Thursday, 16 Feb 2023

Written by Eleanor Davis

If you can’t take it with you when you go…  where will you give it before you go?

Exactly a century ago, on 16 February 1923, Howard Carter unsealed the burial chamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun.  The outer rooms had been discovered nearly three months earlier, full of gold and other valuables, but finally, under the watchful eyes of the Egyptian authorities, the sealed inner door was opened.  It proved to lead to an inner burial chamber containing yet more valuables and the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun.  If you know little else about ancient Egypt, you’ll probably recognise the gleaming death mask that was eventually discovered there: the pharaoh’s head and shoulders rendered in stripes of gold and lapis lazuli, along with other semi-precious stones, plus more gold.

Tutankhamun’s tomb was remarkably intact after three thousand years or so, yet it was just that: a tomb.  Tutankhamun himself was a mummified presence, surrounded by extravagant visible signs of wealth that nonetheless couldn’t really accompany him across the threshold from life into death; whatever afterlife he entered, the valuables remained in this life to be found by determined grave robbers or archaeologists.  If even Egyptian pharaohs with unimaginable wealth and power couldn’t manage to take it with them when they died, perhaps it’s unsurprising that both the scrolls we read this Shabbat focus on what to do with our wealth in this world rather than in the next.

The special maftir reading that gives this Shabbat its name (Sh’kalim) contains instructions for the payment of a half-shekel by each male Israelite adult, as part of a census.  We quite rightly often focus on the essential equality of each human expressed by this equal payment: unlike other donation opportunities or sacrificial requirements, here the poor may not give less and the rich may not give more than a half-shekel per person.  The Vilna Gaon tugs our attention away from this to focus on a word within the opening commandment that describes what to do: “v’natnu ish kofer nafsho – each shall pay a ransom for himself” (Exodus 30:12), or more literally, ‘each shall give…’

In Hebrew, v’natnuvav nun taf nun vav – is a palindrome, reading the same from right to left or vice versa.  For the Vilna Gaon, this is a hint of something beyond this moment of donation, with the palindrome suggesting that a person who gives today may tomorrow need to receive.  This idea is uncomfortably familiar in our own times: the rapidly rising cost of living means that even if last year you were in a position to live comfortably and give to others, this year you might find yourself struggling and in need of financial help.

Financial straits can also lead a person to acts they would not otherwise do, as Ibn Ezra observes regarding two verses from Mishpatim, our regular calendar reading this Shabbat.  On the instructions “you must not eat flesh torn by beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs” and “you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness” (Exodus 22:30 and 23:1), he notes that these prohibited acts are ones to which a desperate person might be driven by poverty: to resort to meat fit only for other animals, or to accept a bribe to testify falsely.  Ibn Ezra therefore sees a connection with the earlier verse, “if you lend money to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor” (Exodus 22:24), as a reminder that the poor are like the orphan, the widow and the stranger: poverty makes them vulnerable and in need of protection, including the financial protection of extending credit to them.

On Shabbat Sh’kalim, however, we read of the obligation of rich and poor alike to donate a half-shekel, to be used for the upkeep of the Temple: it’s a relatively small amount, only a fraction more than the minimum tzedakah required to be given even by a poor person who can’t afford to give 10% of their income.  Why is it so important that everyone should give, and give equally, to this particular project?  Perhaps because it reminds us that our choices of where we give our money reveal what we truly value, that many small contributions can together achieve great things, and that to be able to give is a privilege that should not only belong to a wealthy few.  Small donations from all those who value something can help to bind together those who give into a community of people who each have a stake in the institution’s success: people who fulfil the palindromic promise of v’natnu by both giving to the institution and receiving benefit from it.

Each community thus sustained is a treasure richer than any of the wealth amassed in the burials of the ancient pharaohs; treasure worth cherishing and supporting, like our synagogues, our progressive Movements, and Leo Baeck College, each of which relies on our donations yet gives back at least as much that enriches our Jewish lives.  This week you may well be deluged with charity appeals, all seeking your half-shekel: may Shabbat Sh’kalim remind you of the power of whatever you can afford to give.


Eleanor Davis LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.