Parashat Bechukkotai 5779

Rabbi Aaron Goldstein – 24 May 2019

When one consciously makes a vow, offering themselves to the Eternal according to your valuation (Lev 27:2).

To understand this passage from Bechukotai, where an individual pledged a donation to the Temple system according to a fixed valuation in silver, we need to appreciate that there was a time when one would actually pledge themselves or their child to the Temple service. This custom is reported in I Samuel 1, when Hannah vowed to give her son to the sanctuary of Shiloh (the Temple of the northern kingdom of Israel), if God were to grant her the gift of that son.

One can imagine that if this practice was commonplace there might be a glut in Temple officials and a deficit in other professions! Remember that there was also a system to redeem first-born boys from being donated as priests, pidyon ha’ben (Num 3:45-47). By donating one’s financial equivalent in silver, one kept the “spirit of the ancient tradition” and the Temple had sufficient funds for its upkeep.

As one must do in our day and in any age as Liberal Jews who have equality as a fundamental tenet, a quick note to explain, the disparity in worth that is defined between male and female in this passage – assigning a lesser monetary value to girls and women. This clearly reflects our ancient ancestor’s perception of a gender gap in productivity and for sure their prejudice, but then we are still talking about glass ceilings and gender pay gaps – Plus ca change!

Back to the main concept of this portion:

There is an account in 2 Kings 12:5-6, of how King Jehoash of Judah had a hole in his maintenance budget for the Temple – an issue that Synagogue Treasurers at one time or another might find familiar. King Jehoash raises the funds by instructing the priests to channel the ‘sacred donations’ brought voluntarily by the people to fill the hole. Treasurers and all professional fundraisers will know that a crumbling building is one of the most difficult tickets to fundraise on. Therefore, what is it that makes us want to donate to our Synagogues.

In Liberal Judaism, the ‘synagogue’ might be a village hall in Up Hatherley with our Gloucestershire Liberal Jewish Community; a Friends Meeting Place or Unitarian Chapel, home to our Norwich, Peterborough and Manchester congregations; all the way through to the grandest of St Johns Wood residences or the purpose-built synagogue buildings of Birmingham and Brighton.

It is not the fabric that motivates donors but what that they contain the purpose of the Jewish congregation and the community it serves: a sacred vision of serving God by insuring that its members:

  • have a place to communicate with God (prayer)
  • a means to always self-improve, better understanding and exploring one’s traditions and worth (life-long learning)
  • and a source of vital social connection, celebration, care and support in life (meeting-place)

If these are fulfilled, then we can understand why – if our Synagogue mirrors the Divine raison d’etre of the Temple – our ancient ancestors freely vowed to make donations of their equivalent worth towards its upkeep, towards this sacred vision.

When one consciously makes a vow, offering themselves to the Eternal according to your valuation (Lev 27:2).

On this verse, Midrash Rabbah offers another relevant verse from Ecclesiastes (5:4): Better that you should not make a vow, than you should make a vow and not pay.

Midrash Rabbah cites a disagreement between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Meir says that it means, ‘Better that you should not make a vow,’ but better still is it to vow and pay. To back himself up he quotes, ‘Vow and pay unto the Eternal One your God’ (Psalm 76:12).

However, Rabbi Judah says that ‘Better that you should not make a vow,’ means: Better still is the one who does not vow at all, but brings an offering to the Holy Temple, dedicates it and offers it. His proof text is, ‘When you make a vow to the Eternal your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the Eternal your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing [and make the offering!]’ (Deut 23:22-23).

It is great when we do not put off fulfilling our generosity by donating in our life to our synagogue; and when we believe in our sacred community, there is no better way to acknowledge its vital role in our lives and to insure that future generations will benefit from it by making a legacy.

Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson, comments of the explicit or as I have translated it, ‘conscious vow:’ The one who offers a vow must plainly express how much they are vowing and what the nature of their vow is. By such an explicit statement, they effectively separate the object of their vow from the realm of the secular and designate it as holy.

It is true that we have more than our fair share of wonderful people who offer themselves consciously and voluntarily and give countless hours of their lives to their Community. Many also provide financial contribution instead of or as well as the time they contribute. Leaving a legacy to our synagogue community gives us the opportunity to continue when our death draws voluntary time to an end.

In our prayer regarding the importance of community in life we read: May we never be too mean to give, nor too proud to receive, for in giving and receiving we discover You, and begin to understand the meaning of life.

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