Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Shabbat Shekalim: What Should We Give?

There’s a really interesting story that appears in this week’s special haftarah portion. Little Yehoash becomes king at the tender age of seven. Years go by and Yehoash notices that people are making donations to the ancient temple. They bring their money and deliver it to the priests for temple purposes. What to put the money towards? Yehoash decides to earmark the money for repairs to the temple’s walls.

Well, years go by and Yehoash discovers that the priests hadn’t repaired the temple walls. Concerned, Yehoash takes the task of collecting the money and the task of repairing the temple walls from the priests. He orders the priests take a chest, bore a hole in the top and set it beside the altar. When it’s full, their new job is to count the money and put it directly in the hands of the carpenters who fix the walls. We’re told explicitly that the money did not go towards other ritual objects like gold and silver bowls, but only to the walls of the temple.

Who knew that our temple budget with all its funds and stipulations has its origin in the Second book of Kings?

Not only that, but we’ve got an ancient tzedakah box here. It’s not in the shape of a synagogue in Florence Italy (the tzedekah box we give our b'nei mitzvah), but its a tzedakah box nonetheless. Incredible.

It is Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat that investigates proper giving. Shabbat Shekalim is all about communal funds; but not just establishing such funds, it is about the proper appropriation of these funds.

We read this haftarah just before Rosh Hodesh Adar. That is, the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, the month in which the holiday of Purim occurs. Membership dues to the Jerusalem temple (to use an anachronistic term) were due on the first of Adar. The rabbis happily investigate why this was dues day. Not surprisingly, they tie it to Purim.

According to the rabbis, the text of the Megillah seems to indicate that Haman was in charge of the royal treasury and was going to use the funds to help him destroy the Jews. In Talmud (Megillah 13b), Reish Lakish says: “God knew that Haman was destined to weigh out shekalim for the purpose of destroying the Jews. Therefore, God caused the Jews to weigh out their shekalim before Haman’s shekalim. That is why the payment of the shekalim to the Temple is on the first of Adar.”

This is all to mean that the Jews’ righteous use of communal funds preceded Haman’s evil use of similar communal funds.

In linking the temple dues and the story of Purim, we get a clear sense of right and wrong; a clear sense that money can be both a blessing and a curse. We don’t read the stories in II Kings or Purim because it is history. We read these stories because they are moral memories. This Shabbat we learn that just giving is good, but giving appropriately is even better.

The question is not how much you’re giving, but are you giving to the right places? Unfortunately, good-intentioned organizations fail to deliver on their promises. Our tzedakah dollars get caught up in bureaucracy and personal gain and are never delivered to the intended needy. Think of organizations like Wyclef Jean’s relief group that supposedly squandered millions of supposed aid to Haiti after the earthquake. The accusation is that only about a third of the donations went to direct aid.[1]

Whether this is true or not, this brings up an important question of where the money goes and to what.

In his book, Human Rights and Development, human rights expert and Tufts University professor Peter Uvin writes: “It is worth nothing to have laws and policies—even if these laws and policies conform to human rights standards—if they are not implemented, if certain groups are excluded from them, if the relevant facts are not known to most people, if channels of redress do not function, if laws are systematically circumvented, or if money, guns, and political influence always tend to get the better of them.”

We can extend this to funds. They mean nothing if they aren’t channeled correctly. So then what becomes our guidelines for giving to charitable organizations.

Uvin gets us started. Transparency, accountability, evaluation and willingness to change are important values in an organization you give to. Communication is also essential. Are the voices of those receiving the funds being heard? Are the individuals you are helping an essential part of the giving structure?

We have to ask why King Yehoash didn’t discover the funds had been misused until well into his kingship. Well, it became pretty clear when the walls started crumbling down. But by the time the walls were crumbling, years of misappropriation had gone by. Good, foundational work that could have been done was lost.

I don’t think the Biblical text indicates that the ancient priests were embezzling the temple funds. It seems to indicate that they were indeed using it for temple purposes, they were just out buying other things for the temple – shiny, expensive objects that probably looked nice, but were not as essential as holding the walls up.

As we give of our own funds to this temple, communal organizations or non-profit groups, let us take a moment to consider the essential needs our money can meet.

Also, think about how many steps lie between the cause and you. The more direct the service, the better.

On this Shabbat, I think particularly of the Food Bank for Westchester. Every February, the sitting rabbi at WCT puts out a hunger appeal. In it, we ask you to make a donation to the Hunger Fund here at the temple. At the end of the month we’ll take all the monies and put it directly in the hands of the Food Bank for Westchester who will then purchase and distribute food to 200,000 hungry people through Westchester. This is a communal fund you can feel good about. It’s local, it’s direct and it’s essential.

In a few weeks time, we’ll celebrate the holiday of Purim. Purim is a raucous holiday of drunken merriment, but it is also at Purim that we are commanded to send gifts to the needy. The most bizarre thing about Purim is that God’s name is not mentioned at all, not even once, in the Megillah. Rabbi Sharon Brous puts it all together this way: “We make up for God’s absence in the Purim narrative by redoubling our capacity for God-like living in our own. We respond to the threat of emptiness by pouring more kindness and sweetness into the world.”

You can do this by contributing to this year’s Hunger Appeal and you can do this by giving thoughtfully throughout the year. May our contributions be received with the love with which we send them.

Ken yhi ratzon.

You can make a donation to the Hunger Appeal here


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