Real security: Living our values, inside and out

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum

By Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11−34:35)

Rabbi Meir Shapiro, one of pre-war Europe’s superstar leaders, once noted that to raise money to build a building is relatively easy, but to then raise the money for its upkeep is like pulling teeth. He built the magnificent Yeshivat Chochmei building, the Cadillac of Jewish education of its day (it is usually visited by March of the Living groups on trips to Europe.) It included a deluxe dormitory, full meal service (unheard of in Yeshivot then), a world-class library, and a miniature, museum-quality replica of the Temple and Biblical-era Jerusalem.

When the Jews built the Mishkan, they were so generous that Moshe turned away donations. On the other hand, this week’s parsha describes mandatory donations of Shekalim, a tax to fund the operations and upkeep of the same Mishkan. This phenomenon would be like someone painstakingly undergoing years of costly infertility treatments, and then abandoning the baby at birth. It’s contradictory.

When people attempt to raise money for good causes, they are often met with excuses. “I’d love to give, but…” Then the same person might spend $40,000 on a luxury vacation.  The truth is that they really do value the wishes and work of the institution—but we are all full of contradictions. Perhaps that’s why the Parsha leads to the Jews’ giving their gold generously for the Golden Calf, but for the real thing, they were taxed.

Timothy Leary, the counterculture guru, was, before his forays into psychedelic narcotics, a respected psychology professor. One of the tests he developed was for couples to color in a chart in which they rated themselves, and another chart on which they rated their partners, and noted the differences. That’s where the problem lies. We all see ourselves as sensitive, caring, and socially conscious. Our conduct and spending habits often paint a different image.

There is a story told of a very ostentatiously wealthy, arrogant man who was bossy, abusive, and demanding. Rothschild, the mega-rich banker, met the man and pledged ten times the man’s total net worth to a local shul. When he was asked for the money, Rothschild said, “Just check his net worth, and I’ll write the check.” When they examined the man’s books, they found that he was stone-broke. Rothschild said he could tell from the man’s arrogant manner; the truly rich are not so insecure as to constantly need to abuse others in order to feel whole. It’s a contradiction.

When the Jews thought Moshe was gone, they immediately created the Golden Calf. It was a sign of their “unsuredness” and their need for a security blanket. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of that going around. There is a sucker born every minute, and a slew of golden calves available for purchase. Call now! Operators are waiting!

I write these words in the waiting room of an anesthesiologist, with a loved one. Moments like this are a stark reminder of how insecure we really are, despite all of the (futile) efforts we exert. I note that this doctor’s office has a mezuzah on the door; and the only real security one has is that G-d has a plan and a map to bring out our best. We just have to set aside our petty insecurities. As on Purim, which we just celebrated, we can see G-d’s hidden guidance at every step, if we just look for it.

When we realize that we are in G-d’s secure grip, we are able to be generous to our fellow persons and know that the more we give, the more we get.

Rabbi Shlomo Tenenbaum is Director of The ARK’s Michael E. Schneider Spiritual Enrichment Program.

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