Thursday, February 28, 2019

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Vayakhel-Shabbat Sh’kalim 5779-Ideas Still Worth Re-examining

Shabbat Sh'kalim is a Shabbat that moves around a bit according to the dictates of the Hebrew Calendar. It is designed to start the series of 4 special haftarot that are read preceding Pesakh, and it has to fall such that all the others line up in time.

So eight years ago Shabbat Sh’kalim corresponded with another Hebrew leap year just as it does this year, only then it corresponded with parashat Pekude, and this year it corresponds with parashat Vayakhel (in most non-leap years, Vayakhel-Pekude are a combined parasha, but there are some exceptions, the next one occurring in 2025. You think Common-Core math is confusing, try the cycles of the Hebrew Calendar. Wait, strike that – bad comparison. Once you see the underlying pedagogy of the new Common Core math standards for teaching things like multiplication and division, you’ll see that they actually are as sound, if not sounder, than the “traditional way.” Now every time I see one of those Common-Core-bashing memes, I cringe. You should too – do the research!!)

A special maftir is used for the Torah reading on Shabbat Sh'kalim, hearkening back to the opening 6 verses of parashat Ki Tissa which we read just a short while ago. It speaks of the half-shekel tax levied on the Israelites on the basis of the census, the funds then being used to serve a joint function - as expiation on the part of the Israelites, and as funds to support the needs of the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting. Two birds with one half-shekel.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

11 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם֒ וְנָ֨תְנ֜וּ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּ֧פֶר נַפְשׁ֛וֹ לַיהוָ֖ה בִּפְקֹ֣ד אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶ֥ה בָהֶ֛ם נֶ֖גֶף בִּפְקֹ֥ד אֹתָֽם׃

12 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.

זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽיהוָֽה׃

13 This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD.

כֹּ֗ל הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מִבֶּ֛ן עֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וָמָ֑עְלָה יִתֵּ֖ן תְּרוּמַ֥ת יְהוָֽה׃

14 Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the LORD’s offering:

הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃

15 the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your persons.

וְלָקַחְתָּ֞ אֶת־כֶּ֣סֶף הַכִּפֻּרִ֗ים מֵאֵת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְנָתַתָּ֣ אֹת֔וֹ עַל־עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְהָיָה֩ לִבְנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֤ל לְזִכָּרוֹן֙ לִפְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם׃ (פ)

16 You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before the LORD, as expiation for your persons.

Synagogues love this Shabbat, as it reinforces the obligation of Jews to help support the religious infrastructure. On the other hand, there are aspects of how this was done that may conflict with modern synagogue operations. (Additionally, how wonderfully ironic that this year Shabbat Sh’kalim also coincides with the National Day/Shabbat of Unplugging. You know how I feel about that National Shabbat of Unplugging, don’t you? If liberal synagogues really took this seriously, don’t you think it should involve more than just asking congregants to not use their phones one Shabbat out of the year? Many of the ideas that Reboot originally promoted for the National Shabbat of Unplugging years ago rang true to me, and still do. However, it’s that primary thing about “unplugging from technology” that doesn’t work for me. In my case, technology enhances my Shabbat experience. But I digress.)

The biblical mandate is egalitarian when it comes to economic status - rich and poor alike pay just a half-shekel. Not exactly the way many synagogues are doing it these days, what with "fair share" and other types of programs designed to not conflict with our more modern sensibilities about the distribution of wealth. People who support a so-called "flat-tax" for income tax seem to have the Torah on their side. (However, if you care to do the research, there’s just as much support within Judaism for wealth equity and redistribution. That’s a discussion for another day. I’m reading some new books and re-reading some older books on Judaism, wealth, equity, business ethics, etc. with an eye to writing more about that this year.)

Here's an interesting thought. What if every Jew, everywhere in the world, paid to a worldwide communal fund the modern equivalent of a half-shekel. This obligation would apply to every Jew, whether they belonged to a specific congregation or not. These funds are then divided up between all the world's congregations and Jewish institutions. Not very practical, but an interesting thought exercise that at least gets us closer to the biblical mandate. (As the old joke goes, if Federation has their name, they’ll find them somehow.)  For example, synagogues could have no dues structure-operating solely on their portion of the half-shekel tax. (There are countries where government subsidizes synagogues, though often liberal synagogues have a harder tine getting the funding.) Jews could freely come and go between congregations, so long as they can demonstrate they paid their half-shekel. Pretty mind-blowing idea, huh? I'm not advocating this wholesale, but it has some interesting possibilities, especially in light of recent cries that what a 21st century Jewish community may need and want is the ability to move seamlessly between institutions, as they structure their own path of Jewish life. That “half-shekel” gets you in everywhere – any synagogue, any JCC or YM/YWHA, etc. Your kids get to go to get a Jewish education wherever you choose. (Yes, some adjustment between day-school and supplementary schools will be needed as the costs are very different – but we can figure these things out. In an ideal world, this “half-shekel” could guarantee a day school education for any Jewish child who wanted it.

Note that this still doesn’t eliminate our obligation to support charities. The “half-shekel” is to pay for institutional operations. Charities will still need separate support, as will other good and just causes.

The socialist in me has a little trouble with placing equal burdens on rich and poor alike, but there is a certain appeal to the idea, philosophically. Or we could find a way that Judaism allows us to modify the biblical half-shekel tax in a non-Temple reality that provides for a sliding scale, slightly easing the burden of those who can least afford it and shifting it to those who can easily afford to pay more. As I said, there are appealing aspects to both a graduated tax and a flat tax, though the socialist in means leans hard towards the graduated kind, and the social justice warrior in me leans hard towards greater equity in wealth distribution. But again, I digress.

The special haftarah we read for Shabbat Sh'kalim clues us in to something we already know about human nature. Money corrupts. (If you are reading this years down the road, February 27, 2019 was this week – the day of Michael Cohen’s open testimony before the House Oversight Committee. Here’s hoping it becomes an important historical date or at least a footnote.)  King Jehoash instructed the priests of the Temple that all donations received shall go for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple. Twenty years later (slow on the uptake, or choosing to ignore, we'll never know) he discovers that the priests had made no repairs to the Temple (surprise, surprise!) But what did they do with all that money? Torah is silent about that. (Hey, Yochi Brandes, want to write some historical fiction about that period? Not sure seeing it from the priests point of view would work, however.)

So King Jehoash comes up with an ingenious solution to get the Temple upkeep back on track. Money will no longer go directly to the priests, and they, in turn, will have no obligation for the upkeep of the Temple. All donations would be collected in common vessels, and then turned over to the staff (i.e. the workers who kept the Temple operating, fixed it, cleaned it, repaired it, etc.) This would insure the Temple's upkeep (one might hope.)

To keep the priests from being totally unhappy with the deal (and possibly having him de-throned) he allows all money brought as guilt and purification offerings to go directly to the priests. Isn’t that special.

Flash Forward. Imagine what our synagogues might be like today if all donations went to pay for the staff and materials for building upkeep and maintenance, and the clergy relied solely on monies donated to expiate the sins of congregants. It worked for the Church, why not us-Jewish Indulgences. While I say this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I am qualifying it with the word somewhat. I really can imagine a world in which Jewish clergy receives income from the services they perform for individuals, and it is sufficient to also cover the communal work they do – so that the “halk-shekel” distributions really do only cover operational and upkeep costs for facilities, equipment, and programs. The Tanakh does seem to imply this is more than adequate for the priests. (Things get trickier when we start talking about other programming – supplementary school staff, clerical staff, etc. should they also have to draw from a different funding pot, or are these expenses just a normative part of operations? Clergy are part of normative operations, aren’t they? Aye, but there’s the rub. Tanakh does differentiate between the priests and the workman who service the Temple. Ordination is a hard-won honor, but like most honors, it ought to come at some cost. If we still had a hereditary priesthood, there’d be no issue. Maybe that’s what we need – a hereditary rabbi-hood. (Well, some Jewish sects do have that!)

On the subject of equity, I wonder how many synagogues have policies on the maximum salary differential permitted between the senior rabbi and the lowest-paid custodian or staff member? It's an idea that many Jews cry out for in general society - capping CEO salaries, for example. Are we willing to try that in our own synagogues?

Now here's something amazing. The haftarah for Shabbat Sh'kalim tells us that no supervisions or checks and balances were necessary for the people who oversaw the collection and distribution of the funds to the workers - for, as it says, they dealt honestly. (For the sake of comparison, let’s call this lay leadership in synagogues. maybe for institutions like JCCs it’s their Board members?)

The haftarah tells us the the high priest and the royal scribe were the ones who were to notice when the collections jars were full, count the money (De Monet, De Monet!) and then distribute it to those who distributed it on to the workers. The text isn't clear whether the high priest and royal scribe were trusted and not checked upon, but my read is that the trusted ones were the next level down - those who actually took the funds and paid the workers and suppliers. What does it tell us that we couldn't trust the priests but we could trust these people? Did the priests only keep payments resulting from guilt and purification offerings, or did they sometimes help themselves?

There's another text here that, if taken at face value could vex modern synagogues many of whom have become "bar/bat mitzvah factories." The age of Jewish communal majority has along history of being fixed at age 13 (12 for females) however if you examine Israelite culture and the Torah, you see that the half-shekel tax was only assessed to males age 20 and up. Now, there can be many practical reasons for this. Nevertheless, it does seem to call into question the rabbinic decisions to fix the age of becoming bar/bat mitzvah at a much earlier age. Seems to me if one can be a full member of the community with all the appurtenant obligations, they ought to be obligated to pay the modern synagogue equivalent of the half-shekel.

Imagine how well that would go over with both parents and children! So, do we change the age of majority, or start collecting dues from everyone over the age of bar/bat mitzvah? Radical? Perhaps. Worth contemplating, nonetheless, if for no other reason than, while it may not change things, it can influence and subtly affect our approach.

There are clear differences between our own times and those of Temple times and earlier. The synagogue may have taken the place of the Temple, but it is not quite the same thing. So comparisons aren't entirely fair. Yet the values and ethics we read about in the Tanakh should surely remain applicable.

The rabbis were smart. They enabled Judaism to survive the destruction of the Temple by two millennia! Yet much of what they did, which they claim is based in and supported by the oral law, seems somewhat antithetical to what we read in the Torah. The things that the rabbis put into place may no longer be necessary, or may not work well in the 21st century. It's equally true that the original teachings of the Torah might have the same problems. However, I'm willing to go back to the source without the cliff notes of the rabbinic interpreters to see if there are values and ideas we can re-adopt to our modern times. Issues of economic egalitarianism, how institutions are supported and paid for, how the donations are distributed, who are the people we can trust to distribute the communal funds without oversight - all are worthy of re-examination.

Though his views are a bit Libertarian for me at times, a futurist I often follow is David Brin (Sci-Fi author.) Focusing primarily on the impacts of technology, and in particular, on privacy, he maintains that the balance to surveillance by government and corporations is individual sousveillance back at them. We already see the impact that taking live videos with a smartphone can have on exposing the excesses of those with power and those who would abuse that power. Transparency is the key. Like government, synagogues should strive for the greatest possible transparency in all they do. (Sadly, among congregations around the world I find this is more often the exception than the rule, though often more a matter of stress/lack of time/urgency-induced failure to communicate rather than an intentional effort to hide things from congregants.) Transparency is hard. It’s even harder in a culture where “because I said so, ” or “it’s complicated, you wouldn’t understand,” or “we’ve always done it that way,” or “that’s just the way it is” are still common answers to a questioning “why?”

So I close this musing with one last question (and honestly, one last gadfly jab at this ensuing “National Shabbat of Unplugging.”)


Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian ©2019 (portions ©2011) by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on this Parasha:

Vayakhel 5776 - An Imaginary Community (Redux & Revised 5768)
Vayakhel 5774 - Is Two Too Much?
Vayakhel 5771 - Giving Up the Gold Standard
Vayakhel 5765-The Wisdom of the Heart
Vayakhel 5763-Dayam V'hoteir

Vayakhel-Pekudei-Shabbat Parah 5775 - New Heart, New spirit
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5778 - There IS Business Like Show Business
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5777 - Bell, Pomegranate, Bell, Pomegranate
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5773 - Craftsman. Artisan. Artist. Again.
Vayakhel-Pekude 5772 - Vocational Ed
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5770-Corroborative Detail
Vayakhel-Pekudei 5769 - There Are Some Things You Just Have To Do Yourself
Vayakhel 5768-An Imaginary Community?
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5767-Redux 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing
Vayakhel-Pekudei/Shabbat HaHodesh 5766 - So How Did Joseph Get Away With it?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5764-Comma or Construct?
Vayakhel/Pekude 5762-Sacred Work
Vayakhel/Pekude 5761 (Revised from 5758)-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel/Pekude 5758-Craftsman. Artisan. Artist.
Vayakhel 5760-The Lost Episodes: Too Much of a Good Thing

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