|cross-stitch by Barbara Bachman, 1964|
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?