Random Musing Before Shabbat – Pekude/Shabbat Sh’kalim 5771 – Ideas worth Re-Examining

I really wanted to write about something I came across in the regular haftarah for parashat Pekude but I am going to have to save the thought for another year, because this Shabbat is Shabbat Sh’kalim, and we read a special haftarah.

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.
A special maftir is used for the Torah reading on Shabbat Sh’kalim, hearkening back to the openong 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.

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. 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.

Here’s an interesting thought. What if every Jew, everywhere in the world, paid to a 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 congregation and Jewish institutions. Not very practical, but an interesting thought exercise that at least gets us closer to the biblical mandate. For example, synagogues could have no dues structure-operating solely on their portion of the half-shekel tax. 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.

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.

The special haftarah we read for Shabbat Sh’kalim clues us in to something we already know about human nature. Money corrupts. King Jehoash instructed the preists 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!) So King Jehoash comes up with an ingenious solutions. Money will no longer go directly to the pirests, 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.
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.

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 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. 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, 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 too 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?

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 Torah 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.

Shabbat Shalom,

Adrian
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

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About migdalorguy

Jewish Educator & Musician, Technology Nerd and all around nice Renaissance guy
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