Haftorah Shekalim February 25, 2006 27 Shevat 5766 Dr. Stuart G. Baker
Although the Haftorah I read today was written thousands of years ago, it contains remarkable foresight and relevant messages that I would like to share with you.
But first I would like to thank Rabbi Weisblum for his warm encouragement and assistance. And I would also like to thank my family for their support, knowing full well my limited abilities in carrying a tune and in Hebrew pronunciation.
This Haftorah describes events during the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem. The country was ruled by a queen who worshipped idols and committed atrocities. To gain power the queen executed all of the royal family except a young child who had escaped with the help of the High Priest. The Haftorah begins by describing how the High Priest led a rebellion that stormed the palace, killed the queen, and placed the royal child on the throne.
Here we come to the first line of the Haftorah that I found remarkable. After the palace was stormed the Haftorah says "the city was tranquil". I find this line remarkable because the storming of the palace brings to my mind the storming of the Bastille during the French revolution. The storming of the Bastille in Paris was eventually followed by a period of moral chaos called the Reign of Terror. In contrast the storming of the palace in ancient Israel was followed by a period of tranquility. Of course there are many differences in circumstances. Yet, I can’t help but think that the tranquility in ancient Israel after the storming of the palace was partly due to moral guidance that comes from following the Torah.
To continue the story, the royal child grows into a righteous king under the teaching of the High Priest. The king notices that the Temple had fallen into disrepair. So the king has a plan to repair the Temple. He asks the priests to take some of the money they collected for their own support and use it to repair the Temple. But this does not work. One commentator gives the following explanation: each priest collected money only for himself, thinking it was the job of the other priests to collect money for repairs. In other words, even among the priests, it was human nature to work for one’s self interest rather than the good of the community. Finally after many years of disrepair of the Temple, the king realizes he needs to intervene.
Now I come to the next line I found remarkable. The king spoke to the High Priest about the lack of repairs to the Temple. I found this quite amazing. Thousands of years ago, a secular leader provided a check on the power of the religious leader. It is noteworthy that that such a seemingly modern idea was implemented among the Jews in ancient times.
Importantly the recommendation to separate secular and religious leadership has been echoed later in Jewish history. One example comes from the time of the Hashmonean rule following the Maccabees when the king was also the high priest. The rabbis of the time objected to this centralization of power. Another example is from the12th century when a Jewish religious leader in Babylonia was trying to gain more secular responsibilities. The great Jewish thinker Maimonides wrote a letter to his student in Babylonia warning of the problem of this attempt for more secular power by a religious leader. The translation of Maimonides remarks was [and I quote] "when religion is joined to authority, piety disappears". Thus mainstream Judaism advocates separation of secular and religious leadership.
Now let me return to the story in the Haftorah. The king created a special fund for the repair of the temple. The money was collected in a large tzedakah box located in the sanctuary. I suspect this tzedakah box in the sanctuary for monies to repair the Temple is a Biblical basis for the annual appeal in our congregation for funds to maintain the synagogue. According to one commentator, the reason the tzedakah box was located in the sanctuary is that the people would feel more inclined to make their donations in the sanctuary than elsewhere. Interestingly there was a recommended level of giving based on a person’s age and physical condition.
Continuing with the story, the king sent his representatives to open the tzedakah box and count the money. The money was then paid to workers to repair the temple. But the king did not require a detailed accounting for the work and instead trusted the integrity of the workers. According to one commentator if the king had been a stickler and accounted for every penny from the workers, the costs would have increased and perhaps relatively little would have been accomplished.
I found some good examples of other problems with detailed accounting of public funds in the bookRoughing It by Mark Twain. The detailed accounting was in the form of detailed instructions sent by the U.S. government to the Secretary of the Territory of Nevada. These detailed instructions were for the use of government funds to establish a territorial government. About the instructions Twain humorously wrote [and I quote] "we used to read a chapter from them every morning, as intellectual gymnastics, and a couple of chapters in Sunday school every Sabbath, for they treated all subjects under the sun and had much valuable religious matter in them along with the other statistics"
As discussed by Twain, the problem with detailed instructions for dispensing funds is that they cannot adapt to all contingencies. Let me give two examples from Twain’s book.
The first example involves following instructions to obtain and furnish a building for the legislature. The Secretary of Nevada generously donated a building and furniture. Separately, he also charged the U.S. government for the minor expense of a partition. However, because the partition was not listed in the detailed instructions, the U.S. government ignored the generosity of the Secretary and deducted the cost of the partition from his salary. In this example, the detailed instructions could not fairly account for all the expenses.
The second example involves following instructions to obtain cut wood for the stove. To save the government money the Secretary hired an Indian to cut the wood. To receive payment the Indian needed to sign a statement about the completion of the work. Because the Indian could not sign his name, the Secretary left the signature blank and attached a note explaining the situation and that the work was completed in a satisfactory fashion. Twain writes of the Secretary of Nevada [and I quote]" He thought the United States would admire both his economy and his honesty in getting the work done at half price and not putting a pretended Indian's signature to the voucher, but the United States did not see it in that light." To gain the approval of the U.S. government, Twain taught the Indian to make a symbol and then Twain [quote] "witnessed" it by signing his name to the statement. About this episode, Twain wrote [I quote] "The government of my country snubs honest simplicity but fondles artistic villainy" In this example the detailed instructions meant that creative and honest ways to save money were not appreciated.
Thus in Twain’s example, the detailed instructions about the dispersal of funds from the U.S. government did not adapt to the realities of the situation. It would have been more efficient and fair for the U.S. government to have given greater leeway to the honest receiver of the instructions rather than try to micro-manage from afar.
Now let me summarize the main points I learned from my study of Haftorah Shekalim
The Haftorah is relevant in its discussion of human nature. This is important because otherwise there would not be much reason to study the Haftorah
The Haftorah was far ahead of its time in showing the benefits of separating secular and religious leadership. This important concept was echoed by later Jewish thinkers.
The Haftorah indicates that, while an accounting of total public funds is prudent, an overly detailed accounting of the dispersal of funds is not desirable. The implication is that too much detailed accounting may do more harm than good if the big human picture and the end result are not factored into the equation.