Paying Our Taxes & Shavuos
By Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo
Warren Buffett, widely considered the world’s most successful investor, recently spent over four billion dollars to purchase a controlling stake in a private Israeli manufacturing company called Iscar. This was big news over here, since Buffett is one of the wealthiest people in the world, second only to his friend Bill Gates of Microsoft, and his investment was perceived as a strong sign of support for the Israeli economy in general. Needless to say, on the day after the announcement, Buffett’s happy countenance smiled out from all the Israeli newspapers, giving the entire country a much needed boost.
Next to this famous groom, the photographs featured the even happier bride, Iscar’s chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, now several billion dollars richer. This man definitely deserves to take his victory lap of satisfaction and fame. He and his family quietly built up their private business from its humble origins in a shack by the Mediterranean, to its present day success as the Israeli economic poster child.
Yes, Buffett and Wertheimer have given new meaning to harvest time here in Israel. Wertheimer watered the family investment with the sweat of his brow, and now he is harvesting a bumper crop of good fortune: “When you eat of the labor of your hands, you shall be happy and it shall be good for you.”
And so too for many of us now is the time to reap what has been planted and nurtured. This time of year, college grads are harvesting the fruit of their labors in cap and gown. Men and women from all walks of life are planning their summer vacations, reaping their rewards in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. Kids are screaming down the hallways of their schools, through the forbidding doors, and out onto various playing fields, where – like the grain – they will slowly turn brown under the summer sun.
Now is the time to take pride in success; but with satisfaction in achievement comes the need to guard against excessive pride, hubris – the fly in the ointment, the not so secret ingredient of every tragic fall.
The Torah teaches that the time of the harvest is a time of rejoicing before G-d. On Pessach we wave the new barley. On Shavuos we offer the new wheat and the first fruits. By offering some of our bounty as a sacrifice, we begin to recognize that our labor was certainly important, but just as certainly not independent. Our strength, our wisdom, the very oxygen in our lungs are all gifts from G-d.
“And you shall say in your heart, ‘my power and the strength of my arm has produced for me all this plenty’.” According to Rebbeinu Nissim, we are supposed to say this, to recognize our talents and the gifts that they produce. But then we must recall from where these talents stem: “And you shall remember Hashem, your God, for He is the one who gives you strength to produce plenty…” Joy in success, pride in a job done well, but never hubris.
Not only is our labor not independent, but often it is also not sufficient. Many talented people have labored hard and honestly and yet remained poor. In discussing the festivals, the Torah interrupts the laws of the holidays with a tangential discussion of the agricultural gifts to the poor: the corners of the field that need to be set aside; the forgotten sheaves of grain for which the owner must not return. These laws are placed between the joy of Shavout and the awe of Rosh Hashanah, and the message rings clear – no one can fully accept G-d as king, if he considers himself the sole master over his life, property and destiny. By leaving the food in the field for the poor, without even being able to take pleasure in gathering it and distributing it according to his fancy, the farmer must acknowledge that this produce, the land that grew it, and his labor that tended it, are not wholly his own. At the time of his joy, the commandments guard him from hubris and enable him to accept the sovereignty of the Divine.
In some ways, taxes are today’s equivalent of the field corner. In a just society they pay for the welfare of the poor and the health care of the elderly. They pay to protect the country from external enemies and from internal injustices. Like the corners of the fields, we can’t even take pleasure in designating them for the projects dearest to our hearts; even if we don’t give them, they will certainly be taken. For his part, Wertheimer will pay about a billion dollars in tax on his profits – quite a corner! – and in doing so he will recognize that he has the right to be satisfied, but not smug.
And so each of us must, in his or her moments of success, find some concrete way to recall that the fruits of our hard labors are gifts from G-d. Today, you or I may be king of the hill, but we are always subjects before the King of the universe. At harvest time we must find a way to offer some of our fruits in sacrifice, and to share them with those who are less fortunate than ourselves. We must wave them in joy and distribute them with humility, and proclaim as a people that G-d is our King.