“It’s Payback Time!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the concluding chapter of this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, G-d commands Moses to inform the people to sanctify the firstborn. The Bible, in Exodus 13:2, states: “Ka’daysh lee kol b’chor, peh’ter kol reh’chem, biv’nay Yisrael, ba’ah’dahm oo’vav’hay’mah lee hoo,” Sanctify to me every firstborn, the first issue of every womb among the Children of Israel, of man and of beast, is Mine.

Our commentators explain that since all the firstborn of Egypt, even the firstborn of the Egyptians’ animals, were killed in the last of the ten plagues, the Al-mighty sanctified all Jewish firstborn males as well as the firstborn males of all Jewish owned animals that are of a kosher species.

Scripture reiterates this commandment in Exodus 13:11-12, declaring that when the Jews arrive in the land of Canaan they must set apart every first-issue of the womb to G-d and that every first male issue born to livestock belongs to G-d. Unexpectedly, scripture in Exodus 13:13 also adds: “V’chol peh’ter cha’mor tif’deh b’seh; v’im lo tif’deh, va’ah’rahf’toh,” Every first-issue of the donkey you shall redeem with a lamb or a kid; if you do not redeem it, its neck must be broken.

The Sforno (Obadiah ben Jacob, 1470-1550, Italian Bible commentator) explains that the donkey is singled out to be redeemed even though it is not a kosher species, since the donkey became the chief mode of transportation when the Israelites were chased out of Egypt by the Egyptian masses and there was no time to locate enough wagons to carry their belongings. Miraculously, the donkeys were able to carry the heavy loads that were far heavier than they had been accustomed to carry. For this, the donkey was rewarded by being declared sanctified.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) states that G-d calls upon human beings to establish three categories of redemption: 1. Redemption of the human firstborn 2. Redemption of food that comes from kosher animals 3. Redemption of possessions, represented by the first-issue of the donkey. All these belong to G-d, since they are the Al-mighty’s gifts to humankind.

Rabbi Hirsch explains that since the donkey is not a kosher animal it must be redeemed with a kosher animal such as a sheep or a goat, or redeemed by donating the monetary value of the donkey to the Temple (Bechorot 11a). Only after redemption, may the donkey be used. However, if redemption does not take place, its neck must be broken and its body buried.

When a donkey is redeemed, the kosher animal that was donated in its place is given to the priests. Rabbi Hirsch explains that through this exchange, the donkey gains value and meaning, since it has been replaced with something that can be used in the Divine sanctuary and for the national mission. This, says Rav Hirsch, drives home the message that one’s private possessions must always be used to further the Divine mission.

But, warns Rabbi Hirsch:

The private individual who imagines that he will increase his private property by withholding his possessions from the holy objects of the community, will find that he has fallen into a grave error… He who selfishly intends to keep it [his material possessions] for himself, is himself sentencing it to destruction. It was only under [these Divine] conditions that Israel received again the right to these possessions. Keeping any possessions at all, is, for Israel, dependent upon adhering to the condition that they [the possessions] are to be used solely in the service of G-d.

The words of Rabbi Hirsch should be ringing in our ears, especially the phrase: “He who selfishly intends to keep it [his material possessions] for himself, is himself sentencing it to destruction.”

We read these verses only a few weeks after the disclosure of the unsettling Madoff scandal. $50 billion, much of it from wealthy Jews and Jewish charitable organizations, have been lost. High net-worth people, as well as formerly wealthy widows, who are now without any other sources of income, have lost all their resources. Charities, that had generously dispersed millions of dollars to worthy causes, have been forced to close their doors. And, of course, on top of everything, the shame of it all, the massive “Chillul Hashem,” the horrific desecration of G-d’s name that ensues from this thoroughly “Jewish” scandal.

Our rabbis in tractate Brachot 5a, advise: “Im ro’eh ah’dahm sheh’yee’soo’rin ba’een ah’lahv, y’fash’paysh b’mah’ah’sahv,” If a man sees that suffering visits him, let him examine his conduct.

I don’t believe that our rabbis wish to imply that every time evil befalls a person, that particular person is somehow guilty or deserving of pain. But I do believe that, no matter what the cause, it is important for all “sufferers” to examine their actions, to consider what possibly went wrong, and what could have been done better.

I’ve often wondered why the Bible, immediately after the text of the Ten Commandments that includes a strong prohibition against idolatry, records, only a few verses later, in Exodus 20:20, an additional warning against idolatry: “Eh’lo’hay chesef vay’lo’hay zahav lo tah’ah’soo la’chem,” You shall not make for yourselves gods of silver and gods of gold. It does not say, you shalt not make for “you,” singular, rather it is formulated in the plural, “for yourselves.” G-d is warning the Jewish community about the great seductive power of money. G-d declares: Jewish people must not turn money, gold or silver into an idol, and into the end-all and be-all of life! Unfortunately, the Jewish people, in many instances, have failed to abide by that forceful prohibition.

There are many lessons to be garnered from the Madoff scandal. Some of them rather bitter. As a result of the Madoff betrayal, we’ve learned that we must be circumspect about everybody. No matter how highly regarded certain individuals may be in the Jewish community, as leaders, philanthropists or scholars, no one may be fully trusted. What has also become apparent is that as a result of their unprecedented financial success and subsequent obsession with money, the Jewish community has allowed Jewish leadership to be determined almost exclusively by the size of one’s pocketbook or checkbook. The famous Yiddish aphorism, “Der vus hut der may’ah, hut der day’ah,” he who has the money is entitled to his [unchallenged] opinion, is not only nonsensical, but fraught with danger for our people. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how Jewish communal life has been conducted for decades, and continues to be conducted even today.

We have also learned from the Madoff scandal that the Jewish community is far wealthier than anyone ever imagined. Forbes Magazine doesn’t have a clue of how many Jewish billionaires and multi-millionaires there really are. Jewish wealth is simply staggering even after the recent losses! And yet, despite the great prosperity, support for Jewish education has almost never been weaker. Dozens of Jewish schools are on the verge of collapse. Even in the years of great abundance, and there were many such years, teachers went unpaid for months, and even today many of the best Jewish educators earn embarrassingly low salaries. How could it be that the wealthiest Jewish community in the history of our people never established a “Mega Fund” to ensure scholarships for the needy, and health and life insurance benefits for our teachers who often live from hand to mouth?!

Our rabbis tell us that when the rain falls, it waters both the grass and the weeds. When drought comes, it destroys the most beautiful flowers as well as the prickly thorns. As Rabbi Hirsch said, “He who selfishly refuses to redeem [his donkey], is himself sentencing it to destruction.” Could it be that among those wealthy people who lost significant parts of their fortunes were those who were not prepared to redeem their “donkeys?” Is it conceivable that the Jewish community would be in such dire financial straits, had those who had been blessed with wealth given their due tithes? Squirreling away money in foundations and giving away only a small part of the annual interest surely doesn’t qualify as proper tithing. Tithes must come from the original principal and from the profits of the principal. A tithe (10%) is the minimal amount. A fifth or twenty percent is what should be expected, especially from those who profited so handsomely over the years from the extraordinary beneficence of G-d. Had proper allocations been made, would we have a problem of teachers who can’t feed their families, of Holocaust survivors who don’t have a single warm meal during the week, of orphans and foster children who have no adequate care, of Jewish children who are turned away from Jewish schools because their parents cannot afford even the a minimal tuition payment?

The recent scandals also raise the question of whether Jewish communal funds are properly allocated and utilized. Do we really need another foundation to fight anti-Semitism? Perhaps, we need to divert some of the money from the redundant Jewish organizations fighting anti-Semitism and create a self-policing system to monitor our own Jewish community, to place a “Hechsher Tzeddek,” not on meat, but on Jewish money and Jewish businesses. Perhaps we need community-supported accountants and auditors who will investigate Jewish businesses that agree to be reviewed on a voluntary basis, so that the Jewish community can regain confidence in the Jewish entrepreneur and be certain that Jewish controlled businesses are conducted properly and ethically. Only a very small number of Jews are corrupt. But, in order to protect the good name of our entire community we need to show the world how the name of G-d is sanctified by our actions, especially in our businesses. We need to spare no effort to restore our reputations which have been badly damaged. Unprecedented efforts are surely called for at this time.

Since the scandal broke, two verses from Leviticus 26:34-35 have been resounding in my mind. Speaking of the failure of the ancient Israelites to properly observe the sabbatical year and refrain from planting and harvesting, G-d says: “Ohz tir’tzeh ha’ah’retz et Shab’toh’teh’ha kol y’may haw’shah’mah, va’ah’tem b’eretz oy’vay’chem; ahz tish’baht ha’ah’retz v’hir’tzaht et Shab’toh’teh’hah. Kol y’may haw’shah’mah tish’boht, ayt ah’sher lo shav’tah b’shab’toh’tay’chem b’shiv’t’chem ah’leh’hah.” Then shall the land be appeased for its sabbaticals during all the years of its desolations, while you are in the land of your foes. Then the land will rest, and it will be appeased for its sabbaticals. All the years of its desolation it will rest, whatever it did not rest during your sabbaticals when you dwelled upon it.

G-d says to the Jewish people, “It’s payback time!” You failed to observe the sabbatical cycles, you were constantly obsessed with making more money, producing more grain and harvesting more grapes. When G-d said, “Enough is enough!” you cried out, “We need more!” When G-d said, “Share it with others,” you responded, “It’s mine!” And now the land lies desolate. For years it will lay fallow in order to pay back for the sabbatical years that were not kept. $50 billion of hard earned resources vanished in an instant!

Is this what the verse in parashat Bo, Exodus 13:13 means, “V’im lo tif’deh, va’ah’rahf’toh,” And if you will not redeem it, then you must kill it by breaking its neck? It may very well be!

I may be excoriated. I may be vilified for articulating these rather harsh thoughts, but they need to be said. Even if my analysis is off target–it must be considered.

May you be blessed.