Tuesday, March 2, 2010

How much is a half-shekel really? / Parshat Ki Tissa

Rabbi Elimelech of Lizensk (1717-1786) taught, “Money is like fire. Like fire it can destroy and annihilate, or illuminate and warm, depending on how it is used.” An economic downturn is an appropriate time to revisit the questions how we use our financial resources, and the meaning of money in people’s lives.

The Israelites, newly freed from Egyptian bondage, have generously contributed their resources – as we are told in Terumah and Tetzaveh – to build the Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle) to invite God’s presence into their lives. They have invested the little they possess in creating community, investing community with spirituality, and assuring that future generations would have a stake in the Covenant forged at Mt. Sinai. They did not ask: does this meet my personal needs right now? They acted out of generosity, considering the needs of the community and future generations, a most inspiring model for us.

In this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, we are told that every Israelite contributes equally each year to the Mishkan:
This is what everyone who is entered into the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight – twenty gerahs to the shekel – a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord… the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation for your persons. (Exodus 30: 13, 15)
The half-shekel is a nominal amount, but all matters related to money have the potential to be either divisive or unifying. We have all seen this in families, in synagogues, and in civic society. But what does it mean that the half-shekel was given as expiation, or ransom, for one’s soul?

Menachem Mendel, the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859) explained: Moses could not understand how a mere coin could serve a person as "a ransom for his soul to God.” God answered him by showing him a "coin of fire." God was saying that when a person performs even a modest act of charity with the fire of passion and enthusiasm, he is indeed giving a piece of his soul. As we learn to live on less, we must learn to appreciate each act of generosity more – a good idea at all times, but a necessity now. At a time when finances are tight, it is all the more important that our synagogues, societal institutions, and political institutions be more responsive to the needs of its members, and not only the goals and desires of those in positions of power.

Midrash HaGadol says that the essence of the half-shekel mitzvah is that each person should contribute half the value of the dominant coin at the time, be it a takal, a selah, or a darcon. A Hasidic master asked: Why not a complete coin? To teach that no person is complete unto him or herself. Only by joining with another can a person become a “whole being.”

In the case of the half-shekel, two half-shekels combined to make one whole are not sufficient either. The contributions of the entire community are needed: the creativity, strength, enthusiasm, participation, and caring of everyone is needed for the Tabernacle to function properly. So too our institutions and communities. Our task is to encourage everyone to see that their half-shekel is worth intrinsically more than its nominal monetary value.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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