Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            As we enter the month of March, many of us in the U. S. begin to get anxious about the looming tax deadline of April 15.  I remember the Rav, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993), saying how nervous he felt as he prepared his tax returns, because he didn't want to forget to claim as income any fees he may have received over the past year.  He believed that scrupulous honesty in tax preparation was a religious obligation, part following the laws of your land and part sanctifying God's name.  That position fits in well with this week's dual Torah reading.  The weekly reading, Pikudei, catalogues carefully all of the gifts for the construction of the Mishkan.  We also read this Shabbat the first of the four special sections connected to Purim and Pesach.  This week it is Shekalim, which describes the half shekel coins used for Temple sacrifice and annual census.  At a very early date we Jews learned the importance of accuracy in finances.  It's rare that these two readings coincide, so, I guess, it behooves us to analyze this material and, hopefully, glean lessons for our own lives.

            The first and most obvious lesson goes right to the heart of the accounting process.  We must be accurate.  There are strict laws about charity collectors, especially that they should never do it alone.  However, the Code of Jewish Law (Shulchan Orech, Yoreh De'ah, 157) says that the community shouldn't check up on the authorized gaba'im (collectors).  Today the gaba'im give out the honors in synagogues, but in previous centuries they were the charity collectors.  The term actually means to raise eor collect.  The Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles, 1520-1572) gives the European or Ashkenazic ruling: "If Moses, who was the most trustworthy person, did so, then also authorized charity collectors would do well to give an accounting so that they be clear of suspicion by the Lord and by Israel."  So, that's the first lesson, be very careful with charity funds.  I always get nervous when I'm in charge of money which isn't mine, and according to the verses that's the correct attitude. 

            There are, I believe, other issues swirling around within these two texts.  The most obvious other issue, after our concerns of accuracy, sounds almost superstitious.  We are told to be very careful when counting humans, because if we count them callously, there will be dire results.  What does this mean?  The curse of being counted seems to extend to inanimate objects as well, because there is a very famous rabbinic statement that blessings do not dwell in counted objects.  What can that possibly mean?  Once I've counted my eggs they won't taste as good?  By the way, as a result of these two realities many Jews refuse to tell how many children, grand children or great grandchildren they have.  We clearly need some guidance to better understand what we're being taught.

            I believe that the beginning of an answer can be ascertained from the Biblical word used for counting in both of these accounts, and that is pakod.  This word means more than to count.  It also means to assign.  So, items which are given a role get added value through the count.  As opposed to items which merely become numbers.  I've quoted before from the 60's song, Secret Agent Man, they've given you a number and taken away your name.  That's horrible.  The Chidushei Harim (Rabbi Yiztchak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, 1799-1866) gave some guidance on the problem of being numbered.  He suggested that numbers separate items into discrete units.  That's he problem.  Blessing is all about connection.  The greatest source of blessing is God, and we want to be connected to the Divine to receive those blessings.  The blessings we bestow on others are efficacious to the extent that we feel connected to the other. A numbered object stands alone, unplugged from the blessing network.

            But the Rebbe states another idea which, I think, gives great meaning to the issue.  He says that when things are pointed out and even counted for assigning a purpose or imparting love then blessing not only can exist in that item, but can flourish.  The Rebbe doesn't mention it, but this idea exists in a verse, which traditional Jews recite every morning.  In Psalm 147 we say: God counts the stars and calls them all by name (verse 4).  Rashi expresses this idea at the beginning of the book of Exodus.  We recount the names of the Tribes to show our affection for them.  This idea is crucial to understanding our issue.  If our count is out of love, then it's not only permitted it is positive and nourishing.  If the purpose of the tally is to ascertain a final number, then it's dehumanizing and destructive.  I was just in Israel with the eighth grade of Bi-Cultural Day School and we counted the kids with numbers.  We didn't do this to brag about how many children we had brought to Israel but to carefully ascertain that we had all our beloved charges.  The count displayed how much we cared.

            This concept can even be extended to objects.  The count of the items donated to the Mishkan wasn't about breaking fund raising records or compiling vast numbers.  It was about using these articles for holy purposes.  According to some commentaries there's a discrepancy between the amounts collected and the amounts tallied here.  Maybe that's because we only accounted for the items which we lovingly used. As long we keep the aim of our collection the greater glory of our holy goals, then it's fine to keep the tally.

            I would like to think that people are having children and grandchildren for grander reasons than some communal competition.  When I count my nine grandchildren, it's with tremendous love and affection for each one as a unique individual, never as a composite numbers of faceless statistics.  Let's enumerate our beloved items with a sense of the sublime purpose of each one.  Then blessings will flow to each and every one.                         

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