Last week at Kehillat Israel, I witnessed over six hundred men, women and children spending the day giving of themselves to others as part of our “Mega Mitzvah Day.” It was in many ways for me the quintessential KI experience and a perfect way to celebrate the synagogue’s 50th Anniversary. I am always proud of the fact that one of the primary ways that we are known in the community is through the long list of Tikun Olam task forces that we have created and nurtured over the years. Feeling a sense of personal responsibility for the quality of life in our community (not to mention on our planet) is one of the most important values we can teach our children, and the best way to teach that lesson is to demonstrate it through our own behavior.
There are many ways to give expression to that fundamental religious obligation to be our brothers (and sisters) keepers. The Torah commands us not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbors, and the rabbis understand that to be a commandment to care for the poor, uplift the fallen and most vulnerable in society and make sure that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and house the homeless.
This week’s Torah portion opens with a very specific mitzvah that God commands equally to the rich and the poor. “Every one who is entered in the records (that is who is counted in the census), from the age of twenty years up, shall give God’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving God’s offering as expiation for your souls.” (Ex. 30:15)
Both the rich and the poor alike are commanded to make an offering to sustain the sanctuary in the wilderness. Obviously this isn’t the only financial/moral obligation of the rich, who voluntarily give more to other kinds of offerings, but these words established a principle for all time in the Jewish community that every single person has a responsibility, not matter how rich or how poor to contribute Tzedakah for public assistance and to sustain the institutions of Jewish education. This principle became so important that according to Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers in all Jewish history, “Even a poor person who lives entirely on Tzedakah must also give Tzedakah.”
The first lesson we learn from this commandment, is the importance of spiritual self-worth. Every one of us is created in the image of God and therefore inherently filled with worth and value. This mitzvah is designed to reinforce our sense of positive self worth, by insisting that no matter who we are it is up to us to extend ourselves to help others. No matter how difficult our lives may be or how poor we are, if we lift up our eyes and have the courage to really look at the lives of others we will see that there are always people worse off than we. When we give to others, we experience the most important spiritual lesson of all – that what we do and who we are really matters.
The second lesson we learn from this commandment is that because the rabbis put such a high premium and value on learning, they felt that giving Tzedakah to make sure that both children and adults alike can study the wisdom of Jewish tradition was one of the highest mitzvot of all. Talmud torah keneged kulam – “Jewish learning is more important than anything” it says in the Talmud. Giving to a synagogue to support the education of children or funding a Jewish Learning Institute class for adults as we have at KI, is another way of fulfilling the mitzvah contained in this week’s portion.
It occurred to me as I watched the plunging stock market this week, that the following story from the Talmud would be particularly appropriate: the wealthy Rabbi Tarfon once asked Rabbi Akiva help him invest his money. Rabbi Akiva took the funds and used it instead to allow poor students to continue their Jewish education. Several days later, when Rabbi Tarfon asked to see his investments, Rabbi Akiva took him to the school and showed him the students as they recited their lessons from the Torah. When they arrived at the verse, “He gives freely to the poor; his righteousness endures forever,” Rabbi Akiva pointed to the students and said, “This is the investment I made for you!”
Indeed, if everyone who can give Tzedakah does give Tzedakah our Jewish institutions will flourish, Jewish education will flourish, and we will have fulfilled another of the Torah’s most important mitzvot – to demonstrate by our giving what it truly means to love our neighbors as ourselves.