Sunday, March 12, 2017

Parsha Ki Tisa: The Half-Shekel, Purim, and a Lesson on Giving

Purim is a Jewish festival of joy. Jews dress up in costumes, read from the Megillah, and enjoy the festivities. There is a somewhat peculiar custom for the holiday of Purim. On the night of Purim, one is supposed to give three half-shekels (מחצית בשקל). While the practice of giving three half-shekels on Purim dates back to Moses Isserles (the Rama), the practice is derived from the Torah. This Purim custom acts as a commemoration to recall when the Israelites donated three half-shekels to the Temple treasury during the Jewish month of Adar. As a matter of fact, the practice comes from this week's Torah portion:

G-d spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay G-d a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is that everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel as an offering to G-d. Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give G-d's offering: the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when given G-d's offering as an expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before G-d, as expiation for your persons. -Exodus 30:11-16

The fact that the word for offering (תרומת) appears three times in this passage is why we give three half-shekels. But it brings up an interesting question: why pay in half-shekels? Why not a whole shekel? A few explanations:

  • Perhaps it is because we are supposed to "put in half" while G-d "puts in the other half." This is to represent that personal effort (השתדלות) and trust [in G-d] (ביטחון). It means that we cannot simply wait for G-d to solve everything, but that we need to take action. This is very apropos for the Purim considering that G-d is not mentioned at all in the Purim story, and is traditionally considered to be hidden throughout the Book of Esther.
  • In Exodus 30:12, the verse says "when you take a census." Going off the Midrash (Midrash Psalms 91:1), Rashi took that to mean that G-d showed Moses a coin of fire. The message is that both fire and the shekel can be beneficial or destructive, depending on its use (Noam Elimelech). The R. Mendel of Kotzk interprets the Midrash as that if one is to seek atonement by giving funds to charity, that deed should be done with a fire, i.e., a burning passion for serving G-d. 
  • Exodus 30:13 says that each Israelite shall pay G-d a "ransom for himself." The fact that R. Benno Jacob see this offering of the half-shekel as the anticipatory shedding of blood in battle, the offering of the half-shekel is teaching us that life is a gift and that we should be happy to be alive. Tobiah ben Eliezer (the Lekach Tov) said that because we don't have a Temple anymore, we show this gratitude for being alive by giving to the poor.
  • On the one hand, we cannot do it by ourselves. We are not meant to live in isolation (Artscroll), and the fact that the half-shekel represents a lack of wholeness drives that idea home. On the other hand, we have a unique contribution to make. Without our contribution, service to G-d is incomplete. The fact that everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status, shows that we all have a contribution to make, whether it was the Israelites to the Temple or what we have to contribute the world as a whole. 
To tie these interpretations to gather, whether it is our words, thoughts, and deeds, we can serve both G-d and our fellow human beings by giving. We don't sit on the sidelines and let G-d do it. We are meant to contribute, and are reminded that what we all have to contribute to the greater goal is important. Much like the Midrash teaches, we are meant to perform that giving with that fire to help out others. Purim is the season of giving that reminds us that joy is in giving. May our contributions to this world be given with a fiery passion!

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