Shabbat Shekalim — Little Boxes

This week’s prophetic portion is NOT about mystical visions of G-d experienced by the prophets. It is not about dire warnings of prophets for the people of Israel to repent or face punishment from G-d. This week’s prophetic portion is NOT about a prophet bring hope and comfort to the oppressed Jewish people. No, this week’s Haftorah portion is much more prosaic than those lofty subjects. This week’s Haftorah portion is about building maintenance. It is about fixing a leaky roof and a crumbling foundation, about repairing drafty windows and plastering cracked porticos.

The year is 813 BCE. Solomon’s Temple is about 140 years old, and is showing some wear and tear. King Jehoash, who was only seven years old when he ascended to the throne in Jerusalem, wants to raise money to repair the Temple. So he tells the priests who run the Temple that they should make the repairs out of donations that they receive from their benefactors – those who give contributions to the priests. Apparently this idea does not go over so well with the priests, because several years later when the King inspects the Temple, he finds that no repairs have been made at all!  The King then tries another tactic. He instructs craftsmen to make a chest and bore a hole in its lid. He places the chest at the entrance of the Temple, and stations guards at it. Whenever a person coming into the Temple wants to make a donation, that person would hand it to the guards, and the guards would place it through the hole in the lid and into the chest. When the guards see that there is a lot of money in the chest, the High Priest and the royal scribe would empty the chest, count the money, and deliver it directly to the general contractor in charge of the Temple repairs. He, in turn would pay the carpenters, masons, stonecutters and other laborers for their work in repairing the Temple.

Behold,  the first written account of a Tzedaka Box!  No longer chests with holes bored in the lids, these small boxes have been a feature in Jewish life ever since. In many Jewish homes it is the custom to put money into a Tzedaka box before the lighting of the Shabbat and holiday candles. It is certainly a wonderful way of teaching children the value of the mitzvah of giving Tzedaka. In keeping with the idea of Hiddur Mitzvah, or adorning or beautifying a mitzvah, many Tzedakah boxes are themselves works of art. I can’t think of a better way of reinforcing the value of giving to our children than making this part of a family’s Friday night ritual.

Perhaps the most well-known Tzedaka box is the Jewish National Fund’s “Blue Box”. Blue boxes were once found in every home and Jewish classroom from the United States to Russia. The idea to collect money for Israel through a Tzedaka box came soon after the establishment of the Jewish National Fund by the 5th Zionist conference in 1901. A bank clerk, Haim Kleinman from Galicia placed a box in a prominent place in his office with the words, “Eretz Yisrael” – for the Land of Israel – on it. He wrote a letter to the Zionist newspaper in Vienna, Die Welt, saying that he had raised a remarkable sum through donations to the Zionist cause in this way. He further suggested that the Jewish National Fund follow suit and distribute Tzedaka boxes in homes and offices. The blue box has become not only a way to collect money for Israel, but it serves as a powerful symbol of the connection between Israel and the Jewish people worldwide.

Since that time other good causes have taken it upon themselves to distribute Tzedaka boxes with their own names written on the box. I want to conclude tonight’s sermon by sharing a true story by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins. He writes that a prominent rabbi in Boston was attending a housewarming of a wealthy couple in his congregation. People were oohing and aaahing at the unusual pieces of furniture in the living room, the original pieces of artwork that were placed throughout the house, even the gold-plated bathroom tissue dispenser in the restroom. The homeowners noted that they had paid top-dollar to the best interior decorator in the Boston area, but it had been well worth it.

After about an hour, the elderly mother of the hostess, who lived with her daughter, motioned to the rabbi to come with her. They left their posh surroundings and climbed the steps to the second floor, where she had her bedroom. As they entered the bedroom, the woman pointed her finger toward the windowsill. The rabbi was astonished by what he saw.

The woman did not point to a rare piece of furniture or to a valuable antique. Arrayed on the windowsill were two rows of tin Tzedakah boxes – “pushkes” in Yiddish – for every imaginable charitable cause. There were boxes for hospitals, for orphanages, for yeshivahs, for women’s shelters, for children who were blind, for the deaf – for every single Jewish institution she could find that distributed boxes for charity.

“Now this”, said the woman proudly, “THIS is interior decorating”.

Shabbat Shalom