Monday, February 16, 2009

With all your money

How to continue to describe the parallels that exist between Judaism and Christianity in the organization of their communities? It should normally be time to depict the various functions and their backgrounds that are really intriguing and totally unknown. Christians took many aspects of their structures from Judaism which pattern them on ancestral connections with the Sumerian and Egyptian traditions with some local influences found among the pagan people in the Land of Canaan, but also in the Sinai and today's Jordan, Arabia as well as the Greek and Persian cultures.

The weekly reading portion includes the first special reading "Shekalim\שקלים" that we read in Shemot/Ex.30:1-16. So it might be time to speak "money", not only: our way to understand what it means to use money? all kinds of money, financial actions and transfers, assets, bank accounts, pockets, magnetic and virtual money exist. They are a full part of our spiritual and ethical activity governed by the Torah and the Mitzvot.

We live in a country, a region and a cultural area where it is normal, for various reasons, to check the rates of currencies all the day long. Along with this constant checking and rating, the Jewish tradition requires that every Jew recite three or four times the "Sh'ma Yisrael\שמע ישראל - Hear, Israel" (Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:4-10) which states: "Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One ( Echad-אחד = alone, only One). You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart (bechol levavcha\בכל לבבך = whole-heartedly - spirit and body) and with all your soul (uvchol nafshecha\ובכל נפשך = life, existence, being) and with all your might (uvchol meodecha\ובכל מאדך = plus, surplus, very being, human being). It is definitely not easy to translate this text into any tongue. “Levav\לבב” also deals with our conscience, heart but as nurturing blood to our brains and allowing to think, elaborate, speculate (good for money). It is a sort of twofold heart that sustains the major pipe organ that beats in our chests and our feelings, minds, reflections.

“Nefesh\נפש” refers to our soul (rofe nafshi\רופא נפשי = psychiatrist in Modern Hebrew), but it is restrictive because it encompasses the whole of our being, existence, considering that our bodies and physical shapes are also a part of the soul that abides in our skulls). Then, “uvchol meodecha\ובכל מאדך” vitalizes and energizes what firstly is determined as our “levav\לבב” and “nefesh\נפש”. Money is the dynamic creative factor that activates socializing capacities to “incorporate = embody” and structure civilization and relationships by means of economic resources, called “me’od” in the mitzvah.

Interestingly, the “Sh’ma Yisrael\שמע ישראל” is cited by Jesus in the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke (Matthew. 22:34-40/ Mark 13:28-31/Luke 10:25-28/, always in a context of questions asked by Sadducees, Scribes (they did not believe in the resurrection, nor the Oral Law) or testing Jesus about “eternity – the world-to-come”. The Greek version of the Gospel adds “and wit hall your spirit/pneuma” because the Indo-European language and culture require exact precisions predetermined and obvious in Hebrew.

But the point is that every human being does live in a consciously developed and existing economic system. We all live in a money cash flow society that is highly sophisticated in the present. Thus, whoever we are, and whatever our opinion about the subject, we use and participate to monetary ups and downs, prosperity, wealth and crashes. No one can pretend to be excluded from any money system, i.e. a valuation, trading, purchases and sales, profits or loss. Now, pets are a part of this system, but a long-hair Tel Aviv Dizengoff Street or beach greyhound, a Husky in Beersheva, poodles, cats, birds, Guinea pigs or parrots, donkeys and camels can be “very so much” and parade for our pleasure. They cannot be the “me’od\מאד” (very much being) as humans are, sometimes against their will. They can’t sell each others, buy their pet food or even barter. Humans do trade humans and this wild attitude is exhibited everywhere.

Each of us has a certain value; and even a zero valuation or a minus shows our rate. This estimation daily affects un/under/employment networks that are virtually expanding through the web. Thus, there is little difference between the penniless Arab hired daily on the road for some odd and dangerous unsecured work and any executive, business, manager or top-ranking specialist that can be hired and fired by supply and demand fancies. Highly handicapped people who hardly can walk and, e.g. work for repairing furniture – a heavy physical task for them paid at minimum expenditures – are a part of this system.

This is indeed a real spiritual and theological question. Faith includes that we receive and give back all that we possess in cash, money, properties, assets and there is no way to hide them under beds (as many sick people do in elderly homes or when staying at the hospital). God can see till under a bed. The thing is that most spiritual communities, any faith or structure feel a sort of discomfort toward money. They would naturally be inclined to rob any institution for the sake of the Most High, provided they could not loose a farthing = a fourth of a penny.

It is obviously easier to accept to love God with all our heart and soul, while we are fresh and rather at ease. Israel has always been a collectivity showing a lot of mutual support. The poor and the needy could be at times looked at with some reluctance, but they are a part of the way we totally trust in God. Because a Jew does know that economics are sound, can be healthy and save people. Jews can feel as repelled and ashamed as some Christians or cultures about money. Curiously, their “obligation” to work with money along the ages helped them get deep into a firsthand and exhaustive understanding of human life dignity as revealed by the Torah and the Mitzvot. Money, cash, assets are indeed as changeable and whimsical as human souls.

In English, “money” comes from Fr. “monnaie”, It. “moneta” that tracks back to the Roman goddess “Juno” in whose temple money was coined. It is quite possible that the word is linked to (ad)monere (to suggest, warn) that gave “monitor”, i.e. “to make the good choice, go the right way. Germ./Dutch “Geld” is connected with of “Gültigkeit – validity” of the money as coin, then as paper (banknotes). Scandinavian as Slavic turn around “penningar” and “pinianzy” cf. “penny”). In the Antiquity, “Talent” was a measure of weight and money that started to be used for abilities and capacities, human aptitudes. In English colloquial, “coins, dough, bread, lolly, gelt, readies” have equivalent in most languages. Slang “Mazuma” comes from Yiddish “mezum’n-מזומן = Heb.: “mezuman-מזומן/cash”.

The normal Jewish attitude was written in a shop in Pelikaansstraat (Antwerp-Belgium) some years ago: “men nemt alle gelt un tzolt mezum’en\מען נעמט אלע געלט און צאלט מזומן – we accept all currencies and pay cash”. In Israel, people can get wild for kessef\כסף (Hebrew) or massar (Arabic) and speak of it all the time. It is a part of the Israeli socializing culture to check any bill (cheshbon\חשבון) and even to argue till the last shekel. Is it a sort of lack of trust? Aramaic and Hebrew word “arnak\ארנק” (purse) is found as “arnaka\ארנקא = membrane of the brains = money-bag” (Bava Bathra 8a) and “arnaki\ארנקי = merchant’s neck hanging coin bag” (Kiddishin 1,61a). It became “arnaquer = to rob and cheat” in French.

Hebrew “cheshbon\חשבון” (bill, account) is interesting to understand the spiritual impact of money on our beings and personal, private attitudes toward ourselves and the others. Money obliges us to “chashav i.e. both ‘to count, calculate’ and ‘to think, meditate’. “Cheshbon-nefesh\חשבון-נפש” should be the daily meditation and review of the day that we have to do before going to sleep.

Now, the Hebrew word “kessef\כסף = silver”, originally a “Meah\מעה = a piece equal to 1/6th of a denar. The usual example about Kessef is Kiddushin 1,1 which states that a man can acquire a woman by giving her an amount of money that she would accept. It is positive. No bargain or woman on sale. On the contrary, she determines if the money corresponds to her value or shows that the man is acceptable as permanent life partner. In Yoma 4,41a, it is said: “The Land of Israel was divided by three methods: by lots, by the Urim and Turim (priestly breast plate prophecy) and according to the value of property.”

Money rates line with utopia. This shows how inconstant we are today. For example, the value of the European currencies basically remained unchanged from the Congress of Vienna in 1815 till the outburst of World War I in 1914. Since then, all societies and cultures went through dramatic and unstable review of all their parameters and money is rather “floating”. “me’odecha\מאדך” is considered in a special way by the Talmud: “Whatever measure he may measure out to you, give thanks to him, very-very much” (Berachot 9,5). This substantiates what God saw, when He achieved the work of creation and the shaping of ADaM\אדם that humans are called to be “very-very much\מאד-מאד”, not “too much”, just “very human” in producing and sharing. “Me’od\מאד” is written with the same consonants as ADaM in Hebrew.

As a rule, women are underpaid in most countries. Providence may be a Name of God, still it requires a lot of faith even if it is a basic spiritual experience. Today, money often appears to be virtual. Just as some kids might never have seen a corn field but only pop corn boxes, people are lost by misusing their credit cards that mutate in their minds to debit sheets and true overdrafts. In fact, money is beyond any worth and this maybe misleading for some people at a psychological level.

Jesus and the Gospel often use money as parables. The “talents” appeared in this saying: a master gave 5 talents to one, 2 to another, 1 to a last servant who put it into the earth. The others got interests from their banks. So the master decided to take this unique talent and to give it to the first servant. “For everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:14-30). The phrase has to be understood as a spiritual link between money, faith and being.

On another occasion, Jesus was in the Temple, sitting opposite the treasury. Many rich people put large sums. A poor widow also came and put two small coins. Jesus said: “this poor widow put more than all the other contributors… for they gave from their surplus wealth, but she from her poverty” (Mark 12:41-44), i.e. her full trust in God’s Providence.

We will soon be en route through wilderness. Thus, when reading portion “Shekalim”, while training for penance during the Great Lent, this parable of Jesus that fits so much with our attitude in society: “What woman having ten coins and losing one, would not light the lamp and sweep the house searching carefully until she finds it? Having found it she calls her friends to rejoice. In the same way, there will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” It means for everyone who turns back to God (la’assot teshuvah לעשות תשובה, answer to Him; “metanoia” in Greek : correct one’s mind, conscience”) to get to the spiritual insights how to love God to the fullest.

av Aleksandr [Winogradsky Frenkel]

February 16/3, 2009 – 22 deShvat 5769 - כ"ב דשבט תשס"ט

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