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Money


Written by the rabbi


לשיעור זה בעברית: תרומת מחצית השקל

This Shabat is parshat shekalim. Shekalim deals with money, with coins and with the obligation to donate a half-shekel annually for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Talmud teaches us that Moshe our teacher was shown on Sinai a coin made of fire. I always felt that the symbolism in these words of the rabbis lies in the fact that fire destroys and heals, burns and warms. Fire when it is controlled is the basic ingredient for the furtherance of comfort in human life and civilization. However when it is left unchecked and uncontrolled, as recent events in Australia and California currently proved, it is a destroyer of human life and property in a most vicious fashion. So too does the money have this quality. Used wisely it is the basis for good in this world. However when it is viewed as an end in itself and not as the means to better ends it is a very destructive force. It becomes an all encompassing and consuming passion that eventually justifies all sorts of immoral behavior, stealing, cheating and even killing. Money, like fire, is an essential ingredient for human life and prosperity. But again like fire it requires control, focus and a deep appreciation of the destructive forces that lurk within it if it is not properly harnessed and checked. The coin of fire that Moshe observed on Sinai represented this clear warning and lesson and that is why even today when the commandment of donating the half-shekel to the Temple is still not pertinent, the moral lesson lying behind this commandment certainly speaks to us and our current financial woes.

The ways of the Lord are inscrutable but somehow they are altogether just. I have no answer as to why so many wonderful Jews who were the mainstays of Jewish charity throughout the world should suddenly face varying degrees of financial reversal and ruin. There is no logical answer that I am aware of why the equity markets of the world should lose half of their value in such a short period of time. There is also no logical answer as to how Madoff could have swindled fifty billion dollars out of smart, astute, successful people and under the alleged scrutiny of regulatory agencies that supposedly checked him out and found nothing amiss. Again we are witness as to how Heaven disposes no matter whatever man proposes. Money has now taken on a more subdued role in our lives. It is no longer an end in itself - the accumulation of wealth for the sake of wealth itself; it is reduced now to be a necessary commodity to enable us to have food, shelter, medical care and other true necessities of life. The coin of fire has returned to haunt us and even to taunt us. What we felt was secure in our future is now exposed as being unstable and impossible to rely upon. Apparently the coin of fire should be held gingerly, with protective gloves and with holy purpose.
And even then there are no guarantees.

The rabbis of the Talmud also taught us that when there is general misfortune, the "angel of destruction" no longer differentiates between the righteous and the evil. This truism is certainly present in the present debacle. Righteous people who devoted their financial resources to help people in need, Torah institutions and the Jewish people generally have nevertheless suffered horrendous losses. Their ability to support others has been crippled. This is part of the great unknown that is being played out before our very eyes. The fire of the coin rages in all of its intensity and fire consumes everything in its path, good, bad or indifferent. Nevertheless, parshat shekalim is always bound together to the month of Adar. The Mishna teaches us that on the first of Adar the proclamation to pay the half-shekel was publicized. The month of Adar as we know from the story of Purim which highlights this month, is a month of unforeseen and unexpected reversals of fortune and circumstance. Even though it is highly unlikely that a dramatic turn for the better is in the near future we should recall that in life everything is possible, even if it is unlikely. But perhaps it will take us some time to internalize the message of the coin of fire so there will not be any sudden dramatic improvements forthcoming. In any event we should realize that the eternal message of parshat shekalim - of the coin of fire - remains valid and relevant to us in good and better times as well.


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