Archive for Shekalim

Shabbat Shekalim: Wise Leadership

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayekhel/ Shabbat Shekalim

But in the twenty-third year of King Jehoash, [it was found that] the priests had not made the repairs on the House. So King Jehoash summoned the priest Jehoiada and the other priests and said to them, “Why have you not kept the House in repair? Now do not accept money from your benefactors any more, but have it donated for the repair of the House.” The priests agreed that they would neither accept money from the people nor make repairs on the House.  (II Kings 12:7-9)

Good morning!

Sorry I’ve been AWOL the past few weeks, fell behind after things got busy and never caught up. . .until Shabbat Shekalim, coming up this weekend. It’s so named because we read a special Torah reading and special prophetic reading concerning the collection of donations (taxes, really) for the building and maintenance of first the Miskhan, or portable Sanctuary, and later the Mikdash, or Temple in Jerusalem. (See here or link above for more details on connection to the calendar.)

The haftarah [text from prophets] for Shabbat Shekalim is especially interesting, because it’s all about the system of collections going wrong, and what it takes to fix it. Briefly, the priests were apparently mixing up the donations for the upkeep of the Mikdash with the money for their own sustenance, and not surprisingly, the Temple wasn’t getting fixed properly. So as in the verses above, the king put in a new system for collecting donations, instituted proper counting and oversight of money, and separated the accounts, as it were. 

This story has much to teach us about money and accountability; you can see here what I’ve written in previous years. What struck me this year was a larger issue of wise leadership: the greatness of King Jehoash was not just his cleverness in accounting systems, but the fact that he understood that good governance protects the people from their own worst impulses. In later Jewish terms, we’d say that he understood that even priests in the Temple have a yetzer hara, a selfish or egocentric inclination. This is simply a fact of human life, and so the wise leader understands the needs for checks and balances, along with moderation, deliberation, oversight, transparency and other institutional methods of limiting the damage that selfish, ambitious, vengeful or narcissistic people (most certainly including the leaders themselves) can do.

To put it another way: if even the holiest servants of God, the priests in the ancient Temple, could be tempted to misuse sacred donations, how much more so do all the rest of us need to be aware of our own capacity for moral self-delusion. Rabbinic texts suggest that the real genius of the yetzer hara is convincing a person that a sin is a mitzvah, and it’s something we’ve all done at times. Real leadership helps us understand our own fallibility, and seeks to build resilient systems which guard against our worst impulses so that we have the freedom and resources to become our better selves.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

 

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Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim: Known By Our Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

 
Torah Portion: Pekudei/ Shabbat Shekalim 

 
“When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” (Shmot/ Exodus 30:12)
 
Good afternoon! 
 
It’s been a challenge to get a regular Torah commentary out every week with all the changes here in the Hudson Valley- all good ones!- so I appreciate your patience and understanding. This week, in addition to the regular Torah reading, we have a special reading from the Torah which describes a half-shekel tax paid by each Israelite. We read this passage before the new moon of Adar (or, this year, second Adar, as it’s a leap year), which thus comes about 6 weeks before Passover. Historically, the half-shekel was collected in the spring for the upkeep of the ancient Temple; the occasion of the yearly reading is called Shabbat Shekalim. 
 
On a practical level, the half-shekel tax was used for both communal religious needs and also as a means of counting the people; most commentaries understand the linkage between census and collection of the half-shekel as teaching that the Israelites themselves were not counted directly, but rather the coins collected were numbered in their stead. Our friend Rashi brings an ancient teaching that the “evil eye” is attracted to numbered things, so in order to avoid a plague or calamity of some sort, better to count the money rather than number the people. (We can also note in passing that the atonement mentioned above may refer to atoning for the Golden Calf, after which there was a plague, but let’s leave more on that for another day.) 
 
Perhaps the notion of the “evil eye” is mere superstition, but then, it’s interesting that this conception of reified negativity is framed in terms ofseeing. What would it mean to count the Israelites directly? It might mean seeing each person not as an individual but as mere “human resources” (I have never liked the moral implications of that term) for military or economic production. You might think it’s even more dehumanizing to count the coins instead, but maybe numbering the half-shekels is a way of forcing the officials to realize that each person has something to contribute, each person is equal in the eyes of God, each person is known not by size of donation but by a willingness to help build a holy community. 
 
Maybe the “evil eye” in taking the census means seeing others as just numbers, in which case, it’s hardly a superstition but an all-too-common contemporary problem. We are not numbers, nor statistics, nor mere economic units; we are all, each in our own way, contributors towards a society in which equality and dignity should be holy values. Counting coins instead of people reminds us that the people themselves are more than just units in a ledger; nurturing and valuing the contributions of each individual should be the goal of a holy community. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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Shekalim: Reparing the House

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Mishpatim.

Shabbat Shekalim.

The Torah portion Mishpatim is concerned with the laws of a fair and just society; we also have a special Shabbat, called Shekalim, which recalls the collection of money for the upkeep of the ancient Temple. More on Shabbat Shekalim here.

Good afternoon! Hope them’s that are digging out are dug out from the snowstorm, and if you’re not dug out, it’s a perfect time to learn a bit of Torah.

This week we read special passages, a concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah, for the occasion called Shabbat Shekalim, which recalls the collection of a half-shekel from each Israelite for the upkeep of the Temple. The announcement came a month or so before the tax was actually due, and that’s why we read these passages just before the Hebrew month of Adar.

The haftarah for Shekalim tells the story of King Yehoash, who came to the throne at a young age and then set up a system whereby the priests in the Temple would pay for the repair of the property out of a general donation fund. After a while, the king realized that the priests weren’t actually doing the repairs on the building as they should, so he ordered that the funds for the Temple and for the priests should be kept separate, so that they would not be tempted to keep more for their own sustenance and pay out less for the Temple maintenance. Yes, there is actually Biblical precedent for the idea of a synagogue Building Fund!

There’s another lesson here, related to our theme of prayer and what makes it happen (or not.) When the house of prayer is in disrepair- physically, financially, organizationally, or spiritually- somebody has to take the initiative to fix it. Synagogues don’t magically repair themselves, and those in charge may not see all the problems. In our Torah reading, every single Israelite gave a half-shekel for the ancient Temple, indicating that the responsibility for the house of prayer belonged to the entire community, not just the leadership class- which, as the haftarah points out, sometimes gets a little too comfortable with the status quo.

Shabbat Shekalim poses the question: who repairs the house of God? The answer is: while a few people may have specific duties, everybody has the responsibility, and no class of people is exempt from contributing. That, in turn, reminds us that our house of prayer is not truly built unless it is a house of prayer for all people, representing every part of our kehillah, or sacred community. When we collect spiritual gifts from every soul, our house is truly renewed.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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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,

RNJL

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