Parshat Shekalim: First of four

It is just a half shekel, but its symbolism is priceless.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Every year we begin a cycle of reading four special parshiot leading up to the redemption at Pesach. The first of these, Parshat Shekalim, is read before Rosh Chodesh Adar. Hashem commands Moses to take a census of the Children of Israel, Bnei Yisroel, (literally, raise up the heads) to count them not through their physical bodies but by counting a half shekel of silver, no more and no less, which each man would donate. Hashem even pointed out specifically what Moses should collect – zeh, this shall they give.

Thus Moses, by raising the shekalim, would get an accurate count of Bnei Yisroel. Further, the half shekel would serve as perpetual atonement for Bnei Yisroel. Initially, the silver would be melted down to serve as the sockets, the foundation for the Mishkan and subsequently, when Bnei Yisroel would be in their land the monies raised would be used for the communal offerings.

Based on the word zeh, this, the Medrash tells us that Hashem showed Moses a coin of fire that He took from underneath His throne of glory to illustrate the half shekel coin to be donated. A further Medrash depicts Moses asking Hashem, “After I die I will no longer be remembered.” Hashem reassures Moses that just as Moses now uplifts the heads of Bnei Yisroel through the half shekalim, so will Bnei Yisroel be uplifted each year when this chapter of Shekalim is reread as if Moses himself were standing before them and raising them up.

These Medrashim raise several questions. First, didn’t everyone know what a half shekel looked like? Why did Hashem need to show it to Moses? Therefore, we must understand the symbolism of this fiery coin. Further, as the Netivot Shalom asks, don’t we remember Moses with every word of the Torah that he brought down from heaven and taught us? What is unique about this Shabbos and Parshat Shekalim that will remind us of Moses, and how does this “lift up our heads?” 

This is especially important today since we no longer have a Temple, Beit Hamikdosh, and, although it is customary to donate a half shekel in Adar (generally on Purim), it cannot be used for the offerings for communal atonement. Therefore, posits the Beer Chasidus, the very reading of this chapter invests the Shabbos with a mystical and dramatic quality. Through reading this parsha and the additional three special parshiot, we arrive at a different dimension of closeness to G-d, Hakodosh Boruch Hu, that prepares us for the state of redemption of Pesach which immediately follows, adds Rav Meislish in Sichot Ba’avodat Hashem. How is this to be achieved?

Let us begin our discussion with Rabbi Benzion Appel in Mesameach Zion. The half shekel had to be of silver, (ch)kesef. Donating it was meant to arouse our desire for closeness to Hashem. This is exactly how the root word is used in the beautiful Shalosh Seudot song Yedid Nefesh: “NichsoNichsafti – I have yearned intensely to see the splendor of Your strength.” Just as this silver coin was originally used for the foundation of the Mishkan, so should our desire serve as the foundation for our relationship with Hashem. We give a half shekel, and Hashem completes it with the other half, for He too desires this relationship. The Mishkan building remains just four walls unless it is filled with love.

Herein lies the challenge, continues Rabbi Appel. If one is to build, one must create a space for the structure. If one is to fill it with love, one must remove that which is detrimental to love. The space for that relationship already exists but is often covered and cluttered with the detritus of life. During this auspicious month of A-dar, one must make room for the Anochi, Hashem, to dar, to live within us. The original fiery half shekel that Hashem showed Moses came from that other dimension, from under Hashem’s heavenly throne. The law of the half shekel was instituted after the sin of the golden calf as atonement for that sin. By donating the half shekel, and today by reading that chapter, we show that we want to reconnect.

This mitzvah comes immediately after Moses’s entreating Hashem not to abandon us to His angels, but for Hashem Himself to accompany us on our journey through history. With our forgiveness and Hashem’s acquiescence, this parsha and the mitzvah to solidify the renewed relationship become most closely associated with Moses, writes Rabbi Shapira in Chazon Lamoed.   The fire of the coin symbolizes the supernatural of Hashem’s presence, while angels would signify mere nature. Hashem’s response to Moses’s prayer is the fiery shekel, while our response is half a silver shekel. (Perhaps this is a contract like a kesubah, where the half shekel exchange signifies kinyon.)

Let us return to the Medrash and Moses’s concern that he would be forgotten. Moses’s real concern was for Bnei Yisroel; who would uplift them in the future? Rabbi Wolfson discusses this issue in Emunat Itecha. Later, as Moses is about to die, Hashem reveals to him the entire history of Bnei Yisroel until the end of time. Moses sees the high points and the low points of our history. He is concerned. After the golden calf, Moses petitioned Hashem on Bnei Yisroel’s behalf. Our history has had many such tragic and challenging times. The adanim, the sockets at the base of the Mishkan represent those low points. 

With Moses gone, who would take on his role? While Moses symbolically is here to encourage us each year at this time, it is the rabbis and leaders of every generation who will fulfill the role left vacant by Moses, and Hashem comes down to support us so we will not be destroyed.  In reading this parsha, some of that same forgiveness from that era is again available to us, and Hashem is lifting us up and helping us. In a similar vein, Mesilot Beor Hachasidut compares our spirituality to fire. Sometimes it rises upward and sometimes it flickers and wanes. When we are down, Hashem reassures us that He will lift us up. That’s what the shekalim represent, atonement in all generations.

But for Moses to be able to lift us up and for us to merit forgiveness, we have to want it. Therefore, on this Shabbos, writes the Levlover Rebbe Rabbi Biderman in Be’er Chaim, citing the Gerrer Rebbe, we should consciously spend more time on spiritual pursuits and elevate the mundane to the spiritual. The Levlover Rebbe continues by stating one of the differences between mankind and animals. While animals face downward, man is upright and has the ability to look up. If we are to be uplifted, we ourselves must be looking up. Every time we overcome our yetzer horo, even minimally, is a precious moment to Hashem. Moses extended himself for us, and we have to exert our own effort as well.

Moses was confused about using such a mundane item as money to symbolize our desire to reconnect, notes the Ner Uziel, Rabbi Uziel Milevsky. This, however, was the precise point Hashem was making. It is for us to take the physical coin, envelop it in fire so that it becomes a spiritual entity. We are to use the physical in pursuit of the spiritual.

The sin of the golden calf did damage in another area as well. Until now Bnei Yisroel had been united, camping at the foot of Sinai as one man with one heart. The sin of the golden calf broke that unity and fragmented the nation writes Rabbi Rottberg in Avodah Lebinah. By donating a half shekel each, Bnei Yisroel was uniting behind a cooperative project. By donating only half a shekel each man would realize he was incomplete without the other. Giving the half shekel, writes the Slonimer Rebbe, connected us not only to Hakodosh Boruch Hu, but also to each other. 

This is why Hashem took the fiery coin from under His heavenly throne, the place where all souls originate, writes Rabbi Shapira in Chazon Lamoed.  Hashem is teaching us that it takes all of us together to build His throne. Rabbi Frand explains that since we all come from the same source, the same root soul, it should not be difficult to identify and relate to a fellow Jew, provided we focus on his spiritual essence and not on the external physical accouterments. A half shekel fosters that unity and the realization that we are each formed in the image of God, writes Rabbi Wolfson. While the physical might be different, writes the Chasam Sofer, we are united in our fiery passion for Hakodosh Boruch Hu. This is the Shabbos dedicated to that unity. This Shabbos prepares me to enter the month of redemption, the month of Nissan.

We are now ready to explore a third perspective on the meaning of the half shekel. Rabbi Wolfson reminds us that although together we are a mighty collective, each of us is counted individually and each of us is important. There were 600,00 men who left Egypt, and there are 600,000 letters in the Torah. Each of us is a letter in the Torah. The men are the black fire of the letters and the women are the white fire that surround the letters and create the spaces between the words. [Therefore, when the bride encircles her husband seven times under thechupah, she is symbolically creating a Torah scroll that will form the walls of their home.]  

Even though the women were not commanded to bring the half shekel, because they did not participate in the sin of the golden calf, this Shabbos is equally relevant for them. The Ariz”l notes that when  the magbihah raises the Torah on Shabbos, it is important that he raises it so the people can see the writing. Perhaps one would merit seeing his letter and understanding thereby what his unique mission is in this world. When Moses was counting the people through the shekalim, he was connecting them simultaneously to their letter of the Torah, imparting a special value to each and thereby uplifting them. Similarly, when Bnei Yisroel brought the sacrifices, Hashem also counted each of us to show that we each have value, notes Halekach Vehalebuv.  Likewise, even after the destruction of the Temple, Hashem still counts us each year on this Shabbat, of Parshat Shekalim.

Unfortunately, we are a generation that tends to put ourselves down with negative comparisons to others, writes Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Lieberman in Mishnas Yosef. This parsha counters that negativity and validates our individual importance. Each of us is important, each of us counts and is counted, and should be elevated like the stars, writes Rabbi Eliyahu Roth in Sichot Eliyahu. There may be billions of people on the earth, yet each of us is unique and has a special place with a special purpose, like the stars. This Shabbos is a time of showing us our  importance, of telling us that we are worthy of the coming redemption of Nissan. Listen to the shekalim. You count, Hashem is interested in raising you up to see the fire and the light.

Rabbi Friefeld wants us to recognize our greatness and potential. If we do not, we remain stagnant, never moving forward or growing. We need someone to tell us that we’ve accomplished something and that we can continue to grow. This is what Hashem is telling us on Shabbat Parshat Shekalim. Hashem is putting us in His spotlight so we can move forward. It is along these lines that Rabbi Meislish notes that some congregations have a custom of reciting a special liturgical poem on this Shabbos whose refrain is, “Let Your light shine upon us, exalted Lord …” We ask that Hashem shine His countenance upon us so that we will wake up to a new dimension of light and energy with the knowledge that I am special and connected to Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

The half shekel is an annual reminder of Hashem’s loving forgiveness, of our passionate desire to connect to Him to Him as a unified community and nation, and on a personal level. Each of us is important to Hashem, within the community, and to ourselves.