Friday, January 31, 2014

The Monopoly Metaphor - Reflections on Parashat Trumah 5774

So there I was, playing Monopoly with my kids. The turn passed to my youngest, who was down to her last few bucks (and no, I don't play cutthroat with little kids - don't even go there). She asked me, "Abba, what should I do? I'm almost out of money." I responded, "Give Tzedakah [charity]." 

She thought about that for a minute. Her situation was truly dire. The tension around the board was TV game-show level. All eyes were upon her - what was she going to do? Finally, she took her last two dollars and pitched them on top of the bulging pot in the middle of the board. She rolled the dice, and lo and behold! - doubles, and the massive pot became hers. The crowd goes wild...true story.

I'm not dispensing financial advice here, but Number Four Daughter learned a very valuable lesson that day: the more you give, the more you get. In other words, the way to grow your stash is not to hoard it, but to give it away, and that is a seriously important life-lesson: to give tzedakah freely and with an open heart.

This week's parashah deals with the contributions collected by Moses for the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. Among the items collected were gold, silver, copper and "red skins," pelts of a reddish goat. 

The Midrash Tanchumah sees a deeper meaning in these items. It brings verses to suggest that these items foretell the rise of the four Great Empires. The gold is a hint to the rise of Babylon, the silver to Persia, the copper to Greece, and the red skins to Rome, (and by extension) to Western Civilization.

OK, very clever...but what does predicting the future have to do with building the Tabernacle in the wilderness? What is the sub-text of the midrash and how are we to understand it? 

The Kli Yakar, the Chief Rabbi of Prague in the early 17th century, helps us out. He suggests that the gold that was given by the Jews in the wilderness was able to preempt -  or at least mitigate - the destruction that Babylonia would later wreak. The silver was a palliative against Persia, the copper contributions against the chaos brought by Hellenism, and the red skins against the depredations of Rome. We didn't survive unscathed, but we nevertheless survived, and the Kli Yakar wants us to know that our very survival can be attributed in some measure to the tzedakah given so freely in the wilderness all those millenia ago.

There are a lot of good reasons to give tzedakah - first and foremost, it is a Biblical commandment to provide for the poor, so much so that if one doesn't give tzedakah, he or she is reckoned as an idol worshipper. (harsh!)

Secondly, by giving tzedakah we act as responsible stewards of Gcd's abundance that flows through our hands. That's why tzedakah is not charity in the way it is commonly understood; we are not parting with that which is ours, we are merely passing forward that which is Gcd's.

Thirdly, we are taught that it is a powerful atonement for our sins, our past failings.

But the insight that the Kli Yakar brings is truly remarkable: that the giving of tzedakah today can help mitigate future unforeseen disaster. Kind of like a spiritual "Get Out of Jail Free" card. And who couldn't use one of those?

So give tzedakah! Be pro-active, don't wait for some needy person to knock on your door. Better to give a penny every day with an open and loving heart than a million dollars with resentment. It is said that if we donated the amount of money we spend on coffee everyday in America we could cure a major disease. 

Create opportunities to give. Find excuses to give. If you don't have one, buy (or better yet make) a tzedakah box for your house. It's a great project to do with your little ones. Get in the habit of throwing a coin in there every single day (except Shabbat, derp.) 

Me? I had an uncle that would stand around for hours and just run his fingers through the change in his bulging polyester pants pockets. It sounded like there was four or five thousand dollars in nickels in there. Ever since, the old-man sound of jingling-jangling pocket change drives me nuts, so into the box it goes.

In the grand and unpredictable Game Of Monopoly, I may be the shoe and you the top hat, but my advice for winning is still the same: give tzedakah. You always get back way more than you give.

Shabbat Shalom.

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