Tax Season

Matt Shapiro
March 31, 2013
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Tax season provokes a good deal of anxiety for me each year; even receiving W2s in the mail makes me nervous. I’m always convinced i’m going to forget something, check a box I shouldn’t, fill out the wrong form, resulting in the most horrifying of all tortures in America: the tax audit. Given both the go-to of taxes as a comedic punchline and the ads for free tax software/help everywhere you look this time of year, I don’t think I’m the only one.

Why does it have to be like this? Shouldn’t I be proud to give over my fair share to the country whose freedoms I enjoy and whose services I take advantage of? It’s my duty as a patriotic American to help where i can…right? Instead, taxes make me resentful and annoyed; why should I have to give you, anonymous pencil-pushers trying to take my money, anything more than the bare minimum, if anything at all? And yet, having to do something that I probably wouldn’t do at all were I not required to do it, is, in many ways, something that is also at the core of the Jewish experience. When I choose to do something that is counterintuitive, I’m demonstrating a commitment to something greater than myself, which connects me with the world around me. I could try to make the argument that the difference between my personal religious observance and paying taxes is that I can feel some direct, tangible benefit when i partake in my rituals and not the taxes, but this is not always the case. Perhaps the difference is that I have some sense of agency in this behavior, that I make the choice to keep kosher or observe Shabbat. By choosing differently, I open the door to meaning.

But, do I really have a choice in the matter? The image of Mount Sinai being held over the heads of the Israelites as revelation occurs looms large here. Though I am frequently at odds with feeling commanded in my life, there is a part of me that buys into the fact that i have to do “Jewish,” as uncomfortable as that thought makes my 21st century “independent” brain. I think that’s the same part which is so uncomfortable with paying taxes, and not just because i don’t buy into everything that my money might be going towards (hello, military-industrial complex!). It’s the part of me that wants control.

This, I think, is heightened by the aforementioned anonymity, not just of the people running the ominously named IRS, but also of what, exactly, happens to that money. Did I help pay for a bridge? A missile? Someone’s salary in the department of homeland security? In the department of education? The fact that something so personal (MY money that I earned) gets turned into something so faceless (supporting the state and federal government) makes the contrast that much starker. But is it actually mine to begin with?

Obligation both lifts me up by encouraging and insisting that I do more than I would do alone, and grounds me by reminding me of where I’m ultimately accountable, whether it’s the tax-man or the Big Collector in the sky.  This year, as I struggle with the rising fear in the pit of my stomach whenever I see the date of April 15th hovering ahead in my calendar, so much so that i’m currently procrastinating to even call the woman who’s helping us with our taxes this year, perhaps I can try to frame my taxes as a spiritual act. A counter-intuitive, complicated and far from flawless way of giving over some of what is, in one sense, mine to a greater good in recognition of how nothing truly is.

At least until I freak out about how many deductions to take.

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Matt Shapiro lives in Los Angeles, California and works as a spiritual counselor at Beit T'shuvah, a Jewish residential addiction treatment center. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, with a BA in Jewish Studies, and is working toward his ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

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