting of Temple history would indeed seem unusual and possibly uncomfortable to all but those most steeped in the studies of those traditions. The willingness to turn one’s back on thousands of years of rich tradition, not to mention a God-given charter and mission, underscores the desperation of our generation’s misunderstanding.

To turn theology into a democracy is to turn theology into a straw man to be attacked and ultimately destroyed. The fact that the Sadducees – the first reformers – are no longer among us, is not a cause for joy but profound sorrow; they are lost to the Jewish people forever through assimilation. Other groups that have broken away from what Goldstein calls “unified” Jewish life have also joined the fate of the Sadducees, no longer known or identified as Jews. In the last year the Reform movement’s flagship Temple in New York celebrated its centennial. They could not find a single descendant of its founders who was still Jewish. I greatly fear that in a couple of generations we will mourn on Tisha B’Av not only for the destroyed Temples but also for the loss of millions of Jewish souls who looked for other ways to be Jewish and whose children could not see the merit or meaning of continuing to identify as Jewish when they could be just as humanistic without it.

We lost our way long before the Temple was laid to waste. The prophets of Israel were largely ignored, with the people favoring the pagan cultures around them which were less demanding and provided more short term satisfaction. Western society has evolved in many wonderful and progressive ways. Our faith has always been a rock to stabilize us and ensure our progression remains within the values and bounds of a God-given way of life. Thanks to our ancestors who have consistently, over the centuries, declined any departure from the Torah’s mandate we are still here today to talk about this. I sincerely hope and pray, that when Goldstein informs her grandchildren that she is not fasting on Tisha B’Av, they have some idea of what she is talking about, that they will have at least heard of the concept of Jewish mourning.

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Matot / Massei – A Mitzvah Immersion

The war against Midian resulted with the nation of Israel achieving a complete victory. The Torah goes into great detail describing the division of the spoils, both human and material. Before that discussion, however, Elazar the High Priest relayed Moses’ instructions to the men returning from the battlefield. He explained the laws pertaining to the vessels and crockery which were taken from Midian as part of the spoils.

One’s instinct would be to utilize immediately any loot for which there is need. Assuming the crockery was clean by hygienic standards of that time, the utensils would be integrated into the kitchens and used for the cooking of manna according to the recipes developed and refined over the last 40 years. A deep dish pureed manna with a topping of crisp crumbled manna might have been a gourmet choice. But Elazar warned against using the pots before rendering them kosher.

The Torah lists six metals and then gives the key instructions pertaining to their kosher sterilization, which appear in the Talmud as the source for those laws. “Everything that comes into fire you shall pass through fire and it will be purified – but it must be purified with the sprinkling water – and everything that would not come through fire you shall pass through water.” (Numbers 31:23)

In a nutshell, the Torah dictates that a vessel can be sterilized in the same manner through which it became contaminated. A vessel that roasts meat directly on the fire, such as a spit, would require sterilization through heating the spit in fire. Having absorbed a non-kosher flavor directly through heat, that flavor can be removed from the metal only through direct heat. (This is just the general principle, specific applications would require instruction from someone with expertise in the area) Other utensils, which cook food using the medium of water, are rendered kosher through similar means, immersing the pot in boiling water. The metal exudes any contaminated flavors during this process and the utensil becomes neutral. It may now be used for kosher cooking.

There is a short phrase placed in the middle of the verse, which addresses a very different aspect of a kosher utensil, not a sterilization but a consecration of the vessel. “But, it must be purified with the sprinkling water.” The Torah is referring to waters of a mikveh, a ritual bath, whose waters are of natural origin not manipulated by human intervention and not gathered in a man-made vessel. A stream of water is suitable for this as well as the sea. The status of this requirement, whether it is counted as one of the 613 Mitzvot of the Torah, whether it is a separate law passed orally from Moses, or whether it is a rabbinical Mitzvah, is a matter discussed by many early scholars in their commentaries. All agree, however, that utensils manufactured from certain materials require such immersion before they are used.

In many Jewish neighborhoods there are tanks of water designed in such a way that they qualify as a ritual bath. These are made available to people wishing to fulfill this mitzvah of immersing their newly acquired utensils, consecrating them for use in a Jewish household. In other neighborhoods the local Mikveh is made available during specific hours for the immersion of such utensils.

A special blessing is recited before immersing those utensils requiring this consecration. This immersion is performed only once, when the vessels first come into the ownership of a Jew. The context of this Mitzvah is in the narrative following the conquest of Midian. The vessels taken from the Midianite camps required mechanical purging as well as consecration. When purchasing a new vessel, uncontaminated by possible non-kosher foods, only the consecration need be performed.

The Lechem Mishneh, in his commentary to Ramba”m, offers an insight explaining the purpose of such a consecration. We don’t typically perceive of the kitchen as sacred space. It is mainly functional, a space designed to prepare raw material into edible and delicious foods. Our eating is not animalistic and mundane, however. When done mindfully eating is a holy act, nourishing our bodies for continued life in the service of God. Therefore all dishes and cooking utensils which facilitate eating are instruments of holiness. As such they need to be consecrated for this purpose. We don’t simply incorporate new utensils into our drawers and cupboards without first designating them for the elite role of serving God in a Jewish household.

This Mitzvah is one of the most simple to perform. It does not require continuous effort – once it is done it is done. Yet, this Mitzvah gives such profound meaning to all our subsequent kitchen activities.

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Pinchas – Carpe Diem

Pinchas, in a dramatic and uncharacteristic manner, brought a halt to the rising plague through a public act of violence. With a spear driven through the bodies of the prince of Shimon and the princess of Midian he earned God’s highest Medal of Honor, the covenant of peace. His actions have spawned long discussions among the commentaries, exploring how his action was justified and how this would translate to other circumstances. But one thing we cannot argue about. The Torah gives its full endorsement of his deed.

Rabbi Judah the Prince, in response to a story of dramatic repentance, stated that it is possible to acquire one’s place in the World to Come in a moment. (Talmud A”Z 17) In most cases it is the accumulation of a lifetime of ordeals, one’s reactions to them as well as one’s general choices in life which determine our place in the hereafter. However, there are occasions when the importance of a single moment can define a lifetime. While not all such moments can guarantee one’s place in eternity there are many defining moments, displaying conviction or leadership, which present themselves and in which our choices have wide repercussions. These moments may be infrequent, but anybody might find him/herself in such a position.

Rabbi Wein writes of such a moment early in his career, when an opportunity of leadership presented itself and he rose to the occasion. There were arguments in his synagogue regarding the appropriateness of charity collectors making rounds during weekday services. These collectors, many of whom were raising money for noble purposes, were very disruptive and even rude at times. Multiple collectors circulated in the synagogue at every service, disturbing the concentration of parishioners and sometimes creating an unpleasant atmosphere. Without consulting the rabbi, the board of the shul decided that they would no longer allow collectors to make their rounds in that shul without special permission. They hung a large sign at the entrance, barring charity collection during services. Early the next morning, upon entering the shul, Rabbi Wein quietly removed the sign. While he understood the reasons behind the ban, he felt it was nevertheless counter to basic values of Judaism and it was therefore worthwhile to endure the costs of the collectors and maintain the practice. Rabbi Wein also did not want to deprive his parishioners of the Mitzvah of giving charity during the prayer service.

Not surprisingly, collectors came in that morning as they usually did, and began making their rounds, noisily shaking the coins in their hands to attract notice of their intent. The president of the shul, angered by the violation of the ban, announced loudly that no permission had been given to these collectors and that all charity collectors must leave the shul. Rabbi Wein climbed the steps up to the Bimah and said with determination, “The Mitzvah of charity needs the sanction of no one.” In the ensuing silence the shul president evidently realized the repercussions of their reactionary decision. He stepped up to the Bimah and embraced the rabbi. That moment brought out the best of two great people: the rabbi with his leadership and vision, and the shul president with his courage and character to recognize and publicly acknowledge his error.

This opening ceremony of the Olympics this year are on Shabbat. Miri Regev, Israel’s minister for culture and sport, has announced that she will not be attending the opening ceremony because of its timing. While in her private life Miri Regev is not so particular about Shabbat observance, she recognizes that she represents a people, a nation whose task it is to reflect God’s presence in the world. There are so many reasons she has to ignore this calling, but she rose to the challenge, seeing the greater picture of her role in representing the Jewish state and the character it stands for. This was her moment.

We all remember the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. He was a secular Jew in his private life, but when he was preparing to embark on a space mission which would gain publicity and highlight the participation of Israel he recognized his moment. The Torah scroll that went up with him, never to return, brought far more inspiration to his generation than it could have brought had it remained on earth and been used in the usual manner. Ilan Ramon did not know at the time that this moment would define how he would be remembered. He only saw an opportunity for what it was.

The Midrash laments occasions where people in such roles failed to make the most of their moments. It states that if Reuven had only known that his actions would be recorded for eternity in the Torah he would not have merely saved Yosef from death at the hands of his siblings, he would have carried him aloft on his shoulders. Had Aaron known that the Torah would write of his greeting of Moses upon his return from the deserts of Midian he would have greeted him with great fanfare and music. Had Boaz known that the book of Ruth would record his providing of foo to Ruth while she was gleaning from the fields he would have served her a gourmet meal! While the Midrash is making a different point, these moments also speak to our point. Each character acted correctly in the moment, but not with the enthusiasm that the moment merited.

Pinchas similarly saw a moment which warranted an unusual response. Moses and Aaron were helpless at that moment, “…crying at the entrance of the tent of meeting.”(Numbers 25:6) The plague was ravishing the people and a ray of clarity and conviction spilled over Pinchas. It was his moment and he did not miss it. Carpe Diem.

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Chukat – Faith and Action

The Rebbe of Slonim points out some issues that need clarification regarding the striking of the rock by Moses. The basic story is that when the nation of Israel complained for lack of water God instructed Moses to approach a particular rock and speak to it so that it will give forth water. Moses instead approached the rock and struck it with his staff – twice. Moses and Aaron were punished for deviating from God’s instructions, missing an opportunity to sanctify God’s name. They lost the privilege of entering the land.

Just a few of the questions posed by the Slonimer Rebbe follow:
Why did God give different instructions now from a similar instance more than 40 years earlier? When the Jews thirsted for water in the beginning of their sojourn Moses was instructed to strike the rock with his staff. Why was he now commanded to speak to it?
Further, why is it less miraculous to obtain water from the rock by striking it as opposed to speaking to it? One doesn’t seem likelier than the other to achieve results naturally.
Finally, why indeed to Moses deviate from God’s instruction, striking the rock not once but twice?

The Slonimer Rebbe offers an explanation with several facets, which clarifies all the issues. We will do our best just to present one facet with some embellishment.

The greater one’s faith, the less effort one must put in to achieve results. When Israel first emerged from Egypt, having just witnessed the miracles of the plagues and the wonders of the sea, they surely had great spiritual sensitivity and a deep faith in God. When they needed water God’s instructions were nevertheless to strike the rock – an effort more significant than speech. Now, nearly 40 years later, having gone through many challenges and falling numerous times, Moses felt that their level of faith had diminished from what it was immediately following the exodus. If striking the rock was necessary back then, he reasoned, surely at least that much effort – probably more – is required now. He therefore struck the rock twice.

Moses perceived an inverse relationship between one’s level of faith and the effort that needed to be expended. The stronger the faith the less effort is required to achieve an end, while a lower level of faith requires greater effort to compensate. This is true, but sometimes the reverse can be true as well.

The Midrash Yalkut Shim’oni on the book of Samuel refers to four kings who made demands of God in time of war. David said to God, “Let me pursue my enemies and overtake them.” Asa, a later king, declared that he was prepared to pursue his enemies, but requested that God destroy them on his behalf, since he did not have the strength to destroy them himself. King Yehoshafat claimed that he did not even have the strength to pursue his enemies, so he suggested that God Israel while he sang praises to God.

Finally King Hezekiah declared that he did not even possess the strength to sing praises, so he prayed for God to destroy the mighty army of Sancheriv while he slept. In each of these four cases God responded favorably. He allowed David to defeat his enemies, Asa chased and God destroyed, He vanquished the enemy while Yehoshafat recited praises, and He destroyed the camp of Ashur while Hezekiah slept.

The commentaries explain that David, having almost unparalleled faith, attributed all his victories to God’s Hand regardless of the efforts he put in. He was energized by the firm knowledge that God had his back, and his faith was not compromised by seeing his own hand take part in vanquishing his enemies. Asa was also a man of faith, but less than that of David. If his victories were to come entirely through his hands he was at risk of diminishing his attribution of the victory to God. H therefore pursued his enemies but it was God who finished them off without Asa’s direct involvement. Yehoshafat felt he could do afford to put out even less effort, lest he take credit for the victory. He remained home and recited Psalms. And Hezekiah would not even recite Psalms less he feel that some of the victory was his own success.

God’s instructions to strike the rock bore similar logic. The first time water was coaxed from a rock the Torah had not yet been given. The power of words was not known or appreciated. By this time, however, the Torah resided solidly with the people and they recognized the power of a concept, a law, a word. God wished for Moses to speak to the rock to underscore the power of words. Speaking to the rock was not a reflection of their level of faith, it was to be a lesson in faith, a builder of faith. Moses failed to grasp this intent and the opportunity for growth in faith was missed.

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Korach – All About the Motive

Korach’s contention against Moses was a watershed event in the leadership in the Israelite nation in the wilderness. His campaign created a rivalry which is not uncommon in any typical political scene but was highly unusual in the context of the Israelite leadership.

Korach felt sidelined by Moses. He was overlooked in the appointment of the Levite tribal leader, which saw his younger cousin Elitzafan selected for the role. This slight drove him to initiate a full rebellion against Moses and all of his selected leadership, with the highest role, that of High Priesthood, at stake.

The whole episode illustrates to us how a small spark can ignite a massive inferno. Korach did not initially aspire for the High Priesthood. It was only when he was rejected as a candidate for a lower role that he threw in his hat for the higher role. At its core, however, the contention challenged something more basic in the political structure of the wilderness leadership. Unlike later periods, in which the nation had some role in choosing whether they should have a leader or whom to follow, in this period the appointments came directly and exclusively from God. Moses was assigned his mandate while he was still in Midian. He was to lead the people out of Egypt and through their development as a new nation. Aaron was to be his spokesperson. When the Mishkan was set to be built God’s instructions were to appoint Aaron to be the chief of priests and to conduct all Temple services. There were no personal selections or appointments subject to elective input.

The basis of Korach’s challenge was that the appointments were personal. He contended that Moses was not merely following God’s orders but was selecting people of his own choosing. This was a challenge against the fundamental structure of the leadership. It was a personal attack against Moses. This is why Moses had to invoke a special miraculous demise for Korach to demonstrate that he had Divine backing for everything he did.

On the surface this was a dispute between individuals in the upper echelons of leadership. It didn’t come from the common people and it appeared not to overly affect them. But it did. Once the claim was made that Moses was acting on his own hunger for power the seed of doubt was planted in the minds of onlookers. Even the special creation of a hole in the earth did not erase this thought. How then did they overcome this doubt?

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that this doubt was erased during the subsequent plague that swept through the nation. Thousands were dying and it seemed unstoppable. Aaron seized a pan of incense and effectively blocked the plague from spreading further, extinguishing it for good. With that action he burned into the hearts of the people that there was no personal motive in his appointment. One would expect that he would be consumed with his campaign to garner support for his position. He was supposed to dig in his heels to show that he was right! But his actions here displayed that he had no interest in the dispute. His only objective was to help the people, to save them in times of distress and to maintain and nurture on a regular basis their relationship with God. When everything else was up in the air the sacrifices of Aaron established a solid and precious reminder that he wasn’t in it for himself.

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Shelach – Yes We Can

The Rebbe of Piaseczno, Rabbi Klonymus Kalman Shapiro, lived in the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War. He established a secret synagogue and invested tremendous efforts in helping maintain Jewish life amidst the horrors of the war. The Jews in the ghetto were, understandably, quite worried and despondent about their circumstances and the future of the Jewish people in general. Each Shabbat the Rebbe delivered u[lifting Torah thoughts, inspiring his followers and boosting their spirits. These sermons were later copied on scraps of paper and buried for safekeeping in a canister inside the ghetto.

In June, 1941, on the Shabbat during which Parshat Shelach was read in Synagogues around the world, the Rebbe spoke about the spies’ report to the people. The spies returned from their scouting trip and acknowledged that the land indeed flows with milk and honey. They displayed the fruit of the land which they had carried back for all to see. “However,” they continued, “the cities are well fortified and the people are mighty. Great and powerful nations dwell in that land and we do not have the strength to challenge them.” (paraphrased from Numbers 13:27-29)

The people listened to the report cried in despair. They wailed for their destiny of dying in the wilderness. Caleb and Joshua were the two spies who did not lose hope, and who retained their confidence that God would keep His word and drive away the inhabitants of the land from before Israel. Caleb silenced the people and said: “…We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it.” (Numbers 13:30).

How, asked the Rebbe, did Caleb intend for these words to address the worries of the people? There were serious issues raised by the spies, challenges of mighty warriors whom Israel could not naturally defeat. There were fortified cities which Israel could not hope to penetrate, according to the report. They had an impregnable missile defense system and their offensive capabilities were equally formidable. Caleb’s words ignored these material concerns and simply said, (to paraphrase a politician) “Yes We Can!” How was this supposed to persuade the people? What was Caleb’s plan?

One could suggest that in the heat of the moment the people had a mob mentality and Caleb knew they could not be reasoned with. The issue was not about the issues, so to speak. They would follow a leader they believed in without giving thought to the plans and defense policies of the regime. The spies instilled a sense of fear and despair in the people and now they needed an infusion of courage and hope. Perhaps Caleb was appealing to that specific element, organizing a chant to sweep the people back into a mode of faith and hope. The Rebbe of Piaseczno, however, sees and different and more thoughtful intent here.

Caleb was teaching the people an important lesson, explained the Rebbe. Sometimes the path to success is not clear and straightforward. Many times – almost always – there are obstacles which stand in our way, making objectives difficult to achieve. But the attitude we need to have is that which Caleb called for. “We shall go up for we will overcome!”

Caleb did not argue against the points raised by the other scouts because their words were correct. The challenges were portrayed accurately and the difficulties were real. Nevertheless, Caleb insisted that the people must remain resolute. They must have determination to follow through. How? That is a challenge for which a solution needs to be worked out. They would need to find a strategy. But throwing in the towel, despairing altogether, is not an option. We shall go up for we will overcome.

That entrepreneurial spirit is what makes some startups successful while others fail. Challenges are always part of the package, but they need not define the package. If we allow the walls and the giants behind them to define the battle we will not succeed to in overcoming them. But if we look past the obstacles and remain focused on our goal we will prevail.

The context here is the conquest of the Promised Land, but Caleb’s message resonates practically everywhere in life. If we truly want to achieve something we must not be discouraged by challenges which make our goal appear to be out of reach. I know a doctor who is in the top of his field and the head of a department at his hospital. The man has no time for anything outside of his work and teaching. Yet, when his state of health required that he exercise daily he incorporated a regimen that took up a precious hour of his day – every day. If you had asked him earlier whether he could possibly spare an hour each day he would have looked at his timetable and replied that even ten minutes he could not spare. But when he made it his goal he was able to come up with the time. He did so because he understood his life depends on it. When your life or livelihood depends on something you find a way to make it work. He went forth, knowing that he could overcome.

The Midrash relates that the prophet Elijah once asked a man what he was going to answer the heavenly court when he is asked why he didn’t engage in Torah study. He laughed. “Everybody who knows me understands that this thick head of mine is not capable of studying from books.” Elijah continued to press him. “What do you do for a living, tell me?” The man replied he is a fisherman. Elijah went on to probe what is involved in such a livelihood. The man explained the intricacies of weaving nets and timing the haul. “Ahah!” Elijah exclaimed, “so you have brains for the complex science of marine life but none for Torah study!?” The man took Elijah’s words to heart and went off to study Torah.

Rabbi Zev Leff asks a simple question about this story. Did the man have brains or did he not? If he did, why did he not recognize that from the beginning? If he did not, why did he go off to study following the conversation? The answer, explains Rabbi Leff, is that he did not have brains. Then how did he manage to absorb the finesse of weaving nets and timing the fishing? Because his livelihood depended on it, and when your life depends on something you make superhuman efforts and achieve results which surpass your normal potential. The fisherman realized in the course of his conversation with Elijah that the study of Torah was also something his life depended on. He therefore successfully went on to study despite his mental shortcomings. How would he succeed? Those are details, but he was determined to make it work. We shall go up for we will overcome.

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Beha’alotecha – To Remain or Leave

Moses approached his father in law Jethro and informed him that they will be making their way toward their destiny, the land of Canaan. He urged Jethro to join them, for Jethro would be treated well. Jethro declined the offer, stating that he will return to his home. Moses continued his urging, but now he changed his tactics. Previously he had noted the benefits Jethro would receive by staying with the nation of Israel. When that didn’t work Moses appealed to Jethro’s altruistic side.

“He said, ‘Please do not forsake us, for you know our encampments in the wilderness, and you have been eyes for us.” (Numbers 10:31)

Rashi notes that “you have been eyes for us” could refer to the past or to the future. It is possible that Moses was appealing to all the investment that Jethro had already poured into the nation of Israel. He had been their “eyes,” seeing things that they could not see for themselves because of his unique perspective as an outsider. Alternatively, Moses was addressing the future. As someone with a different perspective Jethro would be in a position to advise Israel as they progressed toward and settled in the promised land. Either way, Moses was calling on the contributions of Jethro in his persuasive argument.

It is not clear whether Jethro acceded to Moses’ request or not. There are differing opinions among the commentators whether Jethro remained or left. Regardless, the method of persuasion is noteworthy. We instinctively feel that people are going to act in a way most beneficial to themselves. This is why Moses initially told Jethro of the benefits he’d receive if he remained with the nation of Israel. However, what motivates people more than benefits is the ability to give. Our feeling of self-worth is often (unfortunately) linked to our ability to contribute. Ultimately, the stronger argument for Jethro to remain was to show how much he had given, or would give, to the nation of Israel.

I don’t know whether this applies on a group level. I doubt very much that Great Britain would have been more inclined to remain in the EU on the basis of an argument that their presence makes the EU so much stronger and more stable. But individuals are very much moved by their ability to give, more so than their potential receipt of good.

This same tool was employed earlier in the Parsha. “Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: Take the Levites from among the Children of Israel and purify them.” (ibid 8:5-6) Moses was in the process of dedicating the Levite tribe to their special service of God. They were singled out for this purpose, which made them different from the other tribes. Indeed this dedication precluded the Levite tribe from inheriting their own estates in the land of Israel. This had major repercussions, and Moses’ job was cut out for him to maintain the goodwill of the Levites in this endeavor.

The Midrash (cited by Rashi) tells us that the phrase “take the Levites” means to persuade them. ‘Take them with words,’ Moses was instructed. ‘Tell them how fortunate they are to be chosen to serve God in such close proximity.’

There were other arguments that Moses could have used to bring the Levites on board. There were numerous advantages that the Levites would gain by this role. They would be given tithes from all produce and they would be exempt from many of the taxes imposed on the rest of the people. But the Midrash states that it was the great privilege of contributing to the service of God that was utilized as the primary lure. That was guaranteed to work better than highlighting the personal gain.