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Parashat Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol

March 29, 2012

By Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips


The future of life on earth depends upon whether we among the richest fifth of the world s people, having fully met our material needs, can turn to non-material sources of fulfillment.

Alan Durning, How Much Is Enough? (Worldwatch Institute, 1992)

Every year, I draw upon an ancient rabbinic ritual to transfer ownership of all hametz (leaven) in my home for the duration of Passover. Like many Jews, when I  œsell  my hametz before Passover, I actually  œbuy  a donation of ma ot hittin (portions of wheat) for those in need. This reminds me that preparing my home for the holiday includes concern for those outside my home.

Heshbon hanefesh, our Hebrew term for soul-searching, literally translates as  œsoul accounting.  The language of accounting connects the spiritual with the practical. As we move through the worst economic crisis in recent history, we are offered daily opportunities to consider how financial clarity can bring the power of holiness into our lives.

Shabbat HaGadol,  œthe Great Sabbath  just before Passover, brings this awareness home through the stirring words of the prophet Malachi (3:8-9), speaking in the name of God:

Will a human rob God? yet you rob Me; and you said: Of what have we robbed You? ”Of the ma aser (tithe) and the [free-will] contribution! With a curse are you cursed, and you rob Me ”this entire nation.

Classical rabbinic standards for tithing are well-known: 10 percent of income, with 20 percent considered  œa choice imperative.  By contrast, according to  œGiving USA 2011,  the most recent annual report by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University,

Americans contributed about 2 percent of disposable personal income to philanthropic causes, a number that has remained remarkably consistent over the [past four] decades, regardless of economic climate (emphasis added).

Tithing is the quantitative measure of tzedakah, or giving toward justice. Malachi s challenge is stark: to the extent that tithing is not a financial priority,  œthis entire nation  is implicated in robbery.

 œWith a curse are you cursed, and you rob Me ¦.  Perhaps this  œcurse  is one of distorted perception. According to the United Nations, net assets of only $2,200 place a household in the top half of the world s wealthiest. Despite the fact that we are, as Alan Durning notes,  œthe richest fifth of the world s people,  we generally do not recognize or take responsibility for this fact.

How can we stop robbing God? Nearly two millennia ago, the sage Ben Zoma defined wealth as the capacity for satisfaction with what we have:  œWho is rich? One who rejoices in one s own portion  (Avot 4:1). Holistically, Ben Zoma integrated this observation with three others relevant to our purposes: the wise is one who learns from every person; the hero is one who controls one s own impulses; and the honorable is one who honors creation and God s creatures.

In order to tithe responsibly, we need clarity about our discretionary spending. Taken together with the spiritual accounting of heshbon, Ben Zoma s four-fold teaching can guide us toward the best allocation of our disposable income. Each of us can learn to appreciate our abundance, to account for our expenditures, to discern which of our expenditures truly honor creation and God s creatures ”and to control our impulses regarding those expenditures that do not.

Lauren Tyler Wright, a former program manager at the Center on Philanthropy which publishes  œGiving USA,  describes the path to her own commitment in Giving ”The Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity (2008):

For an entire year, [my husband and I] kept all our receipts and entered them into a simple spreadsheet on the computer ¦.We saw exactly how we were spending our money ¦.[T]he result was that our spreadsheet of expenses and our budget for the coming year had become sacred documents ¦.Entering receipts into the computer had become a holy act.

If we approach our personal financial records as  œsacred documents,  we can draw upon the daily power of heshbon to heal and transform our world in ways previously unimaginable. Indeed, this is the promise of  œthe Great Sabbath  that God subsequently offers us through Malachi (3:10):

Bring the entire tithe into the storehouse, that there be food in My house, and so test Me in this, said the ETERNAL of all-forces ”if I will not open the gates of heaven and pour upon you blessing without limit.

As we prepare to begin the Passover seder with the traditional declaration  œLet all who are hungry come and eat,  may we accept God s challenge of tithing ”along with God s promise of limitless blessings.

 œThis year we are still slaves. Next year may we all be free. 


Rabbi Regina L. Sandler-Phillips, MSW, MPH, AJR  99, is the founder of WAYS OF PEACE, which promotes community justice and kindness through mindful responses to human needs throughout the life cycle. She dedicates this D var Torah to all the AJR students who accepted the spiritual challenge of heshbon in her course on  œJewish Ethics of Personal Finance  in the spring of 2007.