Hebrew grammar and syntax being what it is, it's easy to overlook, or misunderstand.
Let's find our place. Avram serves as a mercenary to rescue Lot and aid King Malchizedek and the other Kings allied with him, and they defeat the five kings aligned against them. Malchizedek, the King of Salem offers a blessing to Avram. Oh, by the way, the text tells us, Malchizedek was a priest of Gd Most High, El Elyon. Now, if that's not a headscratcher...
Gd had just communicated with Avram. Already there are others worshipping this same Gd? I am not troubled by this. I always remind myself that Torah never explicitly says that Gd is making exclusive covenants. It's not entirely unthinkable that Gd has been attempting to communicate and be recognized by others. Or that others have, on their own, discovered that the idols they pray to are false Gds, and made the leap, if not to monotheism, at least to monolatry. So to learn that Avram and King Malchizedek are fellow travelers need not be a surprise. (Critical scholarship, of course, would require considering several somewhat different viewpoint on this, and on the origins of the Jewish people and their religion.) But I digress.
After Malchizedek blesses Avram, he blesses Gd, El Elyon. Then, verse 14:20 ends "vayiten-lo ma'aser mikol." And he gave him a tenth of everything.
It might be easy to just assume, when reading this, that it means that Malchizedek gave Avram a tenth of "everything," of the spoils of the battle just fought.
Yet Rashi and other commentators suggest that it was Avram who gave King Malchizedek a tenth of everything he had previously acquired, as Malchizedek was a priest of Gd. (The rabbis are quick to point out, however, that Avram gave only from what he already owned, as Avram did not accept any of the spoils of war offered to him in the subsequent verses.
Anyway, all this just to take me where I wanted to go today. That ten percent that Avram gave to Malchizedek simply because he was a priest of Gd. From these short and simple words (and those elsewhere in Torah) an entire system of funding the religious establishment is derived.
It's something that we Jews, particularly liberal Jews, seem to have lost sight of. Our Christian co-religionists still, in significant numbers, follow the practice of tithing ten, or some other fixed percent, in support of their churches.
Yet our synagogues have become businesses. Fee for service establishments. Congregants argue and plea endlessly about what they should pay to support their congregation. And, far, too often, their arguments are based on "what am I getting for my money?" Is this why we affiliate, is this why we practice Judaism?
I'm not here to defend the synagogue. There is lots wrong with the system as it exists, and perhaps someday, we will move into a post-synagogue era. The growing number of havurot, of unaffiliated groups, etc. are testimony to some desire on the part of Jews to find their Judaism without the trappings of the modern synagogue. The synagogue reshaping movements like Synagogue 2000 are as much an attempt on the part of the synagogue establishment to insure its own future as it is an attempt to respond to the changing needs of congregants. One wonders what would happen if, as a result of its deliberations, a synagogue future revisioning group reports back to its synagogue that their vision of the future doesn't include the synagogue? Are these programs really open to that? But I'm digressing again.
Even the havurot, the unaffiliated and informal groups, etc., need some understructure, and some financial underpinning. Still I hear stores from those associated with such groups that even they are having a tough time getting the support they need, both in people power and money.
If it is the synagogue model that I am going to buy into, and associate myself with, then I have made my choice, and there should be little question of "what do I get for my money?" The Torah and our tradition make clear our obligation to support the religious institutions we rely on, and the "priests" and professionals (and non-professionals) who serve as the spiritual guides for the congregations.)
Yet, can you imagine the outroar if your synagogue simply decided that everyone simply tithes ten percent of everything (and that doesn't just mean income, it means 10% of your total worth--probably even gross, and not net.) Those synagogues that use "fair share" systems already struggle with issues of privacy and confidentiality. We still have to rely on the basic honesty of the congregants to report and contribute their fair share fairly. It wouldn't look good for the synagogue to hire CPAs, audit all the congregants, and bill them accordingly, would it?
The basic idea is the one we don't get, and the one we've lost sight of. It's not the synagogue's responsibility to make sure we contribute our fair share, our ten percent. It is ours. And we should do it willingly, gladly, and without resorting to the same kinds of tactics we use when preparing our tax returns.
Abraham, didn't stop and think "what will I get out of this?" He just have 10% to Malchizedek, the priest of El Elyon. Would that all of us would do the same. Then, perhaps, the future of Judaism might be more secure. Our institutions would have what they needed to operate, our religious schools wouldn't be struggling to do the next to impossible with minimal resources, and our religious professionals, both ordained and unordained, would have the parnassa they require to serve Gd and their congregations without having to worry how the costs of their kids' college educations will get paid. With ten percent from all, our synagogues could be the source for the funds that all the richly-deserving charities need. (This doesn't reduce our personal obligation to give to charities, but think how much more it might enhance the work of the charities, and maybe bring us closer to the messianic age.)
I'm a dreamer, a PollyAnna. No doubt of that. Nothing really is ever that simple. Or is it. Just ten percent. Think about the difference it could make if we all did it, without questioning. Ken y'hi ratson. May this be Gd's will. Ken y'hi ratsoneinu. May this be our will.
© 2003 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5762-Plainly Spoken
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh Lekha 5760-Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
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