In contrast to the Sukkot harvest holiday which has a day of closure called Shmini Atzeret, occurring on the eighth day (which is what “Shmini” means), Passover has its day of closure on the 50th day, and it is called Shavuot (meaning “weeks”, i.e. 7 complete weeks after Passover).
That length of time between holidays teaches that lasting freedom takes time and patience. One reason for such a lengthy wait is that transforming from a group of slaves to a community in partnership with the Divine involves accepting an infrastructure of considerable complexity; it involves the undertaking of a system filled with details and implying that entering into a process of meaningful living involves respect for time itself and latitude for accepting processes that cannot be rushed.
Indeed the gift of Torah, 50 days after the Exodus, involves accepting a system of governance that empowers the people to live in such a way as to attend to many details that spell out how the needs of all that will be part of this new community will be met.
Ironically, with the loss of the Ten Tribes of Israel with the conquest of the Kingdom of Israel in 722BCE, what resulted was a change in infrastructure from thriving and dynamic partnership with God in community building to a fallback “thankful to be alive” system of survival that left us with the Judaism we know in our various iterations of expression.
The “price” we have paid for this fallback system is that many of the driving forces of healthy community were diminished or lost as we became more “religion” based than community structured.
One example of that change was brought to mind during a recent visit from my colleague in interfaith work (generated through Common Ground), Pastor Brian Harris who leads Emmanuel Temple Apostolic Church in Vallejo. Pastor Harris brought his son with him to meet the rabbi and introduce him to Judaism. In that spirit he asked me questions including whether the Jewish community followed the teaching in Torah with regard to tithing, i.e. giving 10% of one’s income for the sake of Jewish community continuity. I had to tell him of my wistful “jealousy” of other religious systems, i.e. Catholics and Mormons, among others, that are better at that than we the custodians of the Torah are. Since we went into survival mode with the destruction of the 2nd Temple by Rome in 70CE, much of our community infrastructure was transformed into a religious observance structure that manifested in ways different from the original plan.
Among other rules for community function that was lost, tithing also went by the wayside. As a result, it has been very difficult to sustain Jewish community life. I.e. healthy synagogues.
What replaced tithing has been a fundraising process that has had a deleterious impact on Jewish identity and attitude. Instead of everyone giving 10% for Jewish continuity, and, in so doing, honoring HaShem and being thankful for God’s blessings, we have focused on honoring people for their generosity and usually putting names of donors on plaques around buildings as enticement and appreciation for such giving. The “price” we pay for exchanging plaques for tithing is that we wittingly or unwittingly focus less on thankfulness to God for giving us our wherewithal and resources to function in our world and focus more on elevating people, making more of a fuss over them than the Creator who blessed and endowed them with the gifts they have.
While CBI has its share of this change of focus from honoring God to honoring people, it is less blatant than one finds in some places. One shining example of how we lower profile the honoring of people where it belongs to God is thanks to a gift we have received for a number of years now from one of our members insisting on anonymously matching everyone’s gift to the appeal for funds (again, something that would not be necessary were tithing in place) on Yom Kippur. Another amazing gift that has reduced the “ego stress” of focusing more on the donors than on God has come from a very generous anonymous designated gift that has come through a community foundation.
While we may not be tithing, we are headed in the right direction in focusing on people, not in terms of putting their names up in flashing lights but on how to attend to each other’s needs and focus on being of support to one another both in times of need and in celebrating each other’s simchas.
Such positive focus on people is more in alignment with the purpose of the gradual build up from celebrating the Exodus to choosing to receive the Torah and its light and vision for living 50 days later.
While we may be privileged to say that we live in a country dedicated to principles of freedom, especially in contrast to many countries in this world, living by Torah values can enable us to maintain and assure that freedom. That is something we embrace at CBI and is one of a number of reasons why we are so much stronger for our choosing to join with other churches and non-profits in the work of Common Ground.
While I could not answer Pastor Harris in the affirmative as to Judaism’s honoring of tithing in its system of function these many years since Rome created the Diaspora, I was comforted by his words of appreciation for his friendship and relationship with me and the fact that Jews, Christians and folks of various denominations could find “common ground” in doing our parts to assure the communities we live in are striving to work together to make life better for all of us. It is also wonderful to be able to share with him and the other folks in Common Ground how we are each uniquely doing God’s work in helping make this world a better place in which to live. The lesson of the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot is in appreciating that the best way to honor people is to honor their Maker and to keep our priorities in order in terms of caring for one another in the ways we live with the blessings God bestows upon us.