This Shabbat begins a season of fun and excitement in our Jewish calendar. Not only are we on the brink of welcoming Adar 2, the result of our solar-lunar calendar’s leap year, but we enter into a season of textual, emotional, and ritualistic build up leading us to Purim and then into Passover. Suddenly, almost everything we do becomes, either subtly or overtly, about these two holidays. This season is special enough, that nearly every Shabbat has a special name, now not only named for the weekly Torah portion, but for the additional Torah and Haftarah portion as well.
The Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar (or Rosh Chosesh Adar Bet in a leap year) is called Shabbat Shekalim, drawing special attention to the half-shekel tax levied on the Israelites, in part as a tool to take a census of the wandering community. The special Haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim also focuses of the collection of money during the reign of King Jehoash of the kingdom of Judah (2 Kings 12:1-17) to complete regular maintenance on the Temple in Jerusalem.
King Jehoash was very young when he ascended to the throne, only seven years old, but still managed to please God throughout his reign with the help of Jehoiada the priest. They realized that the money the priests were collecting for Temple repairs was not being used for this task. In order to rectify the error Jehoiada set a chest with a hole in its top next to the altar in the Holy Temple, and every time a priest entered the Temple, they would drop in some money, thus paying the carpenters and workers who maintained the Temple.
Essentially, Jehoiada created a tzedakah box.
Usually, when we think of a tzedakah box, we don’t necessarily think of collecting money to pay workers. Rather, we tend to think of charitable donations, of using our spare change or a dollar bill to support a philanthropic cause. But closer examination of the word tzedakah might give us different insight into this mitzvah. Tzedakah come from the root צ.ד.ק. (tzadee, daled, koof) meaning justice or righteousness. Many of us are familiar with another form of the word – tzedek – from the phrase, “tzedek, tzedek tirdof;” justice, justice, shall you pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20).
Our collection of tzedakah and our pursuit of tzedek are inherently connected. Every coin collected is intended to be used to create a more just world, a world imbued with equity, integrity, well-being, and righteousness. Even a single penny is to be used for the higher purpose of tikkun olam, repairing the world. And, as King Jehoash discovered, even those called to serve that higher purpose can confuse the true purpose of tzedakah.
Unfortunately, all of us have seen how money, its collection and distribution, can be used to distract from the pursuit of justice. There are those in our modern society who use their wealth to influence, solicit, bribe, and confound. There are those who hoard their financial resources to the detriment of others, who prefer to use their dollars on superficial wants rather than on the necessities of basic living. There are those with ideas of charitable giving, but not without ulterior motives.
But we’ve also seen how people, with justice and righteousness in mind, choose to use their money for the better. How people can build up structures, services, communities, and individuals rather than break them down. How groups can join together to vote and make their voices heard. How societies can focus on the welfare of those easiest to ignore and provide for those most susceptible to cycles of poverty.
Each of us knows the power that money holds, and that power can distract from our true purpose.
There is a story told of the Wise Men of Chelm, who one morning discovered that a thief had broken into the synagogue and stolen the tzedakah box and its contents. “An outrage,” they called it. “We must never allow this to happen again!”
They spend the rest of the morning discussing and debating how to prevent another theft. They came up with plan after plan, dismissing each for one reason or another. Until, finally, someone suggested, “We must install a new tzedakah box, but this time we will hang it from the roof. That way no thief will be able to reach it!”
“A fantastic idea!” they exclaimed, “A wonderful plan!”
“But wait,” cried a voice from the back of the room. “If we hang the box from the roof, how will anyone who wants to give tzedakah be able to reach it?”
“True, true,” said the wise men. “Of course, there will be people who wish to give tzedakah. We must make it so they can reach the box.”
And so, they installed a new tzedakah box, right where they said they would, hanging from the highest rafters of the roof. Underneath it they placed a ladder for anyone who wished to donate with a sign: “This box is for donations only, not theft.”
From time to time, even those with the best intentions can become so focused on a problem that we lose sight of our purpose. All the more so when money is involved. But when that happens, we can correct our course with a simple reminder. Take a closer look at the tzedakah boxes that you might otherwise walk right by. Maybe it is artistically crafted or painted, to remind you of a piece of your history or the beauty of the world. Maybe it’s one that you made and is covered in photos or the work of those whom you love. Maybe it is inscribed with a quote or verse, inspiring you to always strive to commit yourself to a greater purpose. Maybe it simply has one word on it, reconnecting you to the pursuit of the most powerful and longest lasting use of your spare change. Maybe it says “tzedakah;” “charity,” “righteousness,” “justice.”