06 March 2011

Love to Serve

cross-stitch by Barbara Bachman, 1964
One of the ideas that I tried to capture in my remarks on Friday evening at Shul was an idea I've been thinking about a lot lately:  Americans have too much of a sense of entitlement when it comes to their money, especially when it comes to their money and the government.  Long gone are the days--or so it sometimes seems--when one defined one's citizenship based upon the measure of how much one has given back to his or her country.  When President John F. Kennedy offered the idea to "ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country" we should have figured out that if he had to say it then, by then, the idea of selfless devotion to the ideals of a nation were already in a state of disrepair.  The facts of history always seem to precede our actual awareness of them.  By the end of the Vietnam War, the Selective Service had essentially been rendered non-functional and were it not for the efforts of Presidents Clinton and Obama in the face of recalcitrant Houses of Congress, programs like Teach for America and Americorps would be all but extinct, two of the embers left over from President Kennedy's and Sargent Shriver's vision for a post-World War II citizenship devoted to National Service.

While Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker attempts to dismantle collective bargaining; and state governments in nearly all fifty states fend off an organized assault on their budgets by those who would argue that government spending is an infringement on our rights as individuals; while Tea Party rallies facetiously borrow from history, rooting their anti-government accountability movement in the early American revolutionaries claim that "taxation without representation" is unjust; my mind pivoted this past Shabbat around the valiant and heroic sense of obligation that our ancestors expressed when it came to fulfilling God's command that in building a Sanctuary so that God may dwell among them:  each and every Israelite had to give their "half-shekel."  Their relationship to "taxation" was not only obligatory but religious as well.

Each and every one.  Rich and poor had to give.  And the Torah is quite clear that their giving was an "offering for God תרומת לה." And not only that, but in the act of giving, every person effectuated a "ransom of his soul unto the Eternal--איש כופר נפשו לה."

One was considered to have a relationship with their giving to the central sanctuary of Jewish life that demanded a sense of repentance and atonement in their giving.

This Devotion.  These Labors.  These Contributions--as Atonement--is what allowed God to fill the Tabernacle with the Divine Presence.  And as I read these words and considered these ideas I thought of the State Capitol in Madison; the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.  And our schools across the land that are being decimated by budget cuts.  Or even closer to home, the wide-range of reactions that people express with regard to giving money to the synagogue--for some, their tzedakah (whatever the amount) is the highest devotion they can express as Jews; for others, their money comes with anger and resentment.  The disparities are remarkable.

I consider paying taxes to be among the most sacred privileges we have as Americans.  Ever mindful as I am about what the money goes toward.  The public education that schooled my grandparents, parents, myself and now my children; the police and fire departments which protect us from danger; the military which secures our borders; and the social infrastructure to support the poor and the needy and the defenseless, a promise we make to our deepest ideals, to the moral architecture of who we are meant to be.  Not to mention the maintenance of the roads we drive upon with our sacred chariots.  The all-pervasive sense of complaint about our personal devotion to our money is misguided.  It is not the highest expression of our society's aspirations and our Torah portion from this past Shabbat, the last of the Book of Exodus, the eternal narrative of our national liberation, teaches us Americans something.

We Jews learn from the Torah and have the opportunity to remind ourselves and our fellow citizens that the Divine Presence dwells among us when our material devotions match our moral aspirations--when we say we believe we ought to be free and are willing to pay the price for that freedom by, well, paying for it.

We want to be a great country?  We need to pay for great schools and great teachers.   We want to be a great country?  We need to be proud to demand that our citizens serve, like older generations did, and show a willingness not only to live but to die, if not "give one's life" for one's country.

Last night I had the occasion to speak to a former U.S. Marine from Sheepshead Bay who is now an undercover police officer at a local Brooklyn precinct.  After serving in the Marines for 4 years and completing two tours of duty in Iraq (where several of his friends lost their lives) he moved back home, joined the NYPD, and works a shift til 4 am most days in order to keep us safe.

Why do you do it?  I asked.

"It's simple:  I love to serve," he said.

God calls the Jewish people and asks for them to devote themselves to the Oneness of the God and all Humankind.  "Hear O Israel:  The Eternal is Our God, the Eternal is One."  And then the first word that follows this declaration:  "Love.  You shall love--with all your heart, all your soul, all your might.

We Americans are desperately in need of that kind of devotion to our own national enterprise, before we get gobbled up by the corporations and our digital media telecommunications devices. 

I love to serve God and country.  Do you?


Anonymous said...

Retired from the US Army, and I concur with your thoughts.....

Tim Lowe said...

"I consider paying taxes to be among the most sacred privileges we have as Americans."

Love your post, Rabbi Bachman.

When I argue with my friends and family about the necessity of paying (higher) taxes, they usually blame it on my "Continental European mindset" - which is true.

But the construction of the Mishkan teaches us that we are in it together, bound together by common goals and beliefs - and everybody has got to pay up.


EK said...

Hi Rabbi,
That the rich and the poor were both required to give equally must have been helpful to the cohesiveness of that group camping in the desert. Since all give the same, there couldn't have been resentment about amounts.
With all these budget problems taxation has become a huge divider in this country. Already the tax code is very complicated and the amount each taxpayer is variable because of different rates, "loopholes", different accounting practices, etc. So when the budgets and the taxes are up in the air as to what the new laws will be, different groups (rich vs poor, private employee vs public) will be either winners and losers. And that is leading to the big fights we're seeing.
Do you think a flat tax may be the way to move forward and get the opposing groups to compromise on how taxes and budgets are determined?
I know everyone can't pay the same amount, but paying the same percentage seems the fairest way to pay for the things that are for the common good.
If everyone had to pay the same percent, each would be investing the same, and instead of people thinking the "other" is trying to screw them over, all the people would investing together, giving as one group to solve our common problems.
What do you think? Thanks

Anonymous said...

i enjoyed the column VERY much! meaningful and well-written. Why is our culture so obsessed with money though? And i believe not only pride & good feelings can be attained by giving back but happiness too