Monday, February 25, 2013

Ki Tissa

Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11-34:35
Shabbat Parah 

Tzedakah And Jewish Education

Our communal responsibility to ensure the immortality of the Jewish people depends on our commitment to supporting Jewish education.

Jewish education forms the backbone of our communities.

We assure the community of vitality and endurance through the Hebrew studies of our children, the outreach programs for those considering conversion, and the continuing education programs for other seeking adults. And those programs need our support.

Consider today's Torah portion. God instructs Moses to take a census of the Jewish People in order for each Jew to pay a half-shekel tax to maintain the central communal institution of Jewish learning--the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Mishkan, a Jewish school!?! Absolutely, since it was there that the entire Jewish community gathered to learn the word of God. And that first school was supported by all. The Torah records:

"Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord's offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord's offering..." (Exodus 30:14).

So vital was the necessity of everybody contributing to tzedakah (funds for public assistance, literally "justice") that, in the words of Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (12th-century Spain), the contribution "atones for a soul." According to the Talmud, "Tzedakah is as important as all the other commandments put together."

And precisely because of the centrality of giving--because it is only through supporting the community that we achieve a collective immortality--that this Torah verse imposes an unexpected obligation on the poor. For this verse insists that the poor cannot give less than a half-shekel. According to Maimonides, "even a poor person who lives entirely on tzedakah must also give tzedakah."

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