Burning Money

It’s February and in the United States, that means it’s tax season. Whether you identify with the one percent, the 99% or even the “47” %, this is the time of the year that virtually all of us spend some time thinking and talking about the money that goes from individual pockets into the communal pocket.

This year, we seemed to have elevated the decibel level of that national conversation with passionate claims from all points on the spectrum as to the fairness or unfairness, the justice or injustice, the morality or immorality of the tax code we have.

I’m generally not a fan of those who look to buttress their political points of view with quotations from Torah. “If Judaism supports all the policies you believe anyway” says a prominent Jewish writer “can’t you be at least a little suspicious that your politics are guiding your Torah, and not your Torah leading to your politics?”

But this week — we read Parshat Shekalim — the laws concerning the half-shekel that every man of census age was required to give annually. “The rich shall not add” G-d says “the poor shall not subtract, to that one-half shekel.”

No, I’m not about to present an argument for or against a progressive tax system. But, the fact that every year we read about this tax and then repeat it again some weeks later, as April 15th approaches, can’t be an accident. There is a message here.

The Midrash relates that Moshe evidently found it difficult to understand what G-d was telling him so G-d “shows” him, zeh yitnu  this is what they should give” as He reached down under His Throne of Glory and showed him a coin of fire. This is what I mean.

What didn’t Moshe understand? A half-shekel is a half-shekel! And how did showing him a coin of fire solve his question?

A common explanation is that G-d is saying, it’s not enough to give it, you need it to give it with feeling, with passion, with fire. But isn’t that the way we’re called upon to do all mitzvot? And if giving hard earned money away is more difficult than most mitzvot one would think that point would better be made when describing the far greater taxes/tithes that the Torah mandates.

I would suggest that perhaps the Torah is addressing a deeper element in this transfer of an individual’s hard-earned money into a communal fund.

In 1964, Kaddish Luz, a founder of Kibbutz Deganya, and at the time Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, sent the Rebbe his book which focused on the Kibbutz and the communal life there. The Rebbe responded with a lengthy letter where he politely, but quite forcefully, offers a critique of the Kibbutz movement that goes to the very core of the tension inherent in the interaction of individual and community.

“In and of itself,” the Rebbe writes “the most apparent function of the commune is to equalize individuals of greater and lesser stature—something that runs contrary to human nature”. “For with human beings, “just as their faces are different from one another, so too are their minds and characters different from one another.” “A person finds satisfaction and fulfillment when he is given the opportunity to actualize his potentials” primarily “not so much in those areas which he shares in common with his fellows, but rather “in those areas in which he, as an individual, is superior to his compatriots and his society—for in these areas lies his uniqueness”.

“At the same time,” the Rebbe continues, “man is not by nature a recluse, and “it is not good for man to be alone.” The human being seeks a social life as the context and means by which to attain his personal fulfillment.”

“..the purpose of the commune must not be to eliminate all competitiveness, since challenge and competition are among the chief stimulants toward greater effort and advancement … Rather, the commune should channel the competition to a higher plane .. in a communal society the competition can be transferred to higher aims achievements in the life of the spirit.

“…the concept of community … is not a goal and achievement in its own right, but a step, facilitator and path to the development of the individuality and uniqueness of its members ….in the best and fullest way.”

And what is that purpose?

In words that seem prescient, not simply in predicting the dramatic decline of the Kibbutz movement years ago but seem to be written for the parents and grandparents of every community today – the Rebbe concludes

That is the “burning question” which, incidentally, I did not see addressed in your book: What goal or ideal is presented to the next generation as the objective to be achieved via the structure of a communal life, so that they should desire to achieve it even if this requires effort, toil and sacrifice on their part?”

Perhaps that was Moshe’s “burning” question — how can I ask them, for the next 3,000 years, to part with hard earned money individually earned, and transfer it to a communal chest. And G-d responds, show them a coin of fire.

One might say that the single most significant characteristic of an individual is his or her own body. Each one of us has our individual body different from everyone else’s. We may have similar goals, aspirations, ideas – but our bodies are distinctly ours alone. A community on the other hand is who share a common goal, vision, outlook, spiritual energy. You can’t touch with your hand, it is not measured by size or weight, it is, it’s spirit.

Allow me a metaphor. A, fundamental characteristic of fire is, it’s the “thing” that transforms matter — the material — into energy, the spiritual.

If we want to the next generation to accept the sacrifice and effort that is inherent in any communal effort, and giving individually earned money that is earned by our individual selves is seen by so many as a sacrifice, they need to know that while it’s seems that what they give, is just a coin it’s money — the essence of materiality — it needs to be burning money, transformative fire that allows an individual to accomplish communally, higher and greater truly spiritual goals.

But for that we need to establish those goals.

The Rebbe once told Averell Harriman, the governor of New York: ”American currency has inscribed on every bill in, G-d We Trust. — it needs to be used for G-dly purposes.

We need burning money – not money-burning

About the Author
Yisrael Deren serves as Regional Director of Chabad Lubavitch in Connecticut and Senior Rabbi of Chabad of Stamford. Born in Davenport Iowa, raised in Pittsburgh, and educated under the Rebbe's supervision in Brooklyn and Israel, he, together with his wife Aviva, have been Shluchim of the Rebbe for close to 50 years.
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