Two Dollars For Every Person On The Planet, Shabbat Shekalim And WhatsApp, Dude [Parshat Pekudei By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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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

Talk of money is in the air this week, and even the most lofty and immaterial amongst us would be aware that vast sums of cash are changing hands in the hi-tech world. Social media giant Facebook has bought messaging service Whatsapp  for the  incredible  sum of 16 billion dollar… the equivalent of  two dollars for every person on the planet.  As they say in Israel, “that’s a lot of shekels.

The rags to riches story of Jan Koum,  the Jewish  co-founder of  Whatsapp, is hard to beat;  he grew up in a village near Kiev, in a home without hot water and moved to the States with his mother where they survived by babysitting and sweeping shop floors. The recent deal with Facebook was signed in a very poignant location…  the building in California where he used to stand in line to collect food stamps.

Money is the topic of this Shabbat too, which has a special name – Shabbat Shekalim – the Shabbat of the shekels. The reason for this is the maftir reading which talks about the half-shekel collected from the Jewish people as part of their national census. Counting the coins enabled an accurate head-count, but also constituted an annual donation to the Temple.

In a couple of weeks we will commemorate this practice by donating a “half-shekel” (or a half-euro or half -dollar) to charity before Purim. Charity becomes quite high on the agenda over the next few weeks; charity before Purim (as just mentioned); charity on Purim, as one of the main mitzvot of the day is to give gifts to the poor, known as matanot le’evyonim; charity in the month of Nissan as we collect and distribute kimcha de’Pischa, funds to help families afford the extra Passover expenses; and of course charity on the Seder night itself, as we make sure there is no one without a place at a seder meal on Passover night.

The lessons here are very stark; rejoicing on Purim, and celebrating on Pesach cannot take place if those around us are in distress. We help others have what they need, and then we can rejoice with a clear conscience. Granted, we are unable to fix all of the world’s ills, nor are we able to give charity to all the world’s paupers, but we must try at the very least to help those in our immediate vicinity. Even the very fact that we made an effort sows the seeds of compassion in our hearts, ensuring we remember others at our times of joy.

Charity is not considered optional in Judaism. Part of what we earn simply does not belong to us; it is under our stewardship to share with others who are in need.

There is a lovely 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 he 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 have given to charity! 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 each person gave 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? (In euro terms, a fifty cent coin rather than half a euro.)

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 and 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 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. Let’s think about those around us who are denied opportunities simply because they do not have the finances to make the right choices. If you have to choose between food to survive or paying for a good education, most of us would make the easy choice. But we only need to look at the story of Jan Koum to realise that poor today may not be poor tomorrow, and every coin we give to someone who needs it could change their lives for ever.  Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent




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