June 18, 2024
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June 18, 2024
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It’s almost Pesach and you know what that means: cleaning, cooking and finally getting rid of those dried-out branches on top of the Aron Kodesh!

Yes, as I glanced toward the Ark in my shul recently I took note of the willow branches left over from Sukkot and tossed ceremoniously on top of it. There is a custom to save them and burn them with your chametz on Erev Pesach. The idea is that since they were used for one mitzvah, we want to use them for another.

The Kaf HaChaim suggests that the lulav be placed over our doors as a protection until Pesach. Then, half should be used to light the fire for burning chametz and half should be used to light the fire for baking matzah. The aravot, he suggests, should be placed at the head of our beds to show our love for the mitzvah and as a protection from things that go bump in the night.

The current custom has developed that people put them on top of the Aron Kodesh in shul until they’re ready to burn them. When I saw them, I didn’t think of the Rema or Kaf HaChaim, but of the joke: Why do Jews save their aravot to burn with the chametz? Because they want to get their money’s worth. ☺

I started wondering: What is it with Jews and money? It’s an ancient stereotype that we love money. When Yaakov wanted to do a kindness out of gratitude for the people of Shechem, he introduced a monetary system. It seems that even before there was money, Jews loved money!

Of course, it isn’t true. We don’t love money. We love Hashem, we love mitzvot and we love other people. One way of expressing this love is by using money.

We give tzedaka before davening. We give tzedaka for Purim, and maot chitim for Pesach, and Chanukah gelt, and for the Yamim Noraim we say that teshuva, tefillah and tzedaka can remove a harsh decree.

We are enjoined to spend money for Shabbos and Yom Tov on “God’s bill.” It’s a mitzvah to spend money on items of mitzvah use, to enhance them. We are not cheap, but we want to get our money’s worth.

When giving our tzedaka, we seek out worthy causes and noble people. Maaser Sheni, one of the tithes on produce, had to be eaten in Jerusalem. Alternatively, one could transfer the produce into cash and use it to buy food and drink, but again, it had to be consumed in Jerusalem. What that did was set up a system of supporting Torah scholars. If you had to go home and had this money, which could only be used for food in Jerusalem, you wouldn’t just hand it to anyone. You’d find someone learning Torah and have him use it to sustain himself and his family. In that way he’d be able to live and your money would keep earning merits by making it possible.

Today, we seek our organizations that use funds judiciously and foster Godliness in the world. We choose an organization that provides food for the sick before donating to one that protects a 300-year old tree, and yeshivot before saving the whales, because we want to get our money’s worth.

Even when we spend money on our holiday meals (and Pesach is EXPENSIVE!) we should not be focused on the type of food as much as the simchat Yom Tov we wish to engender thereby. What a shame to waste money on things!

On Purim, the poskim say, we should spend more on matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor, than we do on mishloach manot. Even though we may be strengthening relationships and making people smile, when we care for the poor the dividends go much further. We may not get anything in return that we can point to, but that’s all the more reason to give it.

Pesach is the same. We cannot fulfill our holiday joy when others are unable to celebrate properly. We need to allocate enough of our money to making sure others are taken care of—because then we’re making the most of our spending.

The famous story of R’ Chanina ben Dosa underscores this message. The Gemara in Taanit relates that his wife was very distressed by their poverty and asked him to daven for money. He did, and a “hand” came from Heaven and gave him a golden table leg. Their money worries were over—or were they?

That night his wife dreamed that righteous people in the future would sit at golden tables with three legs, while they would sit at a table of two legs (which of course cannot stand). She told her husband to pray that it be taken back. A hand came from heaven and took it back, and the beraita says the second was a greater miracle than the first because we have a tradition that “it gives giving but does not take taking.”

Perhaps a homiletic approach to this Gemara is that when it comes to money, you can turn it into Olam Haba, eternal reward in the next world, by giving it, but taking it for the sake of taking is not a Godly act.

The lesson of the aravot, then, is that Jews love money because of what they can do with it. We place the aravot near the Torahs to remind us that money can be used to support the world. We should use it to illuminate the world with a holy fire, because it is most certainly not just something to burn.

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

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