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March 1, 2003
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg - March 1, 2003 Shabbat Sermon

MARCH 1, 2003


This morning I want to talk to you about money. The truth of the matter is, it is highly unlikely that one would ever hear a priest begin a sermon with those words. It was Jesus who taught in the New Testament that the chances of a wealthy person getting into heaven was like that of a camel passing through the eye of a needle.  In the church the religious leader takes a vow of poverty.  No religious leader in Judaism takes such a vow. God forbid!  It might work out that way, but not as religious requirement. And certainly not for me … thanks to you. No, there’s a vastly different attitude within Christianity and Judaism when it comes to money. Perhaps best expressed in the sign hanging over a Jewish-owned bank: “Jesus saves – Moses invests!”

The fact is, in the eyes of the world Jews have always been associated with money – usually in a negative sense. Every known language has its own disparaging slurs associating Jews with money:

- In Spanish, it is said, “A real Jew will get gold out of straw.”

- The Polish one is, “Bargain like a Jew but pay like a Christian.”

- For the Hungarians it is, “Money is the God of the Jews.”

- Our good old friends, the Germans, say: “The interest rate of a Jew and the price of a prostitute are both very high.”

- In America they are kinder, they just talk of “Jewing you down.”

Many of these statements are based on envy, with history showing that down through the ages our people have had a higher rate of financial success than most other ethnic groups.  And credit for this, to some degree, must be given to both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The Jewish tradition of teaching children Talmud at an early age made things like interest rates and futures and options and stocks more than abstracts. They were concepts that Jews were taught to understand from childhood. As to the Christians, in the Middle Ages the Jews were forbidden by the Church to own land, so they were forced to turn to money lending in order to survive. Since the Jews were damned and money was damned, the Church concluded that a marriage of the two was entirely fitting and appropriate. With Jews being denied entry by the Church into guilds, there was little else for our people to do but become doctors or lawyers … the brilliant ones, rabbis!

So our association with money goes way back in time. Nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be ashamed when 21 Jews have been winners of the Nobel Prize in economics. We are 0.25% of the world’s population, but we’ve won 41% of the world’s total Nobel Prizes in economics!

With all this in mind, today I want to speak to you about money. One specific issue in particular. Would you use your money now to buy a ticket on Air France to travel to Paris? I ask you that as an American and as a Jew. As an American, in recent months, we have not simply witnessed France undermining all of our efforts at the United Nations to disarm Iraq, but we’ve seen France do it with a certain glee. Of course, there are many countries who oppose us, but somehow we as Americans expected something a little different from France. After all, we have many American imports in France. I saw them two years ago in one of my unforgettable overseas moments. It was when I traveled to Normandy and saw the American cemetery there; the seemingly endless lines of crosses and Jewish stars of American soldiers who had fallen on D-Day and thereafter in the battle to liberate France. France has a short memory, indeed! One suspects that as a declining world power, France will do whatever it can to assert itself. And who better to do it to than to America? After all, last year France was bumped from 5th place among the world’s economies. You know who bumped it? California! California is a bigger economic power than France, which so wants to consider itself a superpower.

But we Jews have even bigger problems with France. There was a time not so long ago when France was Israel’s largest arms supplier. Indeed, it was France that made it possible for Israel to have a nuclear reactor. But then Israel went and did something horrible … it went and won the Six Day War. When Israel’s very existence was at risk, Charles DeGaulle slapped an arms embargo on Israel that is still in place and proclaimed the Jews to be an “elite people, sure of themselves and domineering.”  Things have gone downhill ever since with France siding with the Palestinians, releasing terrorists and having a foreign policy hostile to Israel, while playing up to its Arab oil interests.
But nothing prepared us for what we’ve seen in the last two years. There’s been an outbreak of anti-Semitism on the streets and in the media of France unlike anything seen since the Dreyfus Affair; all of which led the American Jewish Congress last year to publish a series of advertisements suggesting that American tourists “consider not visiting France.”

And so, I ask you … as an American and as a Jew, at this point in time, would you spend your money on a visit to Paris?  Before you answer, I have to tell you that next Sunday, I am leaving for a 4 day visit to France! I am going to France not despite the anti-Semitism in that country, but because of the anti-Semitism in that country. I am going as part of a delegation of rabbis sponsored by the North American Boards of Rabbis and the World Jewish Congress that will be meeting next week with the leadership of the European Catholic Church, hosted by Paris’ Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger, one of the world’s leading Catholic leaders and a born Jew himself. We’ll be meeting with the Cardinal and other church leaders to discuss possibilities for joint efforts at reconciliation and stemming the tide of anti-Semitism in France and throughout Europe. So yes, I’m going to France … but it’s not costing me anything. But what about the rest of you? How should you be spending your money these days – should you be visiting countries with anti-American and anti-Israeli positions and sentiments? For us as Jews, that’s not an easy question to answer because if you’re only going to go to countries that support Israel, we’ll find ourselves asking how many times can we visit Mauritania!

But the question runs deeper. Today so many European businesses, industries and universities are sponsoring boycotts of Israel.  Some universities have fired Israeli teachers and refuse to be involved in any research with Israeli institutions. Norway and Sweden have been asked to halt the export of new products to Israel. The European Parliament called for a suspension of trade agreements with Israel. Norway’s supermarket chain, Co-op Norge, decided to boycott Israeli goods to protest Israel’s policies in the territories (a boycott later rescinded.) French Customs authorities demand that Israeli farmers in the Jordan Valley mark their products as “Produce of Palestine.” For a while, even Britain’s famous Harrods had removed Israeli goods from the shelves.

How are we as Jews to react to all this? If the Europeans are using their dollars to hurt Israel, what should our reaction be?

And what better Shabbos to raise this issue than on this one – the one that refers to money in its name and special Torah portion.  Today is a special Sabbath in the Jewish calendar that is referred to as Shabbat Parshat Shekalim – the Sabbath of the shekels – the monetary unit with which Jews have been identified since time immemoriam. Our Torah portion dealt with the half shekel per capita tax that each Jew had to give to pay for the purchase of communal offerings. Since the annual collection of this tax commenced on the 1st of Adar, this reading served during the temple era as an announcement of the collection and a reminder to pay the tax. Nowadays the reading serves as a remembrance of that tax; with the hope that one day the temple will be rebuilt and the half shekel will once again serve its original purpose.

But in the Torah’s description of this commandment, our sages noted something that caught their eye. The verse containing this commandment has God saying, “Zeh nitnu – this they shall give. Everyone that passes among them that are numbered half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary.” (Exodus 30:13) The emphasis on God saying: “this they shall give” led our sages to understand that God showed Moses the actual coin, because he did not fully understand this commandment.

In his book, “Understanding Judaism,” Rabbi Benjamin Blech explains what was so difficult about this commandment that it defied Moses’ understanding. What caused confusion in Moses’ mind? Explains Rabbi Blech, what Moses could not grasp is that for the construction of the sanctuary itself, God commanded something as seemingly secular as a half shekel. How could money be introduced into the holy sanctuary? Says the Medrash, “God then showed him the shekel – a coin of fire.” What does the Medrash mean? What does it mean by “a coin of fire?” And why then did Moses understand?

Because God was telling Moses: fire is to be the symbol of money. Fire destroys but it also creates. Fire may burn but it can also warm and have the most beneficial purposes. So, too, is money! Precisely because it has this quality, it becomes doubly holy.  When we choose to use a potentially destructive object in a positive and productive manner, we have learned the secret of true holiness. Yes, money is like fire; many people get burned and destroyed by it. But money is also like fire in the sense that it can be used creatively and serve a positive purpose.

We as Americans and as Jews have the opportunity these days to use our money for a positive purpose – to use it to make statements that will resonate. I don’t like advocating boycotts; boycotts are a double edged sword and have been used enough times in the past to hurt the Jewish people.  But I do think that all of us these days should heed the words of the American Jewish Congress. We should “consider” not traveling to France … or other countries that have turned on us, unless it is absolutely necessary. Our money makes an important statement. We can stop buying Norwegian salmon and Danish herring and Belgian chocolates and French champagne – our great-grandparents lived all their lives without it – and so can we.

And our money can make an important statement not only in what we don’t buy, but what we do buy as well. Do you know who Jeffrey Swartz is? He is the President and CEO of the Timberland Company – a 1.1 billion dollars footwear apparel and accessory company. Timberland operates 6 stores in Israel; their Jerusalem store had to close due to poor sales but Swartz wants to see more stores open there. When asked if his Board of Directors might have a problem with his strong support for Israel, he responded, “Sure. But I owe this to my children, to my family, to you and to the nation of Israel.” He went on to say, “The Godfather was wrong when he said, ‘this is nothing personal, it’s just business.’ This is deeply personal.”  So, next time you’re out looking for boots or other apparel, a good place to spend your money would be at Timberland.

And if you want to smell good and look good, try some Estee Lauder products, which is the parent company of Presciptives, Mac, Bobby Brown, Aramis, Aveeda and Bumble & Bumble. Do you know that the Estee Lauder Corp. is being boycotted by a loud and ambitious campaign of the world’s Arab and Muslim communities due to Estee Lauders’ President, Ron Lauder’s strong support for Israel?  Lauder has helped, through his financial support, revitalize Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. He has served as President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish organizations and has been a strong voice of support for Israel. He pays a price for that in business lost in Arab countries. Think about that the next time you walk past an Estee Lauder or Clinique counter. Remember, money is like fire … it can burn, but it can also warm and create …and make you look and smell good, as well!

And then there’s Leslie Wexner. Wexner is the owner of The Limited – which also includes Express, Bath & Body Works, Henri Bendel and Victoria’s Secret. He has been listed amongst Forbes’ wealthiest Americans, and he has used his wealth for good. In Columbus, Ohio where he lives, he is among the major supporters of the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Student Center at Ohio State University, the Wexner Heritage Village, the Columbus Torah Academy, the Columbia Jewish Day School, the JCC and a variety of local synagogues and other Jewish organizations. On a national level, he has created a series of programs designed to enhance the quality of Jewish leadership amongst communal professionals, volunteer leaders and Israeli public officials. Some of our synagogue’s leaders are products of Wexner programs. He’s used his money for us … so why don’t we do the same for him? So I appeal to all the men in our synagogue this morning: the next time you have a chance, go to Victoria’s Secret and get a little something nice for your beloved. And when she asks you why you did it, just tell her: the Rabbi made me do it! Remember in doing all this we are not only supporting our supporters, we are also supporting the American economy.

And let me just add, it’s not just the Swartzs, Wexners and Lauders who deserve our support. Thank God, our people have lots of friends who are not Jewish. Right here in Baltimore, many of the major banks have purchased millions of dollars worth of Israel Bonds to put into their investment portfolios. And in case you haven’t noticed, the CEO’s of these banks don’t have names that sound anything like Swartz or Cohen or Goldberg. But they’ve made good names for themselves in investing in our people. And yes, “Moses invests” and we – his people – should know where to put our money as well.

So, I guess under the circumstances, my coming visit to Paris will be different from my previous ones. This time I’ll have to pass up visiting some of my favorite hang-outs like Galleries Lafayette and pass up supporting some old “friends,” like Christian Dior.  And that’s the way it should be! This morning we recited the blessing we recite once every month on the Sabbath preceding the beginning of a new month. It is a prayer in which we make all sorts of requests from God; for a long life, a good life, a peaceful life.  In the blessing we also ask God for a life that will be blessed with “osher v’kavod – wealth and honor.” The fire of the shekel reminds us that money can burn, yes. But it can be used most creatively if our wealth – our “osher” is connected with “kavod” – honor. Wealth is honorable if it is earned with honor, and if it is spent with honor. Let us as Americans and as Jews do just that. Then we can hope for the fulfillment of the concluding words of our monthly prayer: we will be blessed with a “chayim sh’yemelah mishaalos libeinu l’tovah” – a life in which all the desires in our heart will be fulfilled for good. Amen.


© copyright 2003 by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg. All rights reserved.

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