Commentary on Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 - 34:35
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.”
The Heart of Jewish Responsibility
Giving to tzedakah involves the very heart of Jewish responsibility and humanity. To be a responsible Jew implies, among other attributes, to support the Jewish community. All of us, no matter how rich or how poor, are members of a community that provides services to its members.
And at the center of those services is the need to train Jews to maintain a community. Without knowledgeable and passionate Jews — young and old — there will be no Jewish services to provide since there will be no Jews to provide them. Supporting Jewish education is an act of Jewish responsibility, a shrewd investment in the future.
All of us, even the poor, have a right to be responsible, to feel that we contribute to the maintenance of the Jewish community. Our claim to humanity and belonging is predicated on our giving tzedakah. Our ability to provide Jewish institutions to care for immigrants, the elderly, Israel, oppressed Jewry, civil rights, and a range of other issues depends on the cultivation and continued training of Jews who recognize their obligations and responsibilities as Jews. And that means supporting Jewish education.
A Tale From the Talmud
A tale from the Talmud: The wealthy Rabbi Tarfon once asked Rabbi Akiva to 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 Bible. 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!”
There is no greater investment than in supporting places of Jewish learning — our day schools, synagogues, and seminaries. If there is to be a Jewish community tomorrow, it will be as a result of the hardworking Jewish educators–rabbis, cantors, teachers, principals, and others–who provide a sense of Jewish identity, piety, and involvement both for children and for adults.
Without Jewish education, we cannot survive. And, as today’s Torah verse indicates, the responsibility to support Jewish education rests on each one of us. Rich and poor, together we must assure Jewish survival with our shekels, our involvement, and our hearts.
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.
Pronounced: tzuh-DAH-kuh, Origin: Hebrew, from the Hebrew root for justice, charitable giving.