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Parshat Mishpatim: Exodus 21:1-24:18; II Kings 12:1-17. (Shabbat Shekalim)

This Shabbat, when we read Parshat Mishpatim, is the first day of Adar.

This week’s additional reading for the month of Adar is titled Parshat Shekalim; in it is the Jewish people’s half-shekel contribution to the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

Rabbi Mendel Polter
Rabbi Mendel Polter

After the Jewish people sinned with the Golden Calf, God commanded Moses to tell the people to each bring an atonement of a half-shekel. From that year onward, every Jew was required to bring a half-shekel to be used for the purchase of communal offerings.

Although this donation became unnecessary after the destruction of the Temple, we read this portion as a replacement for its actual fulfillment.

Here are three life lessons that may be derived from this specific commandment:

1. “God’s love of each and every Jew is infinitely greater than the love of elderly parents for their only child born to them in their later years.” (The Ba’al Shem Tov.)

The verse states, in regard to the half-shekel: “The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel, with which to give the offering to the Lord, to atone for your souls” (Exodus 30:15). When it comes to matters of the Jews’ relationship with God, there is no elite status for someone who is rich or who has any worldly advantage. The requirement upon every Jew equally represents the ultimate unification which God has with every Jew, regardless of achieved status.

2. “A Jew does not desire to, nor can he, separate himself from God.” (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.)

Why was it specifically a half-shekel and not a full shekel? There is one commentary which explains that this alludes to the fact that atonement for the soul is only necessary for half of the soul. There is always the part of the soul that remains as pure as ever throughout the struggles of the integrated (with the body) part of the soul. This unaltered portion is what leaves us eternally bonded with God and fellow Jews.

3. “One who brings a substantial offering and one who brings a meager offering have equal merit, provided that he directs his heart toward heaven.” (Menachot 13:11).

When it comes to matters of atonement and reconciliation for the Golden Calf, a sin which has had repercussions throughout Jewish history, the question arises: How is it that a half-coin donation is meaningful enough to atone for this sin? The Talmud tells us that this question bothered no less than Moses. God responded to Moses by “taking a half-shekel coin of fire from beneath His throne of glory and telling Moses, ‘Like this you shall give.’’’ What is the meaning of this Godly response? It is not the quantity that counts, but the quality.

There is no greater step toward reconciliation than a Jew who gives what seems to be an insignificant half-shekel, but given with a fire and passionate yearning to return to God. 

Rabbi Mendel Polter is a rabbi at the Woodward Avenue Shul.

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