Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Balak and the Value of a Blessing

In this week’s parshah the evil king Balak contracts the prophet Bilaam for a hefty sum to curse the Bnei Yisrael.  Three times Bilaam tries to curse the Jewish people and every time what comes out of his mouth are blessings.  Bilaam finally says to Balak that if he was to give him his entire fortune of gold and silver in the end God’s blessings are not for sale.  It is up to God who should be cursed and who should be blessed, and blessings are not for sale.

But it seems in some shuls that God's blessings are for sale.

This past week at my Shabbat table we had an interesting discussion.  Somebody mentioned that they had been to a shul where the practice was that before Torah reading the aliyahs were auctioned off and sold to the highest bidder.  This is actually a very old practice and is mentioned as being permissible in the Mishna Berurah 135:18.  
photo from google images (613 backwards)
One of my guests was Joel Alperson, one time national chair of United Jewish Federations of North America (check out his latest article on non-Jewish Rabbis!).  Joel had heard of this custom and he strongly disagrees with it.  
Jewish rituals should not be monetized in that way.  It detracts from the spiritual nature, the meaning, and the power of the ritual.  When my wallet comes out I shift from spiritual mode to business mode.  (quoted with Joel's permission)
I completely disagreed with Joel.  On his blog, Rabbi Zvi Price wrote an entire article about why selling aliyahs on Shabbat is halachically permissible even though one is generally not allowed to make purchases on Shabbat.  He barely touches on the issue as to whether the practice is appropirate for a synagogue.  He succinctly sums up why he is not bothered with the practice.
money for an aliyah is a demonstration of the honor and respect one has for the opportunity to recite a blessing over Hashem’s Torah. Buying an aliyah is in a very real sense putting your money where your mouth is.
If a nice car is worth money and a fancy watch is worth money, and a fancy suit is worth money, why isn't an aliyah worth money?  Those people who truly value an aliyah are willing to spend money for it.  And in fact we find that in some shuls people pay big money for the privilege.

This discussion reminded my of a book I recently read by Dan Pallotta called Uncharitable(For a nice summary you can watch his Ted Talk).

In short, his point is that somehow we have it in our collective minds that it is OK to pay a person $50 million to be the CEO of a company that makes violent video games, but to pay a person half a million dollars to cure malaria is completely immoral.  

He contends that this mindset comes from an antiquated puritanical philosophy that somehow views money and the pursuit of it as completely evil.  But since it is a necessary evil we wallow in it and then give some charity to absolve ourselves of the sin of making it.  But don't ever let that sinful capitalist spirit ever enter into the world of charity.  That would be wrong.

I believe this is why people are opposed to the sale of aliyot.  As Joel says, business mode must be distinct from spiritual mode.  The two worlds cannot mix or it takes away from the spirituality.  

But Judaism is not Calvinism or Puritanism or any other ism that views money as dirty.  Judaism doesn't view money as dirty or clean.  Money is like fire.  It is neither good nor bad.  It depends on how we use it.  To use money to purchase the privilege to be called up to the Torah is to elevate money and make it holy.  

We believe that there is no distinction between the business world and the spiritual world.  In fact, the Gemara says that the first question that we will be asked when we get up to heaven when we die is not did you pray, did you learn Torah, or even did you give charity.  The first question that we are asked about our lives is "were you honest in business?"  In Judaism there is no higher spiritual value than that.

A Mishnah in Avot says that It is not proper to live a life of pure business, but equally it is not proper to live a life of pure Torah.  Only a life that is a healthy balance of both will keep a person from sin.

The market place has the potential to be a holy place if we choose to make it one.  That point demonstrates the true wisdom of the Torah, and that lesson is something that the world needs to learn today as much as ever.