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Parashat R’eih (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:12)

“Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you:

neither add to it nor take away from it.” (Deut. 13:1)

The Jewish press reports routinely on the high cost of Jewish living and its impact on engagement in Jewish life.  Membership in JCCs and synagogues, tuition for Jewish camps and schools, support for Jewish museums, cultural organizations and events all continue to spiral upward and price ever more families out of participation.  That is why every Jewish institution engages in fundraising:  the cost to provide the program is always more than what can be charged to the individual participant.  Historically, essential communal services were supported by a tax levied by the k’hillah, or community board, and each individual gave according to ability.

 The roots of this practice are found in Parashat R’eih:  “You shall set aside every year a tenth part of all the yield of your sowing that is brought from the field.” (Deut. 14:22).  The tithes support the Temple ritual, the Levites (who are landless), and the poor.  The Hebrew word for the tithe is “ma-aser,” and the command to tithe is “aser t’aser.”  Because the verb is doubled, the rabbis pay special heed to it.   They move the dot on the letter “sin” from the left to the right to create an interesting interpretation:  “You shall tithe (aser), so you may become wealthy (t’asher).  (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 119a)  Giving, according to the rabbis, is also getting.

It is easy to think when I give something away, I have less.  The rabbis reject  that kind of short-term, zero-sum approach because they recognize  the interconnected nature of Jewish communal life. When it comes to the common good, everybody gains when I give, myself included.

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