Friday, March 07, 2008

Pekudei - Shekalim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to my blog for March 2006, below; for Parshat Shekalim, see February 2006.

“That which I feared, has come” (Job 3:25). I am shocked and saddened by the terrorist attack that occurred last night at Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, in which eight youngsters were killed, shattering the illusory peace of our fair and holy city. May our leaders have the wisdom of heart and mind to respond to this latest escalation in the long chain of violence in a manner that not only gives vent to the immediate desire for vengeance, but will somehow open the way to true change.

Shekalim–Participation in the Communal Coffers

It is difficult to find any specific new mitzvah in Pekudei; hence, I will instead discuss the mitzvah described in the special maftir for this Shabbat: mahatzit-hashekel, the half-shekel (Exod 30:11-16). Every Israelite is required to donate one half-shekel towards the service performed in the Tent of Meeting, an act which also served as a means of counting the population. In Temple times, the half-shekel was an annual head tax, collected during the month of Adar, by which each person contributed to the maintenance of the ongoing sacrificial worship in the Temple—i.e., the regular daily, Shabbat and festival offerings. The public reading of this parasha on, or immediately preceding, Rosh Hodesh Adar, was a way of reminding everyone of their obligation.

When I was younger, I and most of my friends, who were busy rediscovering their Jewishness and trying to revitalize the community, tended to look askance at Jewish philanthropy. We saw the latter as a Judaism of giving rather than of doing—whether the “doing” was that of Zionism, synagogue activity, Torah study, or social justice. We decreed it, not only because it was an essentially vicarious act, but also because it seemed to be as much about stroking the egos of the wealthy donors as it was about the causes to which they donated. As I grew older, I began to understand that philanthropy has its place in the scheme of things, and that without it all kinds of things that I valued could not take place.

But in any event the idea of the half-shekel is not really about philanthropy in that sense. It is rooted in a very interesting and important concept: that the wealthy and powerful cannot overshadow the ordinary person, that each one has an equal part in the avodat hamikdash. The money used for the ongoing activity of the Temple, for the sacrifices offered in the name of the entire Jewish people, as a collective act of worship (the kohanim are merely the custodians and executors of this activity), must come equally from all. “The wealthy shall not add, nor the poor man diminish, from the half-shekel, to give the offering of the Lord” (v. 15). All are equal partners and, by implication, all are equally beloved in God’s eyes. In late Second Temple times, when there was an extensive Diaspora in Egypt and Asia Minor, the collection of the half-shekel enabled far-flung Jews, who in practice might not come up to Jerusalem for even one of the annual pilgrimages, to feel that they too had a part in this collective worship.

After the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices ceased, the collection of the half-shekel also stopped. But during the early years of the Zionist movement, this idea was revived and transferred, symbolically, to an annual contribution made by each Jew who wanted to identify with and support the movement of national renascence. A similar function was played by the famous blue box of the Jewish National Fund. The idea that the financial participation of every person, be it large or small, was of value, created a sense of social cohesion and that this great national endeavor belonged to all. Indeed, one might say that a similar function is played by membership dues in any organization, be it synagogue, ideological movement, political party, or whatever—namely, that every person counts.

The Four Parshiyot

The reading this Shabbat of Parshat Shekalim is the first in a series of four special Sabbaths during which a special reading is added to the regular Torah portion— Shekalim, Zakhor, Parah, and Hahodesh—each with its appropriate haftarah. There is usually a break or hafsakah in the four parshiyot, but this year, in our holy city alone, we will have the unusual situation in which, for five consecutive weeks, a second Torah scroll will be taken out of the ark, with a special reading for Maftir. Between Zakhor and Parah, on the Shabbat of the “break,” which falls on 15th Adar, Jerusalem will observe the Shabbat of (Shushan) Purim, on which the special Torah reading for Purim will be read as maftir (albeit the reading of the Megillah itself will be advanced to Thursday night and Friday, and the Purim feast postponed to Sunday).

There is much to be said about each one of these four parshiyot, but this year a simple but important question occurred to me: what is the common denominator of these four parshiyot? The practice as such is an ancient one, already mentioned in the mishnah in Megillah. But why were these specific readings chosen? Is there some common thread running through them all? Or is it merely a matter of the congruence of the special seasons— Rosh Hodesh Adar, Purim, Pesah?

It seems to me that the common denominator is that all four relate to a seasonal mitzvah that, while incumbent upon each individual, relates to the sense of Jewish collective, expressing some basic, formative collective experience or memory. Thus, Shekalim represents the participation of each individual in the collective act of worship in the Temple (Interestingly, one opinion in the Talmudic discourse concerning Parashat Shekalim, at Megillah 29b, suggests that the chapter to be read was in fact that of Numbers 28:1-8, describing the daily sacrifice!). Incidentally, as I discussed a whole ago, our own tefillah batzibbur is an act of worship of the public as a whole, not merely of the aggregate of its individuals (HY IX: Hayyei Sarah). Zakhor, the remembrance of what Amalek did to us (Deut 25:17-19), is focused upon the hatred or antagonism of certain elements in the non-Jewish world towards the Jewish poeple—surely, and sadly, a formative element in our historical experience (and one that is still alive, as we were reminded just last night—whatever other factors, socio-economic and nation-political, may come into play in our ongoing struggle with the Palestinian Arabs). Parshat Hahodesh (Exod 12:1-20) is read in preparation for Passover—the holiday that celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation, and whose ritual, whether of eating the Paschal lamb or sitting at the contemporary Seder table, expresses the individuals participation in and identification with the nation.

There would appear to be one exception to this rule: Parshat Parah (Num 19), read the week before Hahodesh, which describes the preparation of the ashes of the red heifer, used in the purification of the individual who had become ritually contaminated through contact with a dead body. But in fact, its reading in this context is clearly intended as related to the preparation for Pesah: the individual who has become impure must prepare himself halakhically to participate in the great group celebration. His purification is not an end itself, but is subservient to that larger end. Years ago, I heard Rav Soloveitchik deliver a Yahrzeit Shiur in memory of his wife on this subject, citing a midrash (Exod Rab. 19.2) comparing the red heifer and the paschal lamb to two noblewoman. “And which one is more important? Surely, that one whose fellow accompanies her to the door and then goes on alone.” Meaning that, paradoxically, the red heifer, because it is indispensable for those celebrating the Pesah, is more important—but only because it, too, is linked with that occasion symbolizing the birth of the community. Thus, these four chapters taken as a group teach the importance and centrality of the group’s collective, historical experience in forging the Jewish mentality.

Postscript: VAYAKHEL

In wake of our discussion last week about the rather harsh admonitions against performing labor on Shabbat, an interesting question occurred to me: It is customary to recite Kiddush on Shabbat morning, preceded by certain verses: usually, Veshamru (Exode 31:16-17) and Zakhor (Exod 20:8-11). Yet unlike the latter passage, Veshamru is read in truncated, incomplete form; only the last two of the six verses that constitute the parasha in Ki Tisa are read. The same holds true for other places where this passage is recited in the liturgy – i.e., in the Amidah of Shaharit for Shabbat and, in some rites, on Friday night just before Hatzi Kaddish.

The question, once again, is: Why? My answer is that, quite simply, the softer, more feminine side of Shabbat, the “Shabbat Queen,” is the dominant one. Whoever arranged the liturgy was reluctant to recite quite such a frightening passage on a regular basis—particularly on the Shabbat, meant to be a day of joy and pleasure. Perhaps, also (at least until modern times), Shabbat observance was so deeply rooted among the masses of the Jewish people, that there was no need to read such strong admonitions on a regular basis.


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