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Sacred Money 22-Feb-12

Sacred Money

Last Shabbat, we honored the donors to our annual campaign. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on Judaism’s attitudes on money and wealth. I’ve reworked it a bit for this message.

I enjoy my work, but like anyone, there are some parts of it that I don’t relish. One of my least favorite things is when someone says, “Why should I have to pay to pray?” One answer might be, “You don’t pay to pray. You pay to have a place to pray and people to lead the prayer.” However, I doubt that this person ever said, “Why should I have to pay to eat?’ or “Why should I have to pay to attend a ball game,” but when it comes to a religious institution, somehow that’s objectionable. Some people consider dues and fundraising to be an unworthy and unspiritual. Well, I’m here to set the record straight. First, our maftir Torah reading makes it clear that fundraising and dues go back to the very beginning.

God spoke to Moses saying, “When you take a census of the Children of Israel… this shall they give — everyone who passes through the census — a half shekel of the sacred shekel (shekel hakodesh)” (Exodus 30:11-13).

If we move forward a few centuries, we find a reference in Midrash Vayikra Rabbah, from the second century c.e. that begins, “One day the great Sages Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Akiba came to Antioch…” Why were they there? To teach Torah? No, “…to collect money for the support of needy scholars.” These great Rabbis did not consider themselves to be above the job of asking for material support for their schools.

Then there is the letter found the Cairo Genizah (if you don’t know about this, see link below).  It seeks donations for the great mitzvah of redeeming captives. It is signed by none other than Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon—Maimonides—one of the greatest scholars and sages of all time.

So we must conclude that there is no Judaism without fund-raising, and thus without donors. Furthermore, the idea that religion shouldn’t be tainted by contact with the material world is not just impractical; it’s not Jewish. Nachmanides, also known as RaMBaN, in his comment on shekel hakodesh, suggests how money becomes holy. The standard shekel mentioned in the Torah was used for a number of holy purposes. It is similar to calling Hebrew l’shon ha-kodesh, the Holy Tongue, “because the words of the Torah, and the prophecies, and all words of holiness were all expressed in that language.” So money and language become holy when they are used for a mitzvah.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech spells this out. He starts by pointing out that the primary goal was to take a census. So why was it done by means of collecting the half-shekel? Even Moses was perplexed, “because he couldn’t believe that for counting Jews something so seemingly non-spiritual and materialistic would be used. How could money play a role in defining Jews and holiness?”

This is exactly the question with which I began. Why should I pay to pray? Why tarnish the spiritual with the material? It turns out that God was trying to teach something important by using the coin as the counter.

So, a Midrash says, God showed him “a coin of fire” and his mind was put at rest. Rabbi Blech says that like fire, wealth can be destructive or constructive. “Wealth may destroy those who possess it but it can also be the source of the greatest blessing.”

This exemplifies Judaism’s approach to the material world: It sees it neither as an impediment to the spirit nor as something to be worshipped. Everything that God made can be sanctified and put to holy use. Money can be squandered, used selfishly, and pursued relentlessly, heedlessly and immorally. Money can also help the poor and the oppressed, fund research to cure disease, and build and maintain synagogues. Money rightly spent becomes holy.

One last implication of that coin of fire: Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk says that God said, “Such as this they will give” to teach that “if they don’t just give a coin, but give it with fire and hitlahavut, burning enthusiasm, offering up a part of their soul  — it will indeed be a ransom for the soul.”

One of the joys of soliciting for our Annual Campaign is hearing people talk with positive passion about Beth David and what it means to them. I thank all of our donors for their ongoing generosity to Beth David, but also for the enthusiastic support that it represents. In turn, all of us involved with Beth David will continue to strive to assure that these donations will indeed be sanctified through our kehillah kedoshah (holy community).


On the Cairo Genizah:

A typically insightful article by Alan Morinis on the trait of generosity: