This Shabbat marks the first of four special Shabbatot that lead up to Pesakh, Shabbat Shekalim. (Yes, I know it’s hard to imagine thinking Pesakh when Purim is still 18 days away.)
The concept of the half-shekel census tax from Exodus 30:11-16 is clear. Rich and poor alike – all must give the same amount. This is a reminder that all are obligated to contribute to the upkeep of the community. I would extend this obligation to beyond the Jewish community, yet for the purposes of this musing, it is support of the Jewish community with which I am concerned. (I’d rather not get into an argument about progressive/regressive/flat tax codes. Let’s just say for now that I don’t think that, taken as a whole, in context, the Torah really means to tell us that a progressive tax code is wrong.)
According to the rabbis, in Temple times in Israel, the 1/2 shekel annual census tax specified in Exodus 30:11-16 was announced on the first of Adar. The thinking was (according to the convoluted thinking of the rabbis, IMHO) that reminding people to pay their half-shekel tax at the start of Adar insured the priests had a supply of new shekalim with which to purchase the animals to be sacrificed starting at the beginning of Nisan. Why it mattered that the sacrificial animals for Nisan needed to be purchased with new money instead of what was already “in the accounts” of the priests is an interesting discussion in and of itself, but we’ll just sidestep that for today.
By Temple times, there was a system in place that recognized four different kinds of payments that the priests received. There was the annual payment of the half-shekel census tax from Exodus 30:11-16, the payments for vows specified in Leviticus 22, all other gifts like those mentioned in parashat T’rumah and elsewhere, and lastly, monetary substitutions for required animal sacrifices (for guilt and sin offerings.)
In this special haftarah, King Jehoash is asserting his control over the first three types of funds collected by the priests. The priests have made themselves an easy target for this. At the start of his reign, aware of the physical deterioration of the Temple, he ordered the priests to utilize the funds coming in the make repairs and maintenance. Some years later, it was noticed the priests had not arranged for any repairs or maintenance, so the King ordered what was effectively a giant pushke/tzedakah box be placed in the Temple into which all donations were placed. Every time the box filled up, the King’s scribe (finance minister?) and the High Priest would empty the box, count the money, bag it up, and deliver it directly to the overseers of the contractors working on the repairs. (The text is silent on who actually ordered the repairs – the priests or the King.) Perhaps suspecting that the priests were resistant to his initial request to use Temple income to make repairs because they saw it as a threat to their own income and lifestyle, the King specified that monies given for guilt or sin offerings did go to the priests directly. (Remember, Levites and priests do not own land – well, technically. I suspect a number of priestly families, through shell ownership, or in blatant defiance of the Torah, had themselves nice little estates and nest eggs saved up.)
After the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis needed to come up with an alternative use for Shabbat Shekalim. They turned it into an occasion for making donations to funds to insure the welfare and continuity of the Jewish community. (That annoying appeal for funds from the bimah that many of you hear during the High Holidays is really meant to be given on Shabbat Shekalim. What a sad commentary on the state of Jewish affairs.)
Just as during the time of Jehoash, how can we be sure that the funds we give are being used by those who receive them to do the things we expect them to be doing? The fact is, without the sort of accountability that Jehoash set up, we can’t.
Why was the Temple in disrepair when Jehoash ascended the throne? How is it that the priests, the people, and prior Kings had not noticed? Or had they noticed but not cared? Are we in a similar situation?
I’m not generally an alarmist, and I’m not predicting the decline and end of Judaism anytime soon, but I am concerned that just as in Jehoash’s time, we have a deteriorating Temple. If we think of Judaism itself (or perhaps the state of affairs of Judaism, and/or the Jewish community) like the Temple, then it is definitely in need of repair. we have allowed our priests to not utilize the shekalim we give them to repair what needs repairing. Lots of money seems to be going in, but I’m not seeing all that many signs of the necessary repairs being made. We have allowed our priests to not utilize the shekalim we give them to repair what needs repairing. I see lots of signs of the modern equivalent of the priests – those who control the monies that come in, be they rabbis, CEOs, Boards, fundraisers, philanthropists – simply insuring their own (or their organization’s) continuity, without concern for the entire edifice that is Judaism and the Jewish community. They work to protect their own little space inside, while the entire building is starting to crumble around them.
At the same time, I do see lots of contractors eager to do the work of making the repairs that the Jewish edifice needs. While there are modest efforts underway to funnel funds to those people, it’s but a mere trickle. The funds are going in to our “Temple” but they’re just not being used to fix the things that truly need repairing.
We have no King to step in for us and insure that our priests are using the money as needed. So it is up to us – each of us – all of us – to insure that the money gets to the contractors who actually will do/are doing the work needed.
First, we much each be certain that we are giving our due half-shekel. We must be contributing to the community. (I am a proponent of “sweat equity) so it doesn’t always and only have to be money. Teach. Serve on a committee. Work for a social action or community organizing organization.) Then we must be active participants in insuring that our half-shekel, along with all of the others, gets collected, bagged up, and sent to those who are actively doing the repair and maintenance work that is needed to our virtual Temple.
It’s interesting to note that the King and his surrogates became the watchers of the priests to insure they did what they were supposed to do. When it came, however, to someone to watch over the recipients – the overseers and the workers – no watcher was deemed necessary. Like the worker in the ancient story, we hope that their attitude isn’t “I’m earning a living,” or “I’m supporting my family,” or “I’m laying bricks,” or “I’m carving wood,” but rather “I’m building a Temple” or, in this case “I’m repairing the Temple.”
My prayer is that this penultimate line from the haftarah proves true in our own time.
16 No check was kept on the men to whom the money was delivered to pay the workers; for they dealt honestly.
Let’s repair our Temple.
© 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on This Parasha:
Mishpatim 5771 – Getting Past the Apologetics
Mishpatim 5770 – Divine Picnic
Mishpatim 5769 – Redux 5757/5761 Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5768 – Justice for All
Mishpatim 5767-To See, To Behold, To Eat, To Drink
Mishpatim 5766 – Mishpatim with a Capital IM
Mishpatim 5765-Eid Khamas (revised)
Mishpatim 5764-Situational Ethics
Mishpatim 5763-My Object All Sublime
Mishpatim 5762-Enron Beware!
Mishpatim 5761-Change from the Inside
Mishpatim 5760-Chukim U’mishpatim
Mishpatim 5759-Eid Khamas-Witness to Violence