1. SHABBAT SHALOM
2. Shabbat Shekalim always falls just before the beginning of the last month of the Jewish Year. We are used to thinking that Tishri, the month of Rosh Hashana is the new year, but the Torah considers the month of our independence, Nisan, the month of Pesach, as the real first month. Shabbat Shekalim always falls on the Shabbat before Adar, or second Adar when we are in a leap year.
3. As we enter the last month of the year, we are reminded that taxes are due. The Torah teaches us that every adult Jew owes one half shekel at the end of every year. This Shabbat is our reminder that this tax is due. It was a flat tax on every adult and it served not only to fund the Temple but as a way of counting citizens. It was the same tax for the rich and poor alike and so by counting the money, we would know how many adult taxpayers were in the country.
4. There actually are many different kinds of taxes in Judaism. Maaser was the first ten percent of the crops that were due to the priests. Every third year there was a tax that would go to the poor. There was a tax of the harvest that was supposed to be transported and consumed in Jerusalem to improve the economy in the Holy City. First fruits from a tree and the first born of animals were to be given to the Temple. Kings in Israel could impose a labor tax; not money but a certain number of days that able bodied men or women would be required to perform state functions. What we would call “Charity” today is not so much a voluntary contribution but a requirement of God that we owe those in need in our community. That is why it was called, Tzedakah, or “Justice” because turning your back on the helpless and poor was considered injustice and a sin.
5. From ancient times to the present, taxes have always been a source of controversy and sometimes pain. The kingdom of Solomon was divided over the high taxes his son wanted to impose on the people of Israel. Jews in the ghettos of Europe were often taxed to pay the salaries of those that would oppress them. Americans fought our Revolutionary War over the problem of taxation without representation. In Israel today, there are those who criticize Israel because some Orthodox Jews who pay little or no taxes seem to get a disproportionate amount of tax dollars to support themselves and their yeshivot. The proverb teaches us that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. The difference between death and taxes though, is that death does not get any worse every time Congress meets!
6. Taxes today are a big part of our news. Ever since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, taxes have been labeled very bad by our political leaders. It is a common belief that we pay too much money in taxes and that the government wastes our money so we never get any tax money returned. I remember well the first time my daughter got a paycheck. She called me that day and asked me about taxes. She had no idea that taxes would be taken out of her paycheck. She had counted on her salary but not on the payroll deductions. She understood the concept but was not happy about how it reduced what she had hoped to earn.
7. Unlike the flat tax of the Bible, most taxes in this country are “progressive” taxes. The more you earn the more taxes you pay. A greater burden of taxes are thus collected from those who can afford to pay them. Judaism teaches us that even the poor need to give Tzedakah, but clearly the mitzvah / obligation of giving Tzedakah is greater the more money we have. I like to remind my students that if somebody earns $10,000, and has to pay 10% in taxes, or $1000, that is a huge bite out of the money he has earned. On the other hand, a person who earns 10 million dollars, and has to pay 10% in taxes, has to pay a million dollars in taxes, but since he still has nine million in the bank, it has not cramped his style at all.
8. Taxing the rich therefore has always been a favorite target in Congress. Those who have more, pay more. It is a simple system and it has only one major problem. It is a lot less interesting to tax the rich when we start to earn enough to be a part of that club. Rich people spend a lot of their money on finding ways not to pay taxes. Sometimes these deductions are legitimate and the tax savings are legal. Sometimes these deductions are not legitimate and the failure to pay taxes on the money is criminal. Judaism is very clear on the subject of taxes. We are entitled to every legitimate tax deduction possible. Jewish law, however, does not let us refuse to pay legitimate taxes owed. We have a religious duty to pay what we owe and to pay it on time. This is not only a law for the rich, but a law for all of us. The price of living in this country is the taxes we pay.
9. The other side of the tax discussion is what we spend our taxes on. Judaism has its laws regarding what a government is supposed to provide. Government provides us with safety and security, it must help those who are poor, punish those who break the law, regulate business so that nobody can claim an unfair advantage over another and provide for schools, hospitals and other public services. If we depend on a public service, we must also be prepared to pay taxes to support it. This week a group of Christian ministers wrote an article for a newspaper that federal, state and local budgets should be “moral documents”. The article was the source of much discussion on the radio this week. Should religious values and morals have a place in our budget debate? The reporters were claiming a separation of church and state made certain that religious values not be considered in the deliberations of government. But we forget that the separation of church and state only goes one way, government is not allowed to spend tax money on religious institutions of any kind, but religion can advise our representatives on what our priorities should be.
10. Budgeting, for a family, for a synagogue, for a state and for the federal government is all the same. A budget always reflects our values. What we value most, we make sure is funded in our budget. That which is of little value, is pushed to the back. Classic budget battles are over which programs we value most. In the case of the federal budget, do we value defense spending over heating oil for poor families? In a state budget, we can argue about paying more for teachers or for police officers. Creating a budget is always about weighing the different values we have and assessing a price tag for each one.
11. If your family budget is anything like mine, there are two types of budget items. Those that are fixed and those that are discretionary. I do not have much control over my electric or water bill. Unless I am prepared to do without air conditioning and hot water, there is really little I can do to make these expenses lower. Discretionary income, like my bill for cable television and my credit card bill, I have more direct control over. The only problem is that they represent only a small part of my budget. If we really want to control our budget, we will have to directly face the major expenses. We may have to move into a less expensive home. We may have to purchase a more modern air conditioner that is more energy efficient. We may have to replace our toilet and shower head to consume less water. We may have to drive less to get a handle on the ever increasing cost of gasoline. For most of our budget, we will have to make some serious changes to our lifestyle if we hope to get our spending really under control.
12. Government has pretty much the same problems. Most of what they need to cut would require great changes in the way American’s live their lives. Should Social Security be for everyone or only for seniors who have no other retirement plan? Should the government take more control of healthcare to contain health costs? How much defense spending is too much, which military equipment is necessary for our troops and which items are expensive wastes of money? Much of government’s discretionary spending is such a small part of the budget, it is almost useless to try and use it to reduce the deficit unless we are talking a ten to twenty year time frame.
13. Budget battles get nasty when, as in the case of the State of Wisconsin, one side tries to undermine the values of the other. Minorities often filibuster or shut down government to secure some compromises from the majority party. When there is a spirit of cooperation, a budget battle rarely will cause much confrontation. But in these days of toxic relations between parties, nobody wants to compromise an inch, and the only people happy are the news media who get a juicy story to cover. I think, however, that I would have more compassion for the governor in this battle if had not, just before he presented his budget, given the rich in his state a huge tax reduction. If he is so determined to balance the budget, why does he feel the need to do it off the backs of public employees?
14. There is a lot of talk these days of tight budgets to change our tax structure to something fairer and simpler. A value added tax may make more sense than a regressive sales tax that is a greater burden on the poor. Eliminating all deductions on Federal Income Tax would insure that everyone would pay taxes and they would be lower for everyone. Taxes have to be high because so many people take advantage of all the deductions. If we remove the deductions and everyone would pay their fair share, then it would mean we would not need to tax at such a high rate. Tax deductions are the way our representatives show us that they are looking out for our needs. Demanding services and then expecting to have exemptions so we don’t have to pay for them is bad budgeting and part of the reason that we are in so much tax and budget trouble today.
15. The half shekel tax for the Temple is no longer collected. The Temple was destroyed two thousand years ago and the need to support it stopped. The early Zionist movement talked about using the half shekel as a membership fee to bring about the redemption of Israel. It has long been a custom on Purim to give a half dollar as a symbolic half shekel to provide for the synagogue or for the poor. The half shekel may no longer be an official tax but it still can do much good in the world, from support of Israel to strengthening our local Jewish community. Complaining about taxes may be our favorite occupation but taxes can do a world of good in our lives and for the world. In ancient times as well as in our modern era, the problem is not about the money, but in the way people feel about it.
May God help us to use our taxes wisely to bring peace and prosperity to our nation and may we gladly pay for the government that we need and for the protection that it secures on our behalf. May our taxes no longer be a source of contention or strife, but the doorway to a better life for all as we say….
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM