Drash: Shabbat Shekalim (Parsha Pikudei)

I am not sure if I will be delivery the d’var Torah this week at shul. If I *do*, this is what I’m planning to say.

In today’s portion we read:

These are the records of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of the Pact, which were drawn up at Moses’ bidding…” (Exo. 38:21)

While I believe only the most OCD CPAs would want to audit Moses so many years after the fact, it does provide a model for transparency. Torah is teaching us that it is important for our leadership to be completely open about what they are doing, what they are planning, and how things are going. Having worked on IT projects for over 22 years now, I’ve discovered one thing to be true: No project ever failed because management shared too much information.

Meanwhile, in an earlier section we read:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel — a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give the Lord’s offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons.” (Exo 30:11-16)

Now nobody likes getting a bill. And worse is getting a bill for something we don’t understand. Just as much as our ancestors, we want to know clearly what it is we have to pay, how our offerings are being divvied up, and what we’re getting for our money.

So I am up here today to correct a possible error on the part of our board. Standing on the verge of our next annual appeal, I want to make sure we are completely open about how you are being charged for membership in our community.

After a few years here at Beth El, I recognize that our bills and the dues they represent are not particularly straightforward – it’s certainly not a flat half-shekel a head. I mean, we have the yearly dues payment (or 3 payments if you choose to break it up) plus the option to sponsor a kiddush, or contribute to the annual appeal, or to pay into the window fund, or to make a donation in honor of someone or something, or… you get the idea. It can get really confusing.

That’s why I thought it would be good to consider alternate payment options. I thought I was in a unique position to comment on what was simple and easy, since I’m not on any of the finance-related committees and I don’t handle any of the bills at home nor have I ever successfully balanced my checkbook. Even better, what I’m presenting here contains no input from our president or the board.

You heard it here first.

You might ask, given my utter lack of financial experience, how can I create a better system? Well who better to take a fresh look at things? In a moment of what surely must be divine inspiration, I decided to look at various industries because I figured if they were doing well in this economy, they must know something about shaking people dow… I mean, improving revenue.

I started with the cell phone carriers. Using their example, I devised a much simpler billing system for Beth El’s dues: First, you get your seat here at the shul for free, as long as you sign up for a 2 year membership contract. We have 3 different membership prices based on whether you want to use your seat just a little, a moderate amount, or very often each month. Now I have to point out that if you decide not to go with the 2 year contract, the cost for the seat is somewhat higher, and you have to pay for seat usage per minute. There’s also an additional charge for texting… I mean chatting with other members of the shul while you are in your seat. But we also plan to offer an unlimited chat option for a small additional fee. I think, based on demographics, this option will be very popular. We’re also excited to be able to offer a “new every two” option where you can select a new seat in the sanctuary every 2 years as long as you re-up your contract.

Next, I explored what the medical industry has to offer. From their example I devised a system where you can pay a monthly fee that would cover you in the unforeseen event of being given an aliyah. If you DO receive an aliyah, there will be a small copay amount we will collect motzi shabbos. Depending on the coverage plan you select, you can either pay a low monthly fee with a larger aliyah copay, or a higher rate where the in-network aliyah charges are lower. I do want to point out that people who are Kohain or Levite are considered to have a pre-existing condition and may have difficulty getting coverage.

I looked at the home entertainment market – cable and dish tv. First and foremost, we would provide a discount for members switching from other shuls, as well as low introductory membership rates (which would, of course, go up later and without notice). The actual dues would be based on the types of shul entertainment you enjoy. “Beth El Basic” would include weekly Shacharit services. For a small additional fee you can get access to the education channel which includes the Learner’s service, Teen Torah study, and Lunch and Learn. In order to address revenue issues as well as competition from other Shabbat providers, the Kiddush channel would become pay per view.

Looking at the tax industry was very instructive. Here I learned that our congregants could estimate the number of honors they’ll be assigned on a quarterly basis and pay membership based on that rate. If they end up receiving more honors than estimated, they would merely have to pay back-dues, along with a small penalty that is calculated from the date of the additional honor, interest compounding daily.

The Department of Transportation has an interesting system that was worth a look. Based on their example we could charge a yearly tax to cover the wear and tear of the shul. The taxes will be priced so that we can replace the carpet with a high quality surface. Unfortunately due to the vagaries of the biddig process, we’ll always end up installing a cheap berber. Also, the route for Hakafah will change unexpectedly from time to time, which we will note with decorative orange indicators.

Going back to insurance, but cars this time, I hit upon a system where again you would pay a relatively low monthly rate. How much you pay would be tied to actuarial tables that predict how likely you were to come to shul, receive an honor like hagba’ah, or lead services, based on your background. If you actually DO receive an honor, your rates will also go up. People who have been ordained, have received a day school education, or can lift more than 20 pounds over their head may need to get specialized insurance as high-risk congregants. Rabbi Klausen: I’m afraid you may be uninsurable.

However you choose to contribute, it’s also important to consider why we contribute. Unlike our cell phones, we probably don’t continue our contract for the “new every two” option. Or the low introductory rates. Although the kiddush channel…

In Parsha Pikudei we read

Just as the Eternal had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work” (Exodus 39:42).

Nachmanides points out that the usual word for work, m’lachah, is not used here. Instead the text uses avodah, work in the service of Hashem.

It’s interesting to note that the Golden Calf required a simple cash donation which was collected and seems to only have required Aaron’s participation. The Mishkan required more than money – it required people to bring their colors, their threads, their hooks, and the very skins they lived in. The task of building required weavers, jewelders, stonecutters, woodcarvers and more. Everyone had to bring themselves to the project.

Furthermore they were commanded to build a sanctuary not, as we might expect, so that God may dwell b’tocho, ‘in it’, but rather the people were commanded to build a sanctuary so that God might dwell b’tocham ‘in them’. (Exodus 25:8)

So I say to you with all the transparency I can muster: Pay yearly or in 3 easy payments. Contribute the offerings of your heart as you are so moved, and as we read last week, using the skills that God endowed upon you, performing expertly. Perform the avodah of building our community not so that God will dwell in here, but so that in the process of building together we discover God dwelling in us.

Shabbat Shalom