Friday, February 28, 2014

Who invented the tzedakah box? (For Shabbat Shekalim)

When my oldest daughter was about 1 ½, she was toddling around our home and found a coin on the floor.  Noticing this, we were a little alarmed - coins, of course, are choking hazards, and toddlers should stay far away from them.  We ran over to take it away from her, but we quickly realized we didn’t have to - because she was carrying the coin over to the tzedakah box - the charity coin box into which we drop coins.

Then we realized:  weeks and weeks of giving her coins to put in the tzedakah box as we start shabbat each week, were now paying dividends.  Now, when she found some money, her first instinct was to donate it, rather than to spend it.

(OK, I have no illusions that this act was an act of real insight and generosity.  But my wife and I were happy that our first introduction to our child to the world of currency and commerce was in the context of using money to help people.)

Tzedakah boxes are on my mind because of the story we read in this week’s haftarah.  It’s a special shabbat called Shabbat Shekalim, that takes place every year about 6 weeks before Passover.  This haftarah talks about the creation of the very first tzedakah box.

We might not normally think of a tzedakah box as an object that had a particular history and was invented at a particular moment in time.  What is a tzedakah box, after all?  It’s a box that makes it easy to put money in, but hard to take money out.  Usually it’s a locked box with a slot at the top.  

This is the story we read each year on this shabbat, from the Book of Kings.  The haftarah begins by mentioning that King Jehoash was seven years old when he began to be king of the kingdom of Judah.  You can probably guess that when someone becomes a king at age seven, there’s probably a tragic element to the story, and there is in this case:  King Jehoash’s father, King Ahaziah, was assassinated, together wtih his entire family, except that the young boy Yehoash was hidden away, which is how he survived to become king.  You can also probably guess that he didn’t fulfill all the affairs of state immediately at age seven.  Rather, he had a regent - an adult who supervised him, the High Priest Yehoyada, who was essentially fulfilling most of the functions of the king until Yehoash became old enough to take them on himself.

When Yehoash became older, he became aware of a financial scandal in ancient Israel: the priests in the Temple had been collecting a lot of donations in order to do some necessary repair work on the Temple, but the repair work never seemed to get done, and the temple was in terrible disrepair.  So Yehoash is upset - and he confronts Yehoyada, his former mentor, who is still the High Priest, and says:  מדוע אינכם מחזקים את בדק הבית?    Why are you not maintaining the proper condition of the Temple, especially considering how much money you have received in donations to do so?

Yehoyada and the other priests sheepishly acknowledge that there has been mismanagement of funds - perhaps not intentionally, but funds that were devoted to one purpose, for building repairs, were actually used for different purposes.  As a response to the King’s critique, Yehoyada takes a box and cuts a small hole in the top.  Donations are to be put in the box, and no one can remove anything from the box except in the presence of the High Priest and the royal scribe,
so that there is an exact accounting of what donations have come in for the purpose of the repair of the temple.  That’s the first tzedakah box, invented by the high priest Yehoyada, in response to the critique of young King Yehoash.

Whenever I read this story,  I am impressed at the self-confidence of King Yehoash, who is willing to challenge his mentor, the High Priest Yehoyada, when he feels that an ethical breach is being committed.  And I am also impressed at the way that Yehoyada responds, though being an elder, taking the critique into account and modifying his behavior, and enacting a new system that will permit a higher standard of ethical oversight.  And it makes me proud that the Jewish people that is especially known for charitable giving actually invented this minor piece of technology that we still use today, such that it was my daughter’s first introduction to money.

Today, of course, the way we give tzedakah has changed.  Coins do add up- but people who are really serious about tzedakah are doing it with bills, and checks, and automatic transfers. (A couple of years ago, an Israeli TV program that does satire sketch comedy had a parody of the Birthright Israel programs for American Jews to visit Israel, and the skit included a classic Jewish National Fund “blue box” tzedakah box, but with a credit card reader attached to it.)  

And our tzedakah priorities might also have changed - and broadened.  Of course the most classic, paradigmatic, type of tzedakah is assistance to needy individuals.  We also recognize the need to support institutions that do good work - even to create spaces like the Temple in Jerusalem, or this synagogue, as places for the community to gather to support one another. For centuries, it was most likely that Jews would give tzedakah to other Jews.  How could it be otherwise?  with Jews and non-Jews living in non-stop strife in most of the world, was it conceivable that non-Jews would ever give charity to Jews?  So Jews fended for themselves. Whereas today, our circumstances are different.  Not that hatred of Jews no longer exists -- it is a virulent phenomenon in many parts of the world -- but most Jews have a growing acknowledgment that there ought to be a balance in our tzedakah giving.  Many are more aware now of the problem of dire global poverty, and dire poverty at home, and that many of us are in a position to do something about it, unlike many of our ancestors who felt that they needed to conserve all their resources for specifically Jewish needs.

But more significant than the changes in charitable giving over the centuries, are the continuities between our ancient texts and our contemporary responsibilities. More than 800 years ago, in his famous “Eight Levels of Tzedakah,” Moses Maimonides urged that as much of one’s tzedakah giving as possible be dedicated to addressing root causes of poverty, to help people to extricate themselves from poverty or not fall into poverty, rather than simply providing for their needs when they are impoverished.  He also sensibly counseled that charitable funds, when they are run effectively, are usually a better way to give tzedakah than direct payments to individuals, because of the embarrassment that such direct donations can engender.  Today, we might add that many individuals in need of financial assistance today can benefit from being in the orbit of organizations that can help them to address issues of addiction, illness, and other factors that make it difficult for them to thrive.  

May the donation box created by the High Priest Yehoyada continue to inspire us to live according to the Jewish values of generosity and accountability that have always been the hallmarks of the authentic practice of tzedakah.