Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
Judaism has a long and venerated tradition of giving. It began with the Torah and its many mitzvot that commanded the ancient Israelites to take care of those most vulnerable in society: the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger. It included the famous commandment I always refer to as “The Peah Principle” (“Peah” means “corner” in Hebrew), whereby our ancestors were commanded to leave a corner of their fields unharvested so that those who were landless and couldn’t feed themselves would be assured that they wouldn’t starve, but would always have food to eat along with the rest of the community.
Everyone was given the mitzvah of contributing to the common good. From the richest to the poorest in the community, all were expected to give something of what they had to support the community as a whole. In fact, the Torah created two different categories of giving: one category was the half shekel that everyone was commanded to contribute to the community regardless of their individual economic status, and the other category established that the amount of giving was dependent upon the degree of wealth and capacity of the giver.
The half shekel that was incumbent upon everyone allowed even the poorest of the Israelites to be equal to the richest and know that they were doing their part to support the common good of all. The second category of giving, called “tithing,” encouraged everyone to give ten percent of their income to support the community. Obviously, the more you have the more you are expected to give. Synagogues call this kind of giving “fair share” giving, where the expectation is that those who can afford to give more will do so in order to support those who have less to give. Every synagogue and every church only survives because of this kind of giving.
What the Torah teaches us is that no one is exempt from the obligation to give, including those who are themselves receiving help from the community.
This week’s Torah portion mentions that even the Levites, whose entire living came from the community’s contributions, were required to give one-tenth of what they were given to support the spiritual life of the community as well.
Obviously, we at KI, as with every other synagogue and church in the world, are deeply grateful to our members who willingly share their own financial success with others so that we can provide the religious education, spiritual and communal services, programs and celebrations that enrich the entire community. Even so, it takes much more than simply money to support a spiritual institution. Above all, what makes KI KI is that our members care about others, give of their time and energy, participate in positions of leadership, volunteer to work on committees, join with others to support tikkun olam projects that serve the community, participate in women’s groups and business networking groups, go to weekend retreats, or become part of the KI theater group that recently put on that fabulous version of “Guys and Dolls.” It is all of these and many other ways of participating in the daily life of the congregation that make our community strong.
Judaism has always been more about belonging than about belief, and our focus has always been on connecting to community and being part of something bigger than merely ourselves or our individual families. This Jewish value of community action and participation stretches back to the wisdom of the Torah and has become part of the very fabric of American society as well.
Believe it or not, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor, over 64.5 million people volunteered almost 8 billion hours of their time to nonprofit organizations, churches, synagogues and civic groups last year alone in the United States. This is an amazing statistic and reflects the true strength of what being part of a community is all about. Contrary to the image we sometimes have of America as a self-absorbed society, where “what’s in it for me” appears to be the most important value of all, Americans are, in actuality, the most generous and giving of any country in the world. We can be proud that our entire country’s foundation of communal participation and giving stretches back to the Torah that our ancestors wrote over 3,000 years ago and that those values continue to inspire all of us to this very day.
(Check out www.rebreuben.com, www.becomingjewishbook.com and www.interfaithrabbi.com for more commentaries, articles and books by Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben).
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