The month of April has arrived, and with it, a season of renewal and connection to our religious and moral commitments. Passover is the Jewish holiday that the highest number of Jewish Americans celebrate, even the most secular Jews among us. We will gather around the seder table and tell the master story of the Jewish People. It is a time for connecting to family, tradition and our most cherished values — values of freedom, justice and the dignity and worth of all human beings. But I’m not just referring to Passover. The season of renewal and connection to religious commitments also refers, in my mind, to April 15, Tax Day.
Paying taxes may not seem like a spiritual experience, but it is a mitzvah, a sacred duty (pun intended) and a very Jewish act. From biblical times, Jewish law expected members of the community to support communal institutions as well as individuals in need. Through practices like the sabbatical year, the tithe, and peah (the corner of the field), Israelites were obligated to “pay” portions of their crops to support needy individuals as well as the main communal institution, the Tent of Meeting, and those who served it. So we read, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field… you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger” (Lev. 19:9-10). And, “...every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your yield that year… then the Levite, who has no hereditary portion as you have, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your settlements shall come and eat their fill” (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). These laws do not describe voluntary charitable donations, but obligatory contributions to the community.
Later Jewish law expands on this notion of contributing to the common good. In fact, the Talmud suggests that a wise person should only live in a city that has the following public institutions: a court, a charity fund collected and distributed by officials, a synagogue, a public bathhouse, a public restroom, a doctor, a surgeon, a scribe, a butcher and a teacher of young children (Talmud Sanhedrin 17b). In other words, Jewish tradition describes the ideal community as having a judicial system, a welfare program and public access to safe food, healthcare and education.
So as we file our tax returns this year, instead of grumbling about having to give away our hard-earned money (or at least in addition to grumbling), we can take this opportunity to be grateful for the good that our taxes do: the roads we drive on, the public schools that all children can attend, the social programs that support the neediest members of our community. And we can also take stock of where our tax system falls short, and commit ourselves to advocating for our local and federal governments to create and maintain the kind of society that we want to live in — a society in which all of its members can live in security, freedom and dignity. Chag Sameach — Happy Passover and Happy Tax Day!