Parshat Shekalim: Passion personification

In Parshat Shekalim, which we will read this Shabbat IY”H, Hashem instructs Moshe on how to be a Jewish census taker. And transmits a symbolic lesson about passion in mitzvah observance.

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Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Learning in Neve
Learning in Neve
Flash 90

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

This is a year of the census of the US population. Forms will be sent out for each family to fill out, and eventually actual people will be sent on the job of canvassing neighborhoods and counting heads. This however is not the way of the Jewish census.

In this parsha, Parshat Shekalim, which we will read this Shabbat IY”H, Hashem instructs Moshe on how to be a Jewish census taker. “… Every man shall give atonement for his soul when counting them. Zeh/This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census – a half shekel of the sacred shekel … shall give a portion to Hashem, to atone for our souls… you shall take the silver of the atonements … and give it for the work of the Tent of Meeting; and it shall be a remembrance before Hashem...”

Zeh? This always refers to something specific, something we can point to. What was it that Hashem showed Moshe? Rashi in Medrash Tanchuma tells us that Hashem took a fiery coin from under His Throne of Glory and showed it to Moshe, “This fiery half shekel shall you give.”

This medrash raises more questions than it resolves. First, how could this small donation take the place of the sacrificial offering usually used for atonement? Further, since coins are commonplace, why did Hashem need to show Moshe a half shekel coin and, more specifically, why did this coin come from under God’s Throne of Glory, and why was it a fiery coin?

Rabbi Schlesinger in Eleh Hem Moadai credits the Baal Haturim with noting that both shekel and nefesh add up to 430. [But we only give half the shekel because one soul is incomplete without another half.  CKS]

Nevertheless, how could a physical coin atone for a spiritual soul? That’s why Hashem showed Moshe a fiery coin, continues Rabbi Schlesinger. Fire has both physical characteristics and spiritual significance, as we talk of Aish Hatorah/the fire of Torah, for example. This coin will also incorporate both these elements. Further, unlike anything else I give to another, I have no less fire for myself after I have given of my flame to others. Similarly, when you give tzedakah, you do not diminish what you have and what Hashem gives you. The physical half shekel becomes spiritual as if from under Hashem’s throne.

Taking a different approach, the Chazon Lamoed cites the Alshich in explaining that every action we take in this physical world has some impact on the spiritual realm above. For example, when we blow the shofar in our earthly shuls on Rosh Hashanah, it not only awakens us, but metaphorically also awakens God’s mercy above. Hashem showed Moshe the fiery coin to impress upon him the power that coin would have in heaven, for Hashem continuously interacts with the world. Hashem interacts with all the seventy nations according to the laws of nature. But with Bnei Yisroel Hashem interacts in supernatural ways, above and beyond, like fire.

This half shekel came to atone for the sin of the golden calf when Moshe pleaded with Hakodosh Boruch Hu to continue to lead Bnei Yisroel in a supernatural way and to continue to rest His Shechinah/Presence within us. This fiery coin was Hashem’s response. Use these coins to build the foundations of the Mishkan for My dwelling place on earth, a reflection of the Heavenly Throne above. But you can only do that by being united, by working together, by connecting the halves with each other. The power of the half shekel remains with us as long as we are united. Together we are strong; divided we are weak.

It is this power of unity that saved us from the evil scheme of Haman, explains Rabbi Bernstein. Haman’s argument to Achashverosh was that we were a disunited nation, divided and dispersed among all the other nations, and therefore worthless and unworthy of any consideration. Queen Esther repaired that perceived flaw by telling Mordechai to gather all the Jews together in prayer. In fact, the central theme of Purim is unity and brotherhood among all the Jews, to validate your friends and repair broken relationships by giving them gifts, and including the poor by giving to them as well.

Rabbi Bernstein bolsters his argument by pointing out an interesting kri uktiv in the Megillah, a word that is read aloud one way but written differently. When Mordechai sent out letters to Bnei Yisrael that would prepare them to protect themselves against their enemies, he uses the word atidim/be prepared for the future. However, the word is actually written as atudimAtudim are those goats in the herd that keep the entire herd together. What Mordechai was teaching Bnei Yisroel was that when that future day of battle against our enemies arrives, we will be successful only if we remain united.

There was even more power in the half shekel, writes the Netivot Shalom citing the Noam Elimelech. While there is no individual who has not sinned, Klal Yisroel, the collective nation is still considered pure. When each individual gave his personal half shekel to the whole, he became part of the collective and was again able to form the close relationship with Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

We are offered a more esoteric, philosophical and psychological approach by Rabbi Eisenberg in Mesillot Bilvovom. He begins by separating the realm of thought prior to action, the area of the brain, to the realm of action centered in the heart. Rabbi Eisenberg tells us that the thought is more powerful than the action. And, while we have control over our thoughts, acting on those thoughts and plans is not in our control, for circumstances may arise that prevent us from completing the plan.

Because of these possibilities, once the thought is actualized through action, it is diluted many times, often so that we don’t realize what the original thought or motivation was, much like the tinctures of homeopathic medicine when we can’t recognize the original plant from simple observation.

Rabbi Eisenberg goes on to apply this idea to mitzvah performance, using giving tzedakah as an example. Perhaps a rich man has decided to donate a substantial sum of money to tzedakah. A representative for a worthwhile project approaches him for a donation. The philanthropist immediately gives him the full amount of his pledge. The representative thanks him, gives him back half the amount of money, and explains that the lesser amount is certainly adequate to complete this particular project. What does the donor do? Most likely he will not pocket the rest of the money. The “fire” to give this money to tzedakah will continue to burn in him until he finds another worthwhile cause to complete the donation.

Now let us suppose that this rich man has already dispersed all the money he had planned in his mind. The representative of the other worthwhile organization approaches him for a donation. He is now likely to say, “I just gave a significant amount to tzedakah; come back in a few weeks.” Having completed the action, the passion for the mitzvah of tzedakah has left him.

In almost every other mitzvah we can think of, continues Rabbi Eisenberg, the whole or the perfect is either the only acceptable method or the preferable method of performing a mitzvah. Reciting a brachah over a whole apple is preferable to reciting a brachah over a slice; an imperfect animal cannot be brought as a sacrifice; even a handicapped kohen is not permitted to serve in the Beit Hamikdosh. So Moshe doesn’t understand why Hashem wants only a half shekel rather than a whole shekel for this mitzvah. That’s why Hashem showed Moshe the fiery coin. Maintain the passion for mitzvoth in your mind as if you have still only completed half of the mitzvah. As long as the thought for the closeness to Hakodosh Boruch Hu remains in my mind as not yet fully actualized, the passion for that closeness and for giving more will remain.

The thoughts in the mind are important not only before we do a mitzvah, but afterward as well, writes the Shvilei Pinchas. There is an interesting but seemingly redundant phrase in our morning prayer of Yishtabach, “Habocher bshirei zimrah/[He] chooses songs of songs.” A Jew may pray and, when he has finished, he may stop to contemplate how he has prayed. He may realize he has not prayed with adequate focus, with a sense of connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. He may yearn to repeat his prayers, which he may not do. Yet Hashem will credit him as if he had actually repeated these “songs” with all the love and connection he now feels.

The donated shekels were coins of kesef/silver, a word closely related to kesuf/desire/yearning. Hashem commanded Moshe to take this census not long after Amalek attacked Bnei Yisroel. Amalek’s aim was to cool the fervor and passion Bnei Yisroel had for Hakodosh Boruch Hu to follow His ways. Hashem showed Moshe a fiery coin to transmit the idea that when one performs mitzvoth, desire to do Hashem’s will must accompany the observance.

The Shem Mishmuel brings these ideas together. Hashem prepared the mitzvah of the silver half shekel as a future counter measure when Haman, the descendent of Amalek, would try to annihilate the Jews. Haman bribed Achashverosh by promising to donate 10,000 talents of silver into the royal treasury. [In the spirit of Purim Torah, I wonder if Haman could deduct it as a charitable donation. CKS] The silver half shekels Bnei Yisroel were now donating many generations earlier Hashem preemptively prescribed as a strike for the later danger. The coin Hashem showed Moshe was silver representing desire, but also fiery to counteract the coldness Amalek introduced to Bnei Yisroel in their relationship with Hashem.    

On that first Purim we re-accepted the Torah. But there was a difference in our attitude toward this acceptance than towards the first acceptance at Sinai, writes Halekach Vehalebuv. The medrash tells us that at Sinai Hashem held a mountain over our heads to force us to accept the Torah. Here, at Purim, we accepted the Torah joyfully. It was not that we would have rejected the Torah at Sinai; we were very willing to accept the Torah and be bound by its mitzvoth. We were, however, accepting the Torah through a sense of obligation. The joy had to be forced upon us. At Purim, that fiery passion for Torah, mitzvoth and connection to Hashem was reignited from within ourselves. It is this fire, not the coin itself, that Hashem took from under His throne, writes Rabbi Biederman.

Hashem has infused each of us with this passion for Hakodosh Boruch Hu, writes the Sefas Emes. It is our job to offer it to Hashem. The amount we offer is not what is relevant. What is relevant is how the donation reflects our desire to give. That’s why we are instructed to give only half a coin, adds Rabbi Biederman. Even if I do not have the half shekel in our time, I can still give my longing and my love to Hakodosh Boruch Hu for His mitzvoth. By doing the mitzvoth mindfully and joyfully, I am adding the  elements of fire and joy to their performance.

If you want to know how connected you are to Hashem, ask yourself how passionately you perform His mitzvoth. The Kedushat Halevi relates a medrash that before the Prophet Shmuel was born, a heavenly voice was heard declaring that a child destined to be a prophet of God would be born. This child would be named Shmuel. That year, so many parents of the boys born were named Shmuel. Since no specific child or family had been mentioned, each family wanted to achieve that closeness with Hashem. Our Scribes say that each of these children did indeed become a prophet, although of a lesser stature than the Scriptural Shmuel, because of the deep desire of their parents.

That Bnei Yisroel lacked joy and exuberance in their performance of mitzvoth, although they performed them meticulously, gave Haman the courage to feel he could defeat them, writes Rabbi Miller in Yom Tov Shiurim. Haman introduced his request to Achashverosh by saying yeshno am echad…/there is a nation [referring to Bnei Yisroel].... But the word yeshno, by simply changing the vocalization, can be read as yoshnu/asleep, lethargic.

This descendent of Amalek understood that the way to weaken the Jewish people was to remove the heat and passion from their Torah observance, to cool their relationship with Hashem as his ancestors had done in the desert. The Torah writes that Amalek korcha baderech/happened upon you/chilled you [toward God]. In fact, it is this aspect of Haman the Amalekite that Mordechai apprises Esther of when she sends him clothing to replace the sackcloth and ashes he is wearing in the courtyard of the king. Mordechai then sends the reply to Esther explaining everything asher korohu/that happened/that is connected to the kor/cold [of Amalek].Therefore, when we re-accepted the Torah on that first Purim, we invested our holidays and observances with the light, joy,  gladness and honor that had been missing from our earlier observance.

When we start educating our children in brachot and mitzvoth almost from infancy, we educate by rote. But as the children grow, we must also infuse joy and passion into this observance so that it doesn’t remain rote, writes Rabbi Weissblum in Heorat Derech. As adults, we can realize that every time we recite a brachah, we have the opportunity to connect to Hashem and to His wonders. Contemplate the apple, for example. From a seed grew the tree upon which the apple blossomed, grew and ripened so I I now have the opportunity to eat it. See how Hashem loves me.

It may be difficult to maintain that level of joy, passion and connectedness over long periods of time, but at least let us try to do so for this Shabbat when we read Parshat Shekalim. And like fire, may that passion for Torah and mitzvoth continue to burn and ignite others.

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