Shabbat Lekh L’kha: Go Forth, in Jewish

This week we cannot assert that the Jewish lifelines of Torah study and prayer are irrelevant for our day. This week it is almost unnerving how much the Torah and our Jewish tradition have to say to us to guide our thoughts and decisions.

The haftarah for this Shabbat asserts:

The coastlands look on in fear,

the ends of the earth tremble. (Isaiah 41.5)

There have been those who have told me, in the past and more recently, that they prefer my messages when they do not overtly refer to politics. In that, those who have shared such a thought with me are in good company with our ancestors and with our Jewish community today; we all would like to simply go home and rest at the end of a difficult week, with no thoughts of more that we are called upon to do.

But the Jewish answer is this: you can go tell it to Jeremiah and Isaiah, to Micah and Elijah and Huldah. Our great prophets declared, for then and for always, that to be Jewish is to engage with G*d’s creation in all its forms. G*d is expressed in the world in every human breath and every planetary utterance, and it is hutzpah to assert that we will curate our response to the mitzvah to exclude that which troubles our rest.

We can feel an urgency echoing over the millennia since our ancestors first told the story of Lekh L’kha, pulling at us – and this is the sound of G*d’s voice calling, although you may prefer to call it by some other name. It does not matter what you call it, it only matters that you hear it. 

We have gathered in larger communities and with each other, feeling a new feeling of needing to answer the call of this week’s parashah: Lekh l’kha, “go out from what you know, from the “homeland” of past certainties, the “parents’ house” of assuming safety and security, the “kindred” of spending time only with those who agree.

Our earliest ancestors – from whom we are all descended, not by bloodlines but by intentional and loyal acts – were known as Ivri, “the one who crosses over”. We are called upon this week as they were with the mitzvah, the obligation, of lekh l’kha, “get going”.

And our tradition does not abandon us there but is with us, with wisdom from our past to help us figure out where we are going. The text itself does not say: it simply commands “Get up and go from your homeland, your family home and your kin, and go to a land that I will show you.” (Bereshit 12.1) 

We’ve been here before, and we know what to do and how to do it. We understand that this command speaks to us personally: Lekh l’kha, “go to yourself, for yourself” – what do you need to change in your life to be a more whole person?

We understand that this command speaks to us communally: Lekh “go to yourself” outward, into the world, in order to find what is l’kha, “for you” inside you.

And we understand that this command speaks to us holistically: Lekh l’kha, one cannot go forth without going inside. None of us is alone, and we must not allow anyone to forget that.

This Shabbat let the ancient words of the Prophet Isaiah inspire you and remind you: we have been here before. As Jews, our history and our tradition support and guide us and we do know what to do, even if we do not know where we are going: we must link hands and go forward together. Without demonizing the other, without ceding the high ethical ground, without losing hope.

They draw near and come,

each one helps the other, 

saying to each other, “take courage!” 

Not only for ourselves in our Jewish community, but beyond “kindred” to communities and individuals across all lines of division, we must reach out: 

The woodworker encourages the smith,

The one who flattens with the hammer 

encourages the one who pounds the anvil.

They say to each other, “it is good!”

and they support each other’s work

that it may not fall. (Isaiah 41.5-7)

May it be for you a Shabbat of spiritual and emotional strength gained from Torah, prayer, and g’milut hasadim, acting with loving kindness, that we may not fall.

Shabbat Shekalim: the power of a half-shekel

As of our hearing the haftarah chanted on Shabbat tomorrow, we begin the formal countdown to Pesakh. Yes, we have not celebrated Purim yet; but Purim, as much fun as it can be, is a minor holiday, and we are beginning to prepare for the most important Festival of the year. Pesakh, the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, is the most significant moment in Judaism; the Seder and the special observances of this celebration have, over the generations, become a central identity ritual for Jews.

We are regularly urged to be conscious of the Exodus from Egypt, in our Shabbat kiddush, in the ge’ulah section (think mi kamokha) of our daily Tefilah, and in numerous Psalms and other moments scattered around the Jewish week. But now, on Shabbat Shekalim, we have our first overt reminder that the Festival itself is celebrated soon. The Arba Parshiyot, the “Four Texts”, include additional Torah readings as well as a special Haftarah (which pre-empts the regular haftarah that would be read on this week). 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shekalim, “money”, and it is related to the national yearly tax levied in ancient Israel. Because the tax was due before the first of Nisan (the beginning of the Jewish calendar’s New Year), the word went out a month early, on or before the first day of Adar. Because the best place in the pre-modern world to make an announcement and catch as many Jews as possible was in the shul on Shabbat, the date settled on was the last Shabbat before Adar (in a year such as this one, which has two months of Adar, the announcement is made on the last Shabbat before Adar II). That gave you a month to pay the tax.

But Jews avoid money on Shabbat, and even talk of money is generally considered best avoided. So how to make the announcement if one cannot just stand up and call out “tax day is coming, get your half-shekel ready”? 

The answer is in the fact that the half-shekel tax is instituted as a mitzvah in the Torah. So the special reading is of the mitzvah itself:

“This they shall give, every one that is numbered, half a shekel according to the sanctuary weight (twenty gerah to the shekel) half a shekel for an offering to HaShem.” (Ex.30.13)

Thus everyone hearing the special Torah reading for this Shabbat Shekalim is reminded of their own nearly due half-shekel.

It is said that Torah can be approached in 70 different ways, and each different reading or insight takes us deeper in the multiple layers of our relationship with her. On this Shabbat, we rely upon Torah to remind us that, despite so many generations and so much change, at essence we are still engaged in exactly the same mitzvah as our ancestors: taking of what we have to strengthen the community we share. And as the half-shekel tax itself reminds us, no one is worth more in that effort, and no one is worth less.

As Pesakh approaches, now is the time to consider your symbolic “half-shekel” contribution to the sacred space we share; what gift will you bring, and how will it express your place in the Peoplehood of Israel?

And while you’re working on that, don’t forget to plan your Purim costume and mishloakh manot – Be Happy, it’s Adar!

Shabbat Shekalim: Tax Time in Ancient Israel

half-shekel

half-shekel

This Shabbat, on which we are reading Pekudei as the parashat hashavua, is also known as Shabbat Shekalim. Yes, the Shabbat of the Shekels. This special Shabbat is not necessarily tied to the parashah called Pekudei, but it’s not entirely inappropriate, since this last reading in Exodus consists of an audit of the records (in Hebrew, “records” is pekudim) as well as the account of, finally, the erection of the Mishkan, the space the Israelites are constructing in order to have a designated place for their kavanah (spiritual intention). Thus the place is called the place to meet G-d, although everyone agrees that no one space contains the holy.

This Shabbat is called Shekalim because it is the first of four special Shabbatot that focus on the upcoming Festival of Pesakh. Shabbat Shekalim always occurs on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the month of) Adar (or Adar II in leap years such as this year). On this Shabbat, a special extra reading is added to the regular Torah readings for Pekudei. The extra (maftir) reading comes from a text earlier in Exodus which describes a half-shekel tax collected from all the Israelites. It is read on this Shabbat because the tax, which became a yearly tax in later Israelite history, was due on the first of the New Year, which begins with Rosh Hodesh Nisan.

This raises some interesting questions which shed light on our ancestors’ culture and social organization.

1. What was the original purpose of the tax? It was a way of conducting a census. Since it was believed that counting the people was bad luck and had been demonstrated in the Torah to bring on a plague, there was – and still is – a reluctance (call it a superstition) to count people. Even in a traditional shul today, one does not count people when checking to see if we’ve reached the minyan number of ten; rather, a gabbai might use a verse such as Psalms 5.8.

 וַאֲנִי–בְּרֹב חַסְדְּךָ, אָבוֹא בֵיתֶךָ;    אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל-הֵיכַל-קָדְשְׁךָ, בְּיִרְאָתֶךָ.

As for me, I come into Your house filled with the joy of Your Presence; I bow in awe of the holiness of your Plac e.

2. Why use a Shabbat as a reminder that tax time is coming? It is striking, after all, in a religious tradition that shuns money on Shabbat and holy days, to consider the prominent place of  money in this Shabbat’s theme. In the ancient past, and continuing right up until the last generation or so, Shabbat was the weekly gathering time of the Jewish community, and the shul was the equivalent of the public square. If you wanted to reach the most Jews with the important announcements of community news, the way to do it was to incorporate it into the Shabbat prayer ritual. The Rabbis of the Talmudic period, who devised the intricate plan of what to read when all year long, mandated certain Torah and Haftarah readings which emphasized aspects of the community. Sometimes the special Shabbat reading brought depth of meaning to the day itself, and sometimes it served, as well, as a reminder of something important coming up. In the same way that we read three haftarot of gathering doom before Tisha B’Av (when the Temple and Jerusalem itself were destroyed, and we went into exile), we – on a happier note – have special readings that recall and add to the excitement of the upcoming Festival of the Spring Harvest, the Festival of Matzah.It’s quite convenient that this verse is part of the first song we sing upon beginning our prayers, so that while you are singing, you can simply let your eyes rest on each person as you chant each word of the verse. You are not precisely counting the people, yet you know if you’ve got your minyan. (Another way to count people is to point to each one and say “not one”, “not two”…..)

3. Why a half-shekel apiece? isn’t that a regressive sort of flat tax?  There are other taxes that are tied to one’s income; this small contribution has a more symbolic value, that of reminding us that this Temple tax asserts that we are all equal before G-d. Further, the application of this tax to all of us demonstrates our belief that each of us has an equally valuable contribution to make to our congregation.

“The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less; it is an atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30.15)

The last phrase of the mitzvah (the obligation commanded here) is the most provocative, describing the tax as an “atonement”. It is easy to see, and assert, that no one is too poor to give, and to understand why the rich are not allowed to give more, but why is the giving an atonement? Perhaps because each of us needs to atone for either feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t have more, or looking down on others who don’t have as much as we do. In the act of giving the very same thing, each one of us and all together, we are invited to atone, which is to say, to return to a place of at-one-ment with each other.

Our Mishkan, our sacred space, exists because of the support of each one of us, and that support is equally valuable, equally necessary. The offerings of our hearts, minds and wherewithall are all needed if we are to fulfill the mitzvah “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might”, from the Shema.