Shekels for City Year – Shabbat Shekalim

a sermon delivered by Rabbi Howard J. Goldsmith, March 4, 2011 – 29 Adar I 5771

There are a number of Sabbaths throughout the Jewish calendar that have special names. The most familiar of these is probably Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath of Return, which takes place between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. These special Sabbaths each serve a purpose, some historical, some still relevant today. Tonight begins Shabbat Shekalim, the Sabbath of Shekels. It takes place every year on the Shabbat before the month of Adar. It is named for a special verse of Torah read on this date which commands every Israelite to contribute half a shekel to support the sacrifices in the ancient Temple.

Now, the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE and, with its destruction, came the end of Jewish sacrificial worship. So the notion of a half shekel contribution to The Temple is an interesting historical idea, but, beyond that, seemingly irrelevant to our 21st Century lives. And yet, there were several things about this contribution which still resonate today.

First, this was a shared responsibility. The obligation to give a half shekel fell to each and every Israelite, regardless of income. The text reads: “The rich shall not pay more, and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” This shared tax must have led to a unique sense of unity and belonging among the Israelites.

Second, this money went to support what was considered the main institution which guaranteed the welfare of the Israelite nation. The Temple did not provide food or clothing … it provided something much more important: good relations with God which gave faith in the future. In that ancient Near East culture, nothing had the value of a good relationship with the Divine. They understood all blessings and the fulfillment of all needs as flowing from a powerful God. Sacrifices ensured that the power of God would be tempered with mercy. From the perspective of the Israelites, that half shekel tax was the first step to providing prosperity, safety and happiness to the entire nation … to providing hope for the future. In other words, no one could complain about this modest tax which ensured the future of the Israelites.

Why can’t the American people today have that same sense of commitment to the future? Why are we so willing to cavalierly cut programs which invest so much in the future of our country? Let me give you one example: City Year. City Year is a program supported in part by AmeriCorps, the national service program for new college graduates. Over 1,000 dedicated young men and women work for several years in underperforming schools. Their intervention in the lives of at-risk students has proven effective in boosting graduation rates and learning. Why does it matter?

“Because according to City Year, high school dropouts are three times more likely than college graduates to be unemployed, high school dropouts are eight times more likely to be in jail or prison than high school graduates, barely 50% of all African American students and less than 66% of Hispanic students will graduate with their class, and the more than 12 million students projected to drop out over the next decade will cost the nation $3 trillion in the coming decade.”

This is our future, we can either invest a little now through the equivalent of our half-shekel tax, or we’ll pay a lot later. These are the same issues of prosperity, safety and happiness and faith in the future that faced the ancient Israelites. They did not flinch from investing in their future and neither can we.

The Temples stood in Jerusalem for nearly 1000 years thanks in part to the collective commitment of the Israelites and their half shekel tax. That tax did a good job of ensuring their future for a millennium. What decisions will we make as a county of only 234 years? Will we continue to invest in our future through government funded programs like City Year? Or, will we risk everything for a short-term savings? On this Shabbat Shekalim, I pray that we have the fortitude to support those dedicated groups of people who make our nation better today and greater tomorrow.

Rabbi Howard J. Goldsmith is Rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester (New York).