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This week we complete the reading of Sefer Shemot, known in English as the Book of Exodus, with Parshat Pekudei  (Exodus 38:21–40:38). It documents in great detail the completion of the miskan, or tabernacle. The special maftir (additional reading) is known as Parshat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16) which describes the commandment for every Jewish household to contribute 1/2 shekel to support the communal mishkan or temple service.

This week's reading can seem particularly confusing. There is little detail in Parshat Pekudei that was not mentioned in Parshat Terumah or Parshat Tetzaveh, read 3 and 4 weeks ago. And Parshat Shekalim is the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa, read 2 weeks ago. The Sefer HaChinuch (literally The Book of Education, anonymous, Spain, 13th century) identifies no specific mitzvot in Parshat Pekudei. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 11th century, northern France), the most prolific Bible and Talmud commentator, has little to say on the text of Parshat Pekudei. What is the point?

The Torah is not just a book of detailed commandments. Nor it is just a book of cute legends. It is God's teaching us how to live. In fact, the very word Torah in Hebrew means teaching, not law, as the inaccurate translations into most languages claim. (Law would be chok, din, or mishpat.) And while traditional Jews consider all of the commandments in the Torah, as interpreted by the rabbinic tradition, to be binding, the Torah contains much more than that. And in this week we learn two lessons regarding the relationship of people to their government, and vice versa.

The very title of the parsha, Pekudei, implies an accounting. אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן is how the parsha begins and the typical translation is always something like "These are the accounts of the tabernacle" going all the way back to Onkelos famous translation into Aramaic, probably written about 1800 year ago. In Parshat Terumah and Parshat Tetzaveh, we learn what is supposed to be done to create the tabernacle, and the details of the uniforms to be used by the priests while performing the service. Here, we have the detailed accounting of the work, and the Book of Exodus closes with a narrative that describes the completion of the mishkan.

It may surprise many, but these details are telling us about the importance of transparency in public service, i.e. government! As usual, the rabbinic tradition provides the details. The Midrash Rabbah is a rabbinic commentary on the Chumash and it offers a surprising take to the beginning of the Parsha:

שנו רבותינו אין ממנין שררה על הצבור בממון פחות משנים, והרי אתה מוצא שהיה משה גזבר לעצמו, וכאן אתה אומר אין ממנין פחות מב' אלא אע"פ שהיה משה גזבר לעצמו הוא קורא לאחרים ומחשב על ידיהם

Our rabbis taught that we do not establish authorities with the power to tax the community unless there are two people. But here we find that that Moshe collected money on his own, and you just said that we do not collect unless we have two! Rather, we see that even though Moshe collected money on his own, he would call to others and do an accounting through them.

Even Moses, who if anyone should be above suspicion, practiced transparency in his actions as a community leader! And that is the meaning of the details of the accounting. While there is no specific commandment here, the Torah is teaching public servants of the importance of transparent, open government! (Another example of openness is in tax collection and distribution of communal charity funds; see this comment for details.)

In parshat Shekalim we have the commandment for all Jews to support the central mishkan's operation. It is sufficiently short that I can include it in its entirety:

יא וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.  יב כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַיהוָה בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם.  יג זֶה יִתְּנוּ כָּל-הָעֹבֵר עַל-הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ  עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַיהוָה.  יד כֹּל הָעֹבֵר עַל-הַפְּקֻדִים מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמָעְלָה יִתֵּן תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה.  טו הֶעָשִׁיר לֹא-יַרְבֶּה וְהַדַּל לֹא יַמְעִיט מִמַּחֲצִית הַשָּׁקֶל לָתֵת אֶת-תְּרוּמַת יְהוָה לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם.  טז וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת-כֶּסֶף הַכִּפֻּרִים  מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָתַתָּ אֹתוֹ עַל-עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהָיָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם.
   {פ}

11 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 12 'When thou takest the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them. 13 This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary--the shekel is twenty gerahs--half a shekel for an offering to the LORD. 14 Every one that passeth among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of the LORD. 15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls. 16 And thou shalt take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shalt appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.' {P}

In the Mishnah, and Talmud Yerushalmi, tractate Shekalim, the details of how the money is collected, and what is done with this money,  are spelled out in great detail. Tax day was 1 Adar -- this Shabat!  Communal authorities, (i.e., the government,) are charged with maintenance of interurban roads, of water supplies, of the physical plant of the temple, and of cemetaries, and of continuing the communal offerings in the temple, and of cemeteries. Those who were neglectful in paying their half shekel faced confiscation of their property. Later rabbinic enactments provided for public support for education (see Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 21a) and the poor (as previously referenced in this comment). While the half-shekel was what we would now call a "flat tax", the tax for the communal charity fund was not. Tractate Shekalim also includes transparency provisions to prevent even the hint of corruption. Ancient historians report that the participation in the paying of the half shekel was near universal, and Maimonides in the 12th century wrote that he had never heard of a Jewish community that did not have a communal charity fund.

The bottom line is that paying taxes for the good of a community is a commandment, and a critical part of being a part of the community! Not for no reason did Ayn Rand object to religion!!! Furthermore, even the hint of the possibility of corruption is absolutely forbidden and the Torah and the Rabbis set into place mandates to further this purpose. The idea that taxes are theft is completely foreign to Judaism, and at least for financial matters everything that government does is supposed to be completely open and transparent. We in modern democracies have not done as well and we can be inspired by this week's readings to push for better.

Originally posted to charliehall2 on Thu Feb 27, 2014 at 09:03 AM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets , Elders of Zion, and Community Spotlight.

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