Vayigash: December 23, 2017

Shabbat Shalom.

There is a story that I have often told of a man who was late for services on his father’s Yahrtzeit. The only open seat was in the middle of the row and he was in a hurry because it was almost time for saying Kaddish. In his haste to get to his seat, he stepped on many toes of those who had taken their seats before him. The Rabbi saw what was happening and said to the man, “Where is it written that the mitzvah of saying Kaddish is more important than the toes of your fellow worshippers?”

It has been an interesting week. The news this week has been all about tax reform as it followed a bill through Congress that will change the way all Americans will pay their taxes. It kind of made we smile because this happens to be one of the few places in the Torah where we also have a parsha that has an entire section on taxes. We have seen in past weeks that Joseph, having been raised up by the Egyptian Pharaoh to be one of the chief administrators, begins to tax Egyptians one fifth of their harvest during the years of plenty so they can store away grain for the years of famine that were predicted to come.

There is no doubt that Joseph has saved millions of lives in Egypt. Without his leadership, Jacob and his family are in danger of starving. In fact, all of the land, promised by God to Abraham and his family, is so damaged by the famine, that Jacob is forced to leave it, to not only see his long-lost son, Joseph, but also to make sure that there will be enough food for the family.

In our Parsha this week, we see that Joseph sells the surplus grain, during the famine, to the people of Egypt so that they will have food to eat. But as the famine grinds on, the people are forced to sell most of their possessions to get the food they need to survive. Eventually, the people have to ceade their land to Pharaoh, and finally sell themselves as serfs to Pharaoh so that they will not starve. In this way all power is concentrated in Pharaoh’s hands and the people all become his tenant farmers, giving forever, one fifth of all they grow as a tax to their ruler.

I have to say that the commentators are rather mixed about this passage in Berayshit. As an official in the Egyptian government, Joseph is doing what he was hired to do, to help consolidate the power of Pharaoh during the time of famine. How the people feel about this is hard to say. On the one hand, they are grateful to Pharaoh and to Joseph for saving their lives. They have faced down a terrible famine without the usual death and devastation that usually comes with this kind of disaster. On the other hand, they have lost a great deal of their freedom and their possessions in the process. I am not even sure how we would feel about being in such a situation.

And yet, if you believe some of the things the pundits today are saying, we are in the middle of the greatest transfer of wealth to the top one percent of the population from the poorest in society and from the middle class. Already I am hearing from colleagues about parallels with the Joseph story. I am not sure that I agree with them but there certainly are a lot of things that puzzle me about this tax reform legislation.

I am not a politician, nor am I an economist so I usually stay out of the details of tax plans. I am sure you have heard enough about this greatest piece of legislation ever or is it the worst thing to ever happen to the nation? I guess it just depends on who you are listening to in the media. But there is a religious aspect to this plan that I do think needs comment.

The question that needs to be raised is “What is the purpose of taxes in society?” I think that ever since human beings gathered together in social groups, that taxes have been a part of living. When we gather into social groups, neighborhoods, towns, cities or countries, we are stronger because everyone does not have to do everything anymore. A fair way of collecting money from each member of the community was devised so that these community helpers would have an appropriate wage with appropriate benefits as a way to mark how important they were to the community.

Probably as long as taxes existed, there were those who wanted to pay less. Humanity has long searched for a fair and equitable way to tax all the members of society. Judaism is no exception. The Torah itself has a system of tithes that insured that those who did not own land and only worked for the community, the Levites and the Cohanim, were provided for because of their religious service to the community.  They also worked for some personal donations that the rest of the community were encouraged to give.

The Talmud went a step further, declaring that every community must support several institutions for the benefit of all who lived there. It included doctors, a shochet, teachers, a soup kitchen and a charity fund among other organizations. These were supposed to be supported through taxes that were collected by the community. Since, in Talmudic times, Jews were not governed by their own officials, these funds were in addition to any taxes imposed on them by Imperial Rome. During the middle ages, the Jewish Community created a “voluntary” tax it imposed on itself, a tax that was separate from the local secular government to provide what the Jewish community needed for its religious life.

We all know, according to Tevye, “It is no sin to be poor, but it is no great honor either.” Judaism has always understood that some people would be very successful in their occupations and would earn more wealth than others. There is no part of Jewish Law that requires the redistribution of wealth in a way that might look like modern socialism. But Judaism did say that those who have more money have a greater obligation to help than those who earn less. Taxes, and for that matter donations, were limited by percentage of income, in this way ensuring those who have more, fulfill their obligation to give more.

I should also add that the Rabbis were not foolish enough to think that there were not people on every level of the economic ladder that were not gaming the system. Poor people sometimes got more than they should. Some people pretended to be poor when they were not. Some people tried to hide income, so others would think they were not able to pay in taxes what they should. Still the Sages believed in the system and that those who tried to cheat it would eventually be caught and punished in an appropriate way.

I understand that the United States system of government is not dependent on Jewish Law. In my mind, Halacha is just an example of how government should work to operate in an equitable manner. The Torah can only be a guideline to create an idea of what is Right and Fair.

I find that this new system of taxation relieves wealthy people of their obligations and depends instead on their good will to make for change in society. If we are a faith that declares it a commandment to help those who are in need, a faith that requires us to heal the sick, feed the hungry, bring justice to the oppressed and raise up those who are bowed down, then this bill does not reflect those commandments. The bill seems only to protect those who need no additional protections and leaves those in need to fend for themselves. When we factor in the comments about next working to reform the very programs that offer a safety net for those in need, I fear that this government is on the wrong path. 

I go back to my first story, “Where is it written that one mitzvah overrides one’s obligation to others?” I have no problem that politicians want to thank their supporters, but should their expression of gratitude override their responsibility to those who are suffering in our society? This tax overhaul could have been more inclusive and more equitable. Instead it seems self-serving to those who created it with apparent little concern for those who are suffering. Proponents of the different sides of these financial issues should be talking to each other to find a place of compromise that will be fair to all people.

We can only pray that, in the end, God will help us find our way to a place where all people, rich and poor, healthy and ill, high and low born, will work together to build a society where all people will look out for each other and justice and equity will define all that we do. May God answer our prayer soon.

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on December 23, 2017.