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