Shabbat Shekalim: Sacred Donations

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Shekalim

A few days ago, I received in the mail a fundraising letter from a
charity with programs in Israel and North America. As a rabbi, I
probably get 20-30 such requests per week, by paper mail, email, and
telephone; although I wish I could donate more, I do appreciate
learning about the wide range of Jewish and general charities and the
good works they do.

However, the letter I received this week touched a raw nerve, because
it based its emergency appeal for funds on the premise that (this is
not an exact quote, but pretty close) “we believe we may have lost
funds in the Madoff scandal.” I was astounded that this organization
would not begin its appeal by apologizing for its lax oversight
procedures, and explain how such things could never happen again
before having the temerity to ask for further donations. To put it
another way: I’m not sure it it’s chutzpah or obtuseness which would
lead somebody to say: “we don’t have any idea what happened to the
money given to us in the past, so please give us more.”

Ordinarily, an unprofessional appeal letter would get recycled without
comment, but this is the week we read a special passage from the
Torah, and a special haftarah, which mark what is called “Shabbat
Shekalim,” which is all about being responsible for donated money. The
text from the Torah is Exodus 30:11-16, read as maftir (before the
haftarah), which teaches that in ancient days, every Israelite had to
give a half-shekel for the building and upkeep of the Mishkan
(portable Sanctuary) and, later, the Temple in Jerusalem. We read
these texts now, at the beginning of the month of Adar, to remember
that notice went out a month in advance of the time the half-shekel
was actually due.

The haftarah is from 2 Kings, and tells the story of King Jehoash,
who, some years after assuming the throne, discovered that the priests
in charge of collecting the donations to the Temple were not using the
money for its intended purpose of upkeep and repair. So the king put
in a new system, wherein donations brought into the Temple were kept
in a special chest and periodically counted by both the “royal scribe”
and the High Priest himself. Then the money was distributed to the
workers according to the repair needs at the time.

This system of accountability, in which both the king and the priests
shared in oversight of the donations, ensured that the money was used
for its proper purpose- which brings me back to the fundraising letter
mentioned earlier. To me, the great scandal of our age is not that an
evil man stole billions- there are always evil people, and it’s the
job of good people to create systems of defense against them.

The greater scandal, in my view, is how many charitable institutions
turned their money over to opaque and exotic “investments” based on
personal connections rather than financial transparency. In some
cases, organizations didn’t even know where their money was, having
turned it over to somebody who turned it over to somebody else.

The Jewish world needs a Jehoash, somebody who can articulate a clear
vision of financial responsibility and accountability in its largest
and best institutions. Every dollar given to tzedakah represents a
mitzvah, a commandment to give of ourselves to help others- if these
funds are not treated as sacred by those put in charge of them, then,
just as in Jehoash’s day, we may need to fix the system.

Shabbat Shekalim calls us to think about our giving- where it’s going,
towards what ends, and in whose care our funds are entrusted. My hope
and prayer is that the mitzvah of tzedakah will only be strengthened
in these hard times, and good leaders will arise to help us help each
other through acts of sacred giving.

Shabbat Shalom,


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