Thursday, 27 Feb 2014

Written by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn Harris

These are difficult times for a rabbi – so much going on in the world, so little going on in the Torah portion. This week we find ourselves in Pekudei, a small parasha that continues the detailed account of the assembly of the mishkan and its accoutrements that began last week in Va-Yakhel. In a good year, that is to say a non-leap year, these form a double parasha and what there is of sermon worthy material gets extracted in one week. In a leap year it falls to the rabbi to find two sermons’ worth of materials to spin out.

But without falling into the trap of being trite or derivative, it is a hard game. An allusion to London Fashion Week and the clothes make the high priest, perhaps?
How about the feng shui of the Tent of Meeting? Still, at least this Shabbat we have a second bite at the cherry, so to speak, as this week is the first of two special shabbatot that fall in advance of Purim. Oh, the joy of being absolved of speaking about the mishkan’s decor, when in fact one can speak instead about taxes!

Yes, on Shabbat Shekalim we read the passage from parashat Ki Tissa (which in theory we have read not more than a fortnight earlier) in Ex 30 that describes the half-shekel tax each Israelite was required to make to the mishkan and, later, to the Temple. It was a kind of ancient Poll Tax, in that anyone over the age of twenty who was entered into the census records was required to pay this half-shekel. The rich were not to pay more and the poor not to pay less – everyone, regardless of means, was, in the face of this tax at least, meant to pay equal amounts. And the money collected was to be used for the construction and later upkeep of the mishkan. Gripping stuff.

The haftarah is, perhaps, slightly more curious. Here we are treated to a story from II Kings 12 where King Jehoash of the southern kingdom of Judah, who is otherwise remarkable only for surviving Athaliah’s murderous rampage, sorts out funds for the repair and upkeep of the Temple. Having been erected some one-hundred and forty years early, the biblical record seems to imply that no one had been doing any substantive maintenance around the place. Jehoash decides that he is the man for the job and orders the priests to use the monies they get in – donations like the half-shekel tax, which up to now the priests have been using to look after themselves and their families. So now some portion of these monies is supposed to go to repairing the Temple. Surprise, surprise, tax reform is hardly ever that simple and twenty-three years later the Temple is still in dire need of some new flashing on the roof, re-pointing work to the architraves, and a fully accessible disabled ramp to the Holy of Holies.

At which point King Jehoash has a stern conversation with the Jehoiada the priest, the man who had made him king at age seven. In the end a compromise was reached – the priests would not collect Temple taxes anymore, but neither would they sort out the re-underpinning job to the Temple’s foundations. Instead, Jehoiada designed the first tsedaka box, taking an old chest, boring a hole in its lid and placing it to the right side of the altar at the entrance to the Temple, presumably alongside a large pile of antique Gift Aid (cunei)forms. Then, whenever the chest was full, the duly appointed auditors (read hear royal scribe and high priest) would turn up, count and record everything and pass it over to the project manager. And in due course the carpenters and stonemasons got paid and the Temple, finally, got a new lick of paint. Perhaps more amazingly the builders were never questioned about where the money went, because, according the Bible, ‘they dealt honestly.’ Well, somebody in this story had to.

So aside from learning that taxes, building works, and politics are never going to mix all that well into clear, effective policy decisions, what else might we learn? That builders are more honest than priests? That child-kings rarely have much political clout? That investing in maintaining infrastructure just isn’t that sexy? But maybe it should be.

King Jehoash might have taken twenty-three years to realise, but when the central pillars of society start to crumble, the leadership in charge do, too. And there is nothing more a pillar of a functional society than taxes and the things they build. For ancient Judah, maintaining the Temple was a means of maintaining the kingdom’s centrality in Israelite cult, the glue of their society. The question for us is what glues our society together? So far the halls of Westminster still seem to be standing, but much of what binds our society is today crumbling away.  Since at least the time of Beveridge report in 1942, one of the central buildings blocks of British society has been the insurance of welfare for all. We are a society with safety nets, where no one should be allowed to fall through the cracks into destitution through lack of employment, poor health or education, or age. The welfare state has been our moral construction and commitment to each other. We pay taxes, so that we might have a society that cares for its members.

And yet increasingly we don’t. Our politicians, like their ancient priestly counterparts, still eat well, but the edifices they created fall to pieces around them for lack of will, or moral fortitude, to maintain them. Do we require Jehoiada to come with his collection box before we wake up to what is happening? Or as citizens of a democracy shall we start to hold our politicians accountable for how they spend our taxes? I, for one, am ready to demand that my taxes be spent to maintain the welfare state, not to dismantle it. And that is a message I believe worthy of Shabbat Shekalim and the memory of our ancient commitment to our community that it preserves.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris
Principal of Leo Baeck College

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