Who's YOUR Business Partner?

Maybe you want to come hang out with me and Songleader Extraordinaire Shana Eisenberg on Shabbat morning AT PRIDE! There will be an ASL Interpreter & glutenous and gluten-free challah!
Saturday June 23, 2018 | 10am-11:30/12 | Loring Park Greenway
Go here to find more information about the event and to let us know if you might be joining us.
That will help us make sure we have enough copies for everyone. Sponsored by JPRIDE!
If you are going to shul or synagogue for Pride Shabbat, that's fabulous!
Please wish everyone a Chag Pride Sameach for me!

KORACH: NUMBERS 16:1 - 18:32
16 JUNE 2018 / 3 TAMUZ 5778

This parsha, Korach,named for the person who led a rebellion against Moses, against the leadership in the wilderness – and who, it must be said, God caused to be swallowed up by the earth with all of his followers . . . this parsha includes the commandments about tithing – ma’aser. A tithe is 10%. Ma’aser rishon  - the first tithe – was given to a Levite. Unlike terumah, the portion given to a kohain  - a priest in the Temple - that could only be eaten by a kohain and his family, the first tithe is purely secular food. It may be eaten by anyone. Out of the tithe given to a Levite, the Levite was obligated also to take a contributionfor the kohanim. The kohanim were obligated to separate out tithes as well.

Why? Why these contributions to the kohanim and the Levites? If it is the community that is supporting them, why must they also take out 1/10thfrom what they receive to give to others? And what might tithing have to do with leadership?

Rabbi Tsvi Shpitz of Jerusalem quotes Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664 – 1736) and teaches that the 1/10thwas separated out because it was never theirs. A person, he taught, is God’s business partner. Financially, it’s not a 50/50 partnership. Even though within this worldview everything a person gains in the world comes from God, God is a 9/10thstakeholder. That works out well because with God as a minority partner in the business, God has an interest in seeing you prosper – when you do well, God’s causes also benefit.

To be clear, this giving isn’t tzedakah. The Talmud in Bava Metzia says to fulfill that obligation one must give at least 1/3 of a shekel. But a few thousand years ago, a half shekel represented two days wages for the average worker – so giving two days of one’s wages might be a better way to fulfill this mitzvah.

And hold up, we are also commanded not to turn our eyes away from someone experiencing poverty or homelessness, so there is an open-ended obligation to help wherever it is needed. Indeed, I’ve learned over the years since I first witnessed my good friend Kiely hand a granola bar through her driver’s side window that being seen often means as much to the person on the other side of the window as the snack. Since then, keeping bottles of water and protein bars at the ready gives me an excuse to roll down my window and offer a quick greeting and eye contact. 

Of course, there is matanot l’evyonim, too – giving gifts of food to people who are in need - one of the four mitzvotof Purim so that everyone can share in the joy of the holiday. It may be custom and not commandment, but when we fast on Yom Kippur many of us donate the value of the food we would have eaten so that we do not accrue financial benefit from our fast. 

Still, the Big Matzoh Ball (It’s not racialization or appropriation if it’s yours, right?) is the obligatory charitable donation in this week’s parsha. 

“To the descendants of Levi, I am now giving all the tithes (ma’aser) in Israel as an inheritance. This is exchange for their work, the service that they perform in the Tent of Meeting.” (Num. 18:21-22)

Coming just after the story of Korach, these contributions to support those who serve the community might serve as buy-in. The people are investing in their leadership. Perhaps they serve as to build more of a connection between the leadership and the people, reminding the leaders that they need the people for their very sustenance. 

And why must the Levites and the kohanim also take out the tenth? Well, on the one hand, even as they are elevated in some ways, they are equal in others. Their obligation is on par with the obligation of the people. They are not above giving from their own income. 

In Genesis 28:22, long before we were liberated from Egypt, long before we built a tabernacle in the desert, and long before the Temple in Jerusalem, long before there were Levites and kohanim, Jacob said to God, “and of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth to You.”

What does this mean for us? Again we live in a world without priests serving in the Temple. We aren’t collecting tithes to support the Levites. How do we support the people who serve in our communities? If we are leaders serving in the community, how do we understand our responsibility to give from what we receive? If what we reap goes beyond financial support, what is our obligation to share it? If God is our business partner, invested in the work we do, how does that inform the work we do? 

And what relationship do we have to the tension between Korach and Moses, and how can we employ ma’aserto help maintain connection and balance between leaders and the people being served?

As always, more questions than answers. We are Jews.

Of course there is practical help out there. What is 10%? Are there exemptions? Deductions? Gross or net? The rabbis offer guidance and there is even an online ma’aser calculator into which we can enter our tax information and answer a few questions and get a precise result for our ma’aser obligation. 

At the end of the day, though, in our era, as progressive Jews, and as people, it’s up to us to figure out how much should we share, and how should we share it. Whatever our answers, as I prepare to launch into being an independent rabbi in just a few weeks, predominantly outside the walls of a synagogue, not directly connected with any organization, wanting to serve our community without the benefit of a salary, I will be relying on people being ready to support the programs and classes and services I offer financially as well as theoretically or spiritually. I'm already grateful. I promise I will also be continuing to hold myself responsible for financially supporting our community - tithing - and giving tzedakah as well.