By Cindy Greenberg
This D’var Torah was delivered in February to kick off our Spring Up! From Galut To Geluah campaign.
Shabbat Shekalim is literally the Shabbat of shekels. This special moment of the year is about the taxes that are levied to support the community and takes place on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh for the month of Adar or on Rosh Chodesh Adar itself, which is about a month before Passover. It is a reminder that the due date for these taxes is approaching on the 1st of Nisan. This timing is also interestingly aligned with our American experience of tax season which approaches in April; that moment in the year when our financial obligations as citizens are most present, and when I know many of us wrestle both with the personal financial implications involved and with the moral and ethical questions of how our tax dollars are spent----which wars are they fueling, what after-school and anti-poverty programs are not getting their fair share and how our dollars and our values are or are not aligned .
In a special haftarah for this Shabbat, King Yehoash commanded that all these funds of our ancestors were brought to the Temple to be used for its repairs and renovations. As Michele Alperin from My Jewish Learning explains, this included “both the required contributions and the free-will offerings.” So you can see how this Shabbat was a natural fit when the rabbi and I met recently to think about when and how we could begin talking more about fundraising and Kolot, what is needed to support and sustain our community all year long. It was bashert!
The name for this shabbat comes directly from the maftir reading in Exodus 30:11, “11The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 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. 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. 14 Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord's offering: 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. 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.”
A few things in particular jumped out at me from this parsha. First, that there is a census, a count, a taking stock of how many are in our tribe. It seems wise in any community to do that at least once a year. And it had a lot of resonance for me here at Kolot where our community continues to grow----by about 20-30 members each year---and in this American census year, reflecting on the implications of being counted or overlooked. Keeping track of all our people and our needs, opening up space for our dreams and questions is no small task. Without a count, how could we do that? And the act of counting seems to me also about affirming one’s connection to the community. About, in essence, opting in. Saying as Abraham said “hineini”-- “Here I am.” Hillel’s words also come to my mind here: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” That there is power in affirming one’s connection to our tribe---whether it was all those years ago or if it is just this week as you say, yes, I want to be a member of this community and join Kolot.
But then came that strange word “ransom,” and to make it worse, a ransom that one has to pay directly to G-d so “that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled.” Huh? Sounds like paying to offset the original sin to me nd that seemed strange. Why do we have to pay a ransom to G-d because we part of a community that, as our stories say, G-d chose? Clearly the stakes are high because if we don’t, a plague is coming our way----and a month before Pesach, that plague stuff is serious business! To my mind, a G-d who has a covenantal relationship with us doesn’t ask us to pay a ransom---a sort of bribe as if we’d been abducted.
When I try to think about the modern significance of that for us here at Kolot, a community we have chosen for ourselves, I don’t want to view the financial support I give as a “ransom.” But I do share the notion of obligation that is embedded in all this: that it is not optional. That being in the community, being part of this Kolot tribe once I’ve chosen it, means I can’t “opt out” of community obligations. I have to support and sustain it. I get it that one can indeed “opt out” of being Jewish or being in community: here at Kolot we share an expansive view about what it means to be Jewish and the many ways Jews connect, identify, engage with, select and yes sometimes reject what Jewish means to them or pieces of our traditions and histories that feel incongruous with our experience. But for us here, right here, in this minute, we all opted in---to this Shabbat, to being here, and for many of us, to being part of this community all year long.
As I wrestled with this troubling ransom piece, our rabbi shared this note from the humash Eitz Hayim with me:
Ransom, in Hebrew kofer, refers to a monetary payment made to offset an incurred physical penalty. Apparently, it was taken for granted that a census jeopardizes the lives of those counted; therefore, each individual must redeem his life through payment of a half-shekel. (See 2 Samuel 24 where a plague follows a census undertaken by David)
I found that really interesting. The act of counting jeopardizes those who are counted. Is that because they are then identified with the community and so, then, visible to the community’s enemies? Or because if you are counted, then the obligations of the community become your obligations and some of those obligations might be risky? What would that mean here at Kolot? Do we have any enemies? And what risks do we take as a community? Are there risks we should be taking?
Rabbi Lippmann told m that this section is the beginning of the portion Ki Tissa, in which the people make and begin to worship the Golden Calf, Moses comes down and smashes it and kills a lot of them. Then G-d and Moses have a beautiful make-up session which is read on Pesakh and Sukkot; she often thinks it is read as a reminder to renew the covenant. So, this is a long way of saying that it sometimes seems the ransom - the expiation - is to be paid forward, for the sin of the Golden Calf.
I like that notion of “paying it forward,” as it were. But I also hope that at Kolot being counted doesn’t feel quite so treacherous. Our notion of “redeeming our life” through payments to the community is more in the frame of our commitment to Gemilut Hasadim or l’dor v’dor; that by supporting our community and what it provides to us and all who are in it, we are engaged in an act of loving kindness and one which will support our continued life together from generation to generation.
As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about and yes worrying over what Kolot wants, needs and dreams for and what our financial resources will allow, I am right there with the plagues. As I shared with you all before Chanukah, Kolot is running a planned $30K deficit in our budget this year. What if we hadn’t had reserve funds--built through many years of people’s generosity to our community--to help us do that? We would have had some much tougher decisions to make this year. And I bet some of them would have felt like plagues. Imagine if we’d had to scale back anything you love here at Kolot? Or chose among our staff who we could keep and who we must let go?
And then in the parsha, there is the standard of measure of what everyone pays to support the community: “a half shekel by the sanctuary weight.” The Torah teaches us that each is paying the same: a half shekel and that we’re using a standard measure that everyone recognizes: the scale in the sanctuary. This spoke to me a lot about our life together at Kolot. In thinking about our dues, we set a 1% structure so that everyone is paying the same percent, but with recognition of the differences in economic capacities and realities among us. So some of those 1 percents will be more shekels than others.
One thing we’ve been learning in analyzing our membership dues is that this system we put in place is maybe not perfect and is not necessarily doing for Kolot what we need it to do, meaning that the total amount of money we are bringing in from membership dues is not enough of our overall financial pie. We will be looking at that more closely for the year ahead. but this disparity in our overall Kolot pie is also where our fundraising comes in: helping us meet the gap between what our fees and dues cover and what we actually need to spend for the year. At Kolot, that gap is pretty significant---this year just over $100K---and that’s one reason why we’ve spent so much energy strategizing about creative ways to fill it. Creative things like the “last night for Kolot” Chanukah campaign and year-end outreach we recently conducted that helped us raise over $32,000. We hosted a “Seder Rebound on the third night of Pesach and, in May, there will be the special, “Practicing, Concert with our own Jewish musicians.
But this nitty gritty of weights and measures in a parsha about taxes during a series of parshot (Mishpatim) about laws and regulations, also reminded me of the wisdom our ancestors had in talking about the intricacies of what it takes to live a Jewish life and be part of our Jewish community: “Set them as a sign upon your house.” “Do not oppress the stranger.” “If you lend money, especially to the poor, do not take interest.” “Bring no harm the widow or orphan.” Being clear about things is important. Setting the rules of engagement and obligation. Especially if you want to build something--community, trust, relationships, holiness--together. That’s part of what I’m trying to do today right here and now. Talking about money and our community. That we can’t have our beloved Kolot in the way we love it without the funds to support it. “Im ain kemakh, ain Torah” -- without bread there can be no Torah. And our ancestors knew that, which is why they created a tax to keep the community they loved--and which we have inherited--alive and thriving.
But the piece of this parsha that speaks most deeply to me is this last one: “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less.” Everyone is obligated and everyone is obligated equally. I’m not sure if these words of Torah mean that, in fact, our ancestors didn’t recognize that economic burdens are felt differently by people of different means. This mandate is not written, for instance, as “each according to each” or “each according to the means they have.” But I hear that sentiment echoed in these words that all members of the community are needed to sustain it and that the obligation itself is the same, and holy. That those with great means are not more obligated and those with less means are not less obligated.
At Kolot, we share this value: “all hands are needed,” we say in our mission statement and that belief and value is deeply embedded in all that we do. As we head into the second half of 5770 together, today kicking off SPRING UP: FROM GALUT (EXILE) TO GEULAH (REDEMPTION), a special spring campaign of events and activities tied to our Jewish calendar, beginning today with Shabbat Shekalim and ending in May with Shavuos, that equality of obligation and necessity that we all pitch in holds true. Kolot needs all of us and both the obligated taxes we contribute -- our membership dues and the fees we pay for Kolot programs like adult and children’s education -- and the “voluntary” gifts we make, both of our time and creativity in the ways we people the many projects at Kolot from our siddur selection committee, to our Eitz Kehillah social justice work, to Gemilut Hasadim and our care of community members in need, to the financial gifts we share when we honor a friend who is becoming b’nei mitzvah, or we buy a ticket to Off the Bimah or the Dinners event, or we bring a friend to the author series or Purim celebration. Without all of us contributing--the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less--Kolot cannot keep our little engines running and keep our mishkan and holy, beloved community intact and growing.
This Shabbat Shekalim is the first of several special shabbatot in this season from just before Purim to Pesakh. Why do they start with this one--Shabbat Shekalim--and why is Kolot starting, drawing attention and marking it? Maybe because without affirming that we are in community together--doing that count and opting in--and then offering our support (in this case, financial payments), we can’t yet do anything else. That we need that tally and those taxes and gifts and sense of obligation and community to lay the foundation for us so that we can then observe our rituals together, mark the season, learn and celebrate together. I know that’s true for us at Kolot--in this complicated economy but also the rest of the time.
All hands are needed, all year long.