On Shabbat Shekalim, we read the special section from Exodus instructing the Israelites to collect a half shekel from rich and poor alike. The collection serves the spiritual needs of providing funds for the Temple and the pragmatic need of taking a census, particularly of adult male soldiers. The collection of the half shekel in ancient Israel would normally occur in Adar, but would be in Adar II in a leap year. Its collection coincided with a number of community centered projects. The Mishnah Shekalim describes that in the month of Adar, they would repair roads and highways and mikvaot, and they would carry out all public requirements, such as make new cisterns and make sure all graves were properly marked. Infrastructure may not be the most exciting topic for most of us. But the Mishnah’s linking these duties to the half shekel, I believe, spiritualizes these acts to a point that they’re part of the ongoing task of building and strengthening the nation.
The word “infrastructure” is relatively new to the English lexicon. It came in to popular use in the 1980s to describe the complex web of public works. Infrastructure refers to the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function. It typically characterizes technical structures such as roads,bridges, tunnels, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, and other services that provide “the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions.”
The way our society works is that we pay taxes to the government who are charged with the task of maintaining our public works to protect our health, safety and well-being. When our infrastructure works well, we all succeed. When it fails, we all suffer.
The newest frontier in infrastructure centers around the Internet, cellular phones and cyber-security. Due to the relative newness of this field, lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and courts are grappling with the extent to which government should have access to the personal digital data of individuals. The struggle between government and the private sector has come to a head in recent weeks. The FBI wants access to the cell phone data of Syed Rizwan Farook who, along with his wife, murdered 14 of his co-workers in a San Bernardino, CA, social service agency. With evidence suggesting that their terror act was at least inspired by ISIS, the FBI is interested in unlocking Farook’s iPhone to access the data that may be vital to the investigation. However, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple that manufactures the iPhone, has resisted working with the FBI to unlock the phone. He cites the company’s needs to protect the privacy of its customers and fears that if government can access personal data that opens the door for improper surveillance by government and hacking of data by bad actors.
I own Apple products and find that they have created great tools to enhance my life. However, I believe Tim Cook is wrong. It is the government’s job to protect us. As taxpayers we pay for this protection. In a world that has gone mad, I want the FBI to have all the tools that it can lawfully have at its disposal in order to protect us.
When Target had its servers hacked exposing personal data of 70 million customers, there was understandable outcry by the general public. Yet, what the scandal showed about our society is that many of us willingly entrust our personal data to for-profit corporations whose main interest is not to protect us but to make money for their shareholders. With respect to the government, however, I find it is a sad commentary on our society that there is less willingness to entrust personal data with the government whose sole purpose is to protect the public.
Government is imperfect, and checks and balances must exist to ensure that the covenant between the government and people is not broken. Abraham Lincoln said: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.” I would add that at the same time constant revolution and weak government institutions are dangerous to our republic. Checks and balances, yes. “Trust but verify,” yes. But the the wholesale disempowerment of government institutions? No. We as a society invest in our public institutions to protect us, and when they fail, we must hold them accountable to uphold their highest duty. We entrust our government to require us to wear seatbelts and obey speed limits. We accept reasonable limits on our freedom like not yelling fire in a crowded theater. At airport security check points, we agree to take off our shoes and belts and throw away water bottles because we entrust authorities to screen for terrorists. In this light, I believe we need to accept a reasonable limitation on privacy in order empower our government to deter terrorism. The FBI needs access to Farook’s phone, and Apple and other industry leaders need work with government to protect the people not only their profits.
Our sages interpreted the half shekel as symbol that everyone in society has an equal stake in building a strong, secure, prosperous and peaceful nation. On this Shabbat Shekalim, may we be inspired to do just that.