I have a complicated and ambivalent relationship with money. As an early career professional, it was important to me that my salary increased as I continued to excel in my work (although it does not necessarily work that way in non-profits). As a single mother to two children, money was a constant source of stress and anxiety in a very real way. Now, as a Jewish Federation professional, raising money and allocating dollars are a core function of my responsibilities. That is why this week's Torah portion of Ki Tisa is particularly validating for me. Our people have a long, complicated history with money and possessions.
We learn at the beginning at this parsha that each of the Israelites is commanded to contribute a half shekel (of silver) to the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle. Just a few chapters ago in Exodus, we read that the Israelites contributed other materials to the construction of the mishkan "from every man whose heart impels him to give (Exodus 25:2)" - meaning, whoever and whatever amount. But when it comes to the contribution of silver, each of the Israelites must give equally: "the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel (Exodus 30:15). Why is there a demand of an exact amount now? We learn that the silver half shekel serves as atonement for the souls of the Israelites, and therefore, each individual must be represented equally.
It is also in this parsha that Moses ascends to the top of Mt. Sinai to receive the tablets of the Ten Commandments. While Moses is atop the mountain for some time, the people get impatient and construct a golden calf from their jewels to worship. This is a poor move on the part of the Israelites and we know what happens from here. God gets angry at the people and Moses has to convince God to give the Jews another chance. This too is a plot we have heard before (i.e. Abraham).
What intrigues me is the complexity that money and possessions play in the history of our people. At times it is meaningful to give at whatever level you are moved to do so, and at other times, we are commanded to contribute equally. And the incident of the golden calf can also serve as a lesson of how the value of our possessions can be misconstrued with inappropriate value. Be warned. Money and possessions do not hold spiritual relevance or value.
How much more confusing is the society in which we live that is constantly bombarding us with the values of iPhones, high performing cars and gadgets our grandparents could never have imagined! We live in a world where some people have mobile phones but not health insurance. How do we comprehend that?
For me, the message of the half shekel is not only about atonement (of which none of us can claim we do not need), but it is also about collective responsibility. We live in a community, and therefore, each of us needs to take responsibility for the needs of the community. Not one of us can opt out of that responsibility. While each of us may contribute different values, we each need to give of ourselves and our resources. We each need to give that half-shekel.
Chief Executive Officer
Jewish Federation of San Antonio