Many people think to themselves, “I’m just getting by. When my ship comes in, then I’ll give charity big time.” Such folks are missing out on the great gift of fulfilling their obligation. And maybe, just maybe, their ship won’t come in until they tithe!
Table for Five: Korach
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Speak to the Levites and say to them: When you receive from the Israelites their tithes, which I have assigned to you as your share, you shall set aside from them one-tenth of the tithe as a gift to the LORD. Num. 18:26
Rabbi Natan Halevy, Kahal Joseph Congregation
Hashem tells the Levites ‘I am your portion and your share.’ As a reward for their dedicated service in the Tent of Meeting, the Levites received the tithe gift from all of Israel. The word for tithe in Hebrew, “Ma’aser” is connected to “Asiri” which means tenth. The word also spells Ashir, signifying ‘wealth.’ The Zohar teaches that this tithe is connected to the Shechina, the divine presence and the kindness it embodies. By giving a tenth of their tithe to the Kohanim, the Levites draw the kindness of the Shechina even further into the world. While this tithe is given to the Kohanim, the Torah calls it “a gift to Hashem.” Why is the Levites’ contribution considered a gift to Hashem? Our forefather Jacob promised a tenth of all his possessions to Hashem, including his children. He counted backwards from Benjamin, making Levi the tenth. The angel Gabriel brought Levi to heaven to be sanctified by Hashem.
The Levites were dedicated to teaching and uplifting the entire nation; their music and singing in the temple elevated the spirituality of the people, bringing them closer to Hashem. Maimonides states that it is not only the Levites that are sanctified but “rather each well-informed, thinking person whose spirit moves them to devote themselves to the service of Hashem, to know Hashem, and walk uprightly, is indeed divinely consecrated, and the Lord will forever and ever be his portion.” May we all merit to experience this faith and spirituality in our lives.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Vice-President of Community Engagement for Board of Rabbis of Southern California
What new skills have you acquired during quarantine?
Although the Levites were supported by tithes, they still were obligated to tithe themselves. Only by giving away a tenth of their income, could they appreciate others’ sacrifices that sustained them. By doing the charity work themselves, they learned its value.
Recently, many of us inadvertently learned this spiritual lesson. Due to business closures, we assumed tasks we’d previously delegated. By learning new skills, we now appreciate their difficulty.
The pandemic-induced isolation dismantled the usual support systems for families – especially childcare. During World Wars I and II, women were recruited into jobs vacated by men deployed overseas. This phenomenon broke down gender roles as women entered the workforce. Perhaps, this war against the Coronavirus will also result in greater egalitarianism as more men work from home and therefore do more household tasks and child-rearing.
Kids now are also working harder than ever to help their overworked parents. My thirteen-year-old daughter cut the hair of our family, cooked the whole Seder, and bakes challah each Friday. Perhaps, like the Levites, taking on new tasks will cause greater appreciation for the work others usually do for us and the sacrifices they make.
This Father’s Day week, here’s to all the wonderful dads who have stepped up and are working harder than ever to hold their families together. And here’s to all the children who are helping their stressed parents. May our kids be inspired and learn to become even better parents themselves someday!
Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Shalom Hartman Institute
John Locke famously said that all people are entitled to three fundamental natural rights: “life, liberty, and property.” Our verse denies this fundamental property right to an entire tribe of Israel. The Levites serve God, the Israelites, and the Temple, yet they are precluded, generation after generation, from owning property. Because they could not be sustained by land, they were sustained by the offerings that the Israelites brought to the Temple.
We know historically that property ownership meant livelihood, shelter, and security. For hundreds of years in the European diaspora, Jews were not allowed to own land, hindering economic opportunity and social acceptance. While the Torah tries to mitigate the risks, the inability to own land still puts the Levites at a disadvantage. And yet, they are still required to give a portion of their offerings as a gift to God. Despite the fact that they serve the community, despite the fact that they are precluded from owning land, Levites are not exempt from tithing.
The Torah teaches an important principle by requiring charity even from those who are disadvantaged. Giving tzedakah is a universal obligation and a fundamental tenet of a moral life. This is an important lesson, particularly right now. Our future feels uncertain, and there has been a lot of loss. This verse reminds us that, even with the loss and uncertainty, we are obligated to help out where we can. Even now, and perhaps particularly now, don’t forget the essential role tzedakah plays in our lives.
Justin Levi, President, The Community Shul
The Torah makes a distinction between two types of contributory acts – tzedaka (charity), and ma’aser (tithes). Tzedaka, which is personally oriented, is the act of giving to someone in need. Ma’aser, which is societally oriented, is the act of supporting communal institutions.
In Biblical times, this required portion, or tithe, was given to the Levites as the representatives of the society. But then, something strange happens. The Levites, the very recipients of the tithes, are required to give their own tithe “to the L-rd.” At that point in history, this was virtually unheard of – the leadership caste of a society, the very recipients of what are essentially taxes, required to then contribute their own tithe.
In the ancient world, emperors, kings, and warlords ruled with absolute power. But the Torah provides the Jewish nation with a different paradigm. The leadership caste is charged with bringing Godliness to the people, and representing them as such. The only absolute authority rests with G-d. When Israel was eventually given a king, even he had stringent requirements that would prevent him from becoming a tyrant.
The Levites, as the leadership class, are paid a tithe, but by being required to pay their own tithe to the Kohanim (as the representatives of G-d), they are reminded who the real King is.
In a time of intense political upheaval, our own leaders would be wise to heed the Torah’s lessons – you serve the people, and though you may constantly seek power, everyone is answerable to G-d.
Salvador Litvak, accidentaltalmudist.org
I’m a Levite. This verse teaches me that tithing is so important that even one who lives by the support of others must tithe. We don’t give because we’re virtuous or admirable. We give because God obligates us to give, and that obligation benefits us, elevates us, and even saves our lives.
Rabbi Shlomo Schwadron, the Maggid of Jerusalem, would tell the true story of Reb Avraham, a Brooklyn businessman who was always on the lookout for a fellow Jew to assist. Reb Berel was a great scholar before the Holocaust, who lost everyone and everything. Traumatized, he lived as a quiet vagabond, hardly eating, thin as a rail. Reb Avraham spotted him one day and insisted Reb Berel join him for a meal in a nice restaurant. Reb Berel finally agreed to sit and chat, but refused to eat anything more than a couple of baked apples and some tea.
That night Reb Avraham drove upstate for business. A torrential storm set in. His car careened into oncoming traffic. Miraculously, he avoided a head-on collision but flew off the road into a deep ditch. When he regained consciousness, he realized he was painfully bruised but intact. He decided to spend the night at a hotel nearby, owned by a friend who was about to close for the season. The friend apologized that he had hardly anything in his pantry to offer for dinner, just a couple of baked apples and some tea.
Reb Avraham remembered Prov. 10:2, “Charity saves from death.”
Every time my wife Nina and I receive income, 10% automatically goes into a separate “maaser” account. We are far from rich, but that account makes us philanthropists, choosing which righteous causes and needy people to support. Whatever we lose thereby in available funds is outweighed tenfold by the gift of fulfilling our obligation, as we serve God and our community.
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