Parshat Pekudei – Shekalim (5771)

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One bekka per head; [which is] half a shekel according to the holy shekel for each one who goes through the counting – Exodus 38:26


This Shabbat we read a special maftir & haftarah about the “Shekalim,” the silver half-shekel coins donated to the Temple on an annual basis by the Jewish people.

In a few weeks we will also commemorate this practice by donating a half-shekel to charity before Purim (or its equivalent in Europe – a half euro). In fact charity becomes quite high on the agenda over the next few weeks:

1) Before Purim we give a half-shekel to charity, as mentioned above.

2) On Purim itself one of the four main mitzvot of the day is to give gifts to the poor, known as “matanot le’evyonim.” That is part and parcel of the day, for how can we be joyful and festive if others are still hungry and homeless. First we give money and food to the poor and then we can rejoice ourselves. Even if we are unable to completely solve their difficulties, the seeds of compassion are sown in our hearts, ensuring we think of others at our times of joy.

3) At the Seder night, just a month after Purim, before we begin the Seder as free men and women we proclaim an invitation to all those who are hungry or needy to join us at the table. Once again, this sends us a stark reminder of our priorities – if our brethren are cold and hungry how can we possibly feel free?

Charity in Judaism is always considered to be an important mitzva, and in fact in the world at present charity seems to be getting a lot of positive coverage. Bill and Melinda Gates ploughed their fortune into a foundation which is doing incredible charitable work, especially in developing countries, and their inspiration has caused many others to follow suit. In 2006 Warren Buffet donated 37 billion dollars to the fund and since then another forty of America’s wealthiest individuals have pledged half of their personal fortunes to charity. Buffet reckons they could be looking at a massive 600 billion dollars pledged to charity in the near future.

These immensely wealthy people realise that we do not have a “right” to be wealthy while others suffer. If we are allocated wealth – part of it is meant for us to distribute to the needy.

There is a story told about Sir Moses Montefiore, a wealthy and notable figure in 19th century British Jewry who received a knighthood from Queen Victoria. He became well known as a generous philanthropist, and someone once asked him the question, “Sir Moses, how much are you worth?

He thought for a while and named a figure. The number seemed much too low, and so the questioner asked again, “Surely, Sir Moses, you are worth far more than that!”  To which Sir Moses replied, “You didn’t ask me how much I own. You asked me how much I’m worth.  So the figure I gave you is the amount I gave to charity this year!  We are worth only what we are willing to share with others.

This attitude helps answer a question on the parsha.

The question is, why does the Torah refer to the coin as a “half-shekel” and not as a “bekka” or as “a coin weighing ten gera.” Since this is a donation to the Temple why use a term which implies we are only giving a half-coin rather than a full one?

Maybe the answer, as expressed by Sir Moses Montefiore, is that whatever wealth we own is always only considered as a “half shekel” – incomplete. How do we make it a whole shekel? – not by gathering or earning more half shekels, but simply by giving it away. When we give away our possessions, our hard-earned wealth to charity, we transform it from being “half” to being “whole,” and this is the message in the half-shekel. Wholeness comes from giving. The greatest happiness is not from what we keep, but from what we give.

This approach is important regardless of the amounts involved. Both the rich and poor have an opportunity to give, and G-d values the small donation of the pauper as much as the large donation of the wealthy (if not more). This is signified by the fact that everyone was expected to give one half shekel coin – not more or less, to show that in the eyes of  G-d every person is of equal value – regardless of wealth or status.

As we read the portion of  Shekalim this week let’s think about what we have, and what others do not,  and about how we can make our half-shekels into whole ones.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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