The lesson of Parshat Sheqalim: Get vaccinated!!!

When the chips are down, God commands us to transcend our selfishness and coalesce into a unified whole.

Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey R. Woolf ,

Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey R. Woolf
Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey R. Woolf

This Shabbat, after the weekly Torah portion, we will read Parshat Sheqalim (Ex. 30 11-16); which invokes the obligation to contribute a half-sheqel to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The passage is always read on the Shabbat after the first of Adar because in Temple times public reminders to pay the half-sheqel began to be issued on Rosh Hodesh Adar (M. Sheqalim 1, 1).

As with so many other things, the Rabbis ordained that the practice be continued in memory of the Temple (and in anticipation of its speedy rebuilding).

Still, despite this obvious explanation, the proximity of Parshat Sheqalim to Purim is intriguing. Could it be that the rabbis wanted to highlight a connection between the commandment to pay the half-sheqel tax and the miracle that occurred in the Persian Empire, less than a century after the Second Temple was dedicated?

One commentator who thought so was the Italian Scholar, R. Azariah Figo (1579-1647). R. Azariah was a Talmid Hakham of the first order, the author of a halakhic work entitled Giddule Terumah. However, he is best known because of his collection of sermons, Binah Le-Itim which has remarkably never been out of print since it was published in 1643.

In his first sermon on Purim (no. 20), R. Azariah asks what was it that made Haman think that he could destroy the Jewish People (all of whom lived within the borders of the greater Persian Empire). He suggests that the answer is found in the deadly proposal that Haman made to Ahasuerus: ‘And Haman said to King Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed (mefuzar u-meforad) among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are different from those of every people; nor do they obey the king's laws; therefore it profits not the king to suffer them’ (Esther 3, 8).

R. Azariah suggested that the vulnerability of the Jews lay in their disunity. He understood the words mefuzar u-meforad to refer not to the Jews’ geographic distribution, but to their being deeply divided. Each Jew put his or her own concerns ahead of the needs of the nation; living a life based on, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me?’ The endless in-fighting among the Jews, Haman was telling the king, would be their Achilles’ heel. By exploiting it, they could be destroyed.

However, R, Azariah declared, God had already prepared the cure to Jewish disunity: the mtzvah of the Half-Sheqel. The fact that each Jew gives half a sheqel teaches us that half of us belongs to God. We are not allowed to devote ourselves solely to our own concerns. When the chips are down, God commands us to transcend our selfishness and coalesce into a unified whole, devoted to the vision and purpose that He laid out for us at Sinai, which is achieved through unity, ‘as one person, with one heart.’

Happily, the lesson was not lost on the Jews of the Persian Empire. They responded to Esther’s call to gather ‘all of the Jews together,’ in fasting, prayer and in military self-defense.

R. Azariah’s point should ring out loudly in our present situation, as we face the scourge of Corona. The Jewish penchant for divisiveness, for emphasizing our personal needs and desires while ignoring the general welfare, could God forbid be our undoing (just as Haman discerned). This is especially true in this time of plague, when a personal decision not to obey the rules directly, and malignantly, affects everyone around us.

The Mahatzit ha-Sheqel teaches that our bodies belong to God. It does not ask, it demands that we wear masks, observe social distancing and above all be vaccinated, not only to save ourselves (which is a mitzvah in its own right), but because of the binding Torah obligation to save the Jewish People, as a whole.

Irrespective of what others might say, only by internalizing the lesson of the Mahatzit ha-Sheqel is there any hope of our celebrating Purim Corona.

Rabbi Prof. Jeffrey Woolf, a close student of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik zt"l at Yeshiva University, teaches in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University and lives in Efrat.