Shabbat Shekalim Love Expressed in a Silver Coin
I will start with a little side account on Israeli money. The official coin of the state of Israel is the shekel, actually, the Shekel Hadash, or the New Shekel. It came to replace the Israeli Lira, which was originally based on the British pound, at a rate about $3 and a quarter. Then, it inflated over time to 20 or 30 to the dollar, so the government switched the currency to the Shekel.
Back when they were trying to fix the old shekel, they told a story of a great Hasidic Rabbi, however, who went for a walk on Shabbos in Jerusalem, He spied 100 Shekel note lying on the street in front of him, picked it up, and promptly put it in his pocket.
His followers were astounded; Rabbi--this is mukseh ( untouchable)! You know your are forbidden to pick up money on Shabbos!
He looked at them: You call this money, and went ahead.
He was right—the shekel hit 1500 to the dollar three years later, because of inflation, it was reissued as the New Israeli Shekel, and brought down to 1.50 a dollar. Now, it has been stable for about 30 years at about 3 and a half, not far from where it was in 1948 at 3.25! The British are the ones who took a monetary bath however, as their pound is now about half what it was compared to the dollar in 1948!.
Israelis used to value contracts in US dollars. Now, over the last few years, they went back to valuing contracts in Israeli Shekels. After all, the head of the Israeli National Bank, Stanley Fisher, was the mentor to the head of the Fed, Ben Bernanke. He is now back at the Fed to help shore up the US dollar.
This story of the modern shekel brings us to the story of the ancient shekel.
This Shabbat, we have a special reading-shekalim, named for the real shekel, not the modern printed version, but a silver coin, unclipped, about the weight, in silver of the pre-1960’’s US silver dollar.
We added the opening verses of Ki Tisa, which we read a few weeks ago, as our Maftir this week..
We recall the ancient task of collecting one-half shekel from everyone, in addition to all other collections-for establishment of the sanctuary, later for annual maintenance of the Temple.
The special Haftarah reading reflects the same theme, of an event in later history, the collection of funds for repair of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was added for the Shabbat preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar, just one month and a half before Pesah, to remind the public to bring contributions that would prepare ancient Jerusalem for the myriads of visitors who would come for the Pesah offering at the Temple.
Our sages express astonishment at our people’s response to our requests for funds. They paid, it shows, not only the half-shekel, but added generously out of their own pocket, as we read last Shabbat in Vaykhel and on this Shabbat of Pekudei.
“What a strange people! Last week, they raised funds for the Golden Calf, this week, they raise funds for the Holy Sanctuary? Whatever you ask them for, they give!” (Yerushalmi)
Of course it was not always easy to raise funds either for Golden Calves or for Temples.
Our literature is filled with exhortations to give generously, which means that the people had to be prompted and prodded.
Thus our sages insisted
"No one ever became poor by giving Zedakah"
Or, they promised, as in the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, some 2200 years ago, “As Water douses a flame, so zedakah atones for sins.”
Those who pled poverty, and thus unable to give, were assured,:
“Whoever pursues the giving of zedakah, God gives him the means.”(Baba batra)
Nothing ever changes. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose! .The more the change, the more things remain as they were. Jews have been trying to raise funds ever since. We didn't have the power of taxation to maintain our institutions so we had to rely on the power of the community to persuade and encourage.
Jews also loved their synagogues-it goes back a long time. In the opening of the prayer book, there is a prayer for entering the synagogue
“Ma Tovu ohalecha”--How goodly are your tents
It goes on" Oh Lord, I love the habitation of your house, the place where your glory dwells.”
Look at the 23rd Psalm,”The Lord is my shepherd”. We use it for funerals but that is not its purpose. Sefardic Jews use it as a table song to celebrate and it declares, in celebration "I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”. You only seek to dwell forever in a place you love.
Archaeologist in Israel and the Middle East have uncovered countless plaques with the names of one donor or another, in Hebrew and in Greek, naming the president of a congregation, the donor of a doorway, even the name of a women who was president of her congregation. This is a precedent which every charitable institution has followed down to this day.
Why do people go out of their way to do this? People in general, not just Jews.
.One reporters described the aftermath of fighting in an Italian village.
An artillery shell fell through the top of a church, ruined the church, but spared its famous mural by Bellini. This was seen as a miracle. The people began to raise the money to rebuild the Church; people who didn't have shoes came up and put money in the box. It was cold and they didn't even have enough to eat.
“I asked one man, ‘Why do you do this?’ He hesitated a moment and said, ‘Signor, what I give is only a little, but in giving it, I become a part of something beautiful.’ (Stanley Andrews)
We all, Jews and non-Jews, want to be part of something beautiful.
I have my share of stories of how people care for their synagogues
I will start with an example from a non-Jew!
I recall being my youth in a small town in West Virginia, My father had been the Rabbi. You didn't know there were Jews in the heart of West Virginia?
At every Jewish holiday, in would walk a Christian lady from the neighboring town with an armload of first fruits from her yard. She brought it to the synagogue because she took it seriously--God has asked for the first fruits, and she has given it.
I was Rabbi once in Newport News , Virginia, where they just celebrated 100 years of the congregation. The entire Jewish community, of two thousand, was for the most part descended from three main families; everyone was either a descendent of, married to, a cousin of, or best friend of. Board members were all relatives. If someone was upset with the president, it was "Cousin Ralph" or "Uncle Bob". Since the synagogue was a family affair, everyone took care of it as if it were his own house-- and it was. (By the way, the head of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College, Rabbi David Ellison is a product of the town’s Orthodox synagogue! His brother taught in our Hebrew School. Small world, then, for his son and our son were in school together here, in this building, many years later, downstairs in what was the Herzl school. Small world, the granddaughter of our Hebrew school program is friends with our granddaughter here in LA.)
In yet another congregation where I served, in Whittier,I recall one member, the wife of a prominent lawyer and judge, who lived in an elegant house in the best part of the city. She had her maid to do her house, of course. But when it came to the synagogue, no cleaning lady was good enough. Time and again, I would find her in the sanctuary scrubbing the stains on the carpet on the Bimah-- because no else could do the job the right way! That's care.
.Every Jewish community had its" sheva tovei ha'ir"--its seven good men of the town, the executive committee, which undertook the responsibilities of the synagogue, and every community had its asarah batlanim-its minyan of batlanim--a batlan is not a lazy man, just the opposite, a batlan meant a wealthy man, who was batel--he was free from the burden of employment so he could dedicate himself to the needs of the synagogue.
(.Here too, we have our tovei ha-ir.our goodly people of the city. We have our core of people who give and have given of themselves constantly. I look here at Carmen, Marcello and Lillian, Simon, Rosa and others, for example.
But they alone cannot lift up this great institution. Leaders are of no avail without followers to give fullest support.)
Finally, people may ask with a practical approach: In times like these, what does this synagogue mean to me?
I close with the words of a noted Rabbi, Solomon Goldman
"Why go to the Synagogue?"
I come to the synagogue to probe my weakness and my strength
I come to lift myself by my bootstraps, I come to quiet the turbulence in my heart, restrain its mad impulsiveness and check the itching eagerness of my every muscle to outsmart and outdistance my neighbor. I come for self-renewal and regeneration I come to behold the beauty of the Lord, to find him who put an upward reach in the heart of man. "
That is what this synagogue can do for each of us. That is why we have the reminder, before we make merry with Purim and celebrate Pesah with family and friends, to give our half-shekels worth, and more, to make our Sanctuaries and congregations flourish.