This week’s Torah portion is every rabbi’s dream – particularly at this time of year. Because every year as the High Holy Days grow near, almost every rabbi I know struggles with the spiritual dilemma of whether or not to use this rare opportunity when almost the entire congregation stands before them, to openly solicit financial support for the synagogue. The struggle is a real one, since every synagogue without a large endowment depends totally upon the personal generosity of its members for its very survival each and every year.
For some the dire financial situation of their congregations leaves little room for any ethical or spiritual dilemma whatsoever. They know for certain that if they don’t manage to inspire the members of their community to open their hearts and financial resources to the congregation, there will simply not be enough money to meet the payroll. Rabbis, cantors, and educators will not receive their salaries, bills will go unpaid, and the congregation will sink deeper and deeper into debilitating debt.
But for most of us, the situation isn’t that cut and dried. We have faith that even though dues only cover 75% of our budget each year, somehow, the bills will get paid, the staff will receive their salaries, the teachers will get their paychecks, the lights will stay on, the building maintained, the trees watered, and the books and materials needed for our children’s education will be bought.
And yet every year we worry. What if the new members that we hope will join (and that we based our $3 million plus budget on) don’t materialize? What if the economic downturn continues and more and more of people’s “discretionary” giving dries up?
We watch as members who gave $4,000 for dues last year, are suddenly giving $2,000 this year; or those who gave $2,000 last year give $1,000 this year, or don’t rejoin at all, telling us “We are taking a break for a year or two.” And instead of using our energy to create new opportunities for spiritual growth, new educational innovations for our children, experiments in adult Jewish study, creative musical productions, CDs and concerts, and bringing in top-notch Jewish thinkers and authors as scholars-in-residence, we suddenly find ourselves spending our time worrying about how we will make the budget, whether we need to start a fund raising campaign, or at least make sure we convince people to remember to include KI in their wills.
So the High Holy Days come along, and we gaze at that large, affluent crowd of several thousand, and we feel the urge to pass out pledge cards and make a heart-felt appeal for support. And once again, we manage to resist, and keep our focus on creating the most inspiring spiritual experience we can – and have faith that people will care on their own, and the support will come anyway.
And in the midst of wrestling with this annual dilemma, here comes this week’s Torah portion. And every rabbi (and temple president and executive director) reads it, and dreams: “If only…”
For in this portion Moses tells the children of Israel, “You shall enjoy, together with the Levite and the stranger in your midst, all the bounty that Adonai your God has bestowed upon you and your household.” And after they experience the blessings of success and bounty that God will bestow upon them, they are to “set aside in full the tenth part of your yield…and give it to the Levite (that’s their version of the synagogue), the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow (that’s their version of social service charities).”
Imagine what would happen to our synagogues, our charitable non-profits, our Jewish federations and community centers, if everyone actually gave one tenth of their success, one tenth of their blessings as a tithe of thanksgiving as this week’s Torah portion suggests?
Every rabbi dreams about it, and imagines the incredible impact we might have on the quality of life in our congregation and community – the best cutting edge educational experiences for young and old with the ability to transform the spiritual life of every member of our community.
Then the portion goes on to describe the blessings that will come when we follow the spiritual laws of God and the vast array of curses that will befall us if we don’t. And we remember each High Holy Day season as we look out at the faces of our congregation and community, that the most important blessing of all, is that Judaism remains important enough in your lives, that you make sure you are there. And we know that as long as that happens, everything else will work out as it should.