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Torah Portion

Home > Torah Portion > Summary for Parshas Ki Sisa

Rabbi Stephen M Wylen
March 16, 2001 21 Adar, 5761

This is what you shall give, each person who goes before the census-taker to be counted - one half a shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, twenty gerahs to a shekel - half a shekel, as a contribution to God. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, as a contribution to God for atonement for their souls. (Exodus 30:13-15)

by Rabbi Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna "the rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less" The first half of this verse is surely not the reason that the verse is said, rather the second phrase is the essence of this verse. As for the rich not giving more, we don't have to fear lest the rich increase their contribution. But for the poor not to give less, that certainly requires emphasis!
(In Itturei Torah ad loc.)

I don't usually get overtly political in this weekly Torah message, but these words of the Vilna Gaon seemed so relevant to President Bush's tax cut plan for the wealthy, I could not resist. One can sense the bitterness behind the Gaon's sarcastic comment. Among the pious Jews of old Vilna, Lithuania, just as among the good folk of America today, the well-to-do do not like to pay a lot in taxes. They prefer to shift the burden to the poor, by equalizing the tax burden.

The terumah was unique among taxes in Israel in that it is a poll tax, a highly regressive form of taxation. Fortunately the half shekel is a very small sum of money, so that the poor were not overly burdened by having to pay it. Other biblical taxes included the tithe, a tenth part of one's farm produce, which was a proportional tax. In Jewish communities from the Middle Ages until the dawn of modernity the main tax was the tax on kosher meat. Since the rich ate more meat than the poor, this consumption tax was highly progressive.

The Jewish ideal of tsedek, social justice, requires that the wealthy carry more than an equal share of the burden in funding government, social welfare and religious institutions.

We could fulfil this moral obligation of the Torah by letting our President and our Senators and Congressmen know that we would like the coming tax cut to be reapportioned so that the poor will be the primary beneficiaries.

And while we are on the subject, let us also consider the way we fund our religious institutions. Do we make it possible for the poor to belong, while upholding their dignity, by seeking a higher level of support from those who can most afford it? This, too, is tsedek.



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