Every year we study once again the account of the moment when our people stood at the foot of Mt Sinai, witnessed a revelation, and became a community. Literally a “peak moment,” our commentators teach that this was the only time in all the history of our People of Israel when we were of one mind.
That’s a warning. This week’s reading, parashat Mishpatim, continues with that revelation, now with the details of the ancient code of law meant to guide us in ethical paths. It’s the proverbial “morning after” and upon looking at the fine print of the covenant we’ve just concluded, we’re feeling some ambivalence. We look at each other and sometimes wonder – are these the people with whom I’m meant to hold hands, that we might go out into the world together?
Perhaps that’s always true; perhaps the natural reaction to the step forward into commitment is to step back. It’s often true in relationships and in jobs. Having made common cause with another, we circle back to be sure of our own parameters. Torah comes to warn us to be careful: the community to which you’re committed does not exist unless you find your common cause with it. Jews sigh: amkha, we call ourselves, literally meaning “Your people” (that capital Y is deliberate).
Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em may be true, but we often try to have it both ways. In the accounts, both Torah and the midrash which fills out the teachings regarding the time our people spent at Sinai, our ancestors splinter into groups, making choices: these are the people I include in my community, those I don’t.
When the prophets condemn ancient Israelite society this is where they begin: the abandonment of widow and orphan. Sure, it goes on: our prophetic tradition also singles out corrupt business practices and fraudulent politics – but it begins with a denunciation of the way we turn away from each other, and the half-asleep way in which we do it.
According to Jewish tradition, we can learn Torah from nearly anything in the world, when we see how our learning casts illumination onto our sense of Jewish identity and meaning. With this in mind, I invite you to consider a modern sort of midrashic insight offered us by computer word processing. When we create a document, we can opt for “widow and orphan protection” to keep a single line of a paragraph from ending up alone on a page due to the effects of automatic formatting.
When we step back from the complete commitment to that community of which we are a part – that utter immersion we sometimes feel, in a moment of emotion or spiritual intensity – we are stepping back from people. We are creating widows and orphans.
Jewish community is a funny thing; it’s neither your family, nor is it only your book group, or even your mah jongg group. It’s something not well defined by our liberal American individuality, for it is a place in which we are meant to care for each other regardless of whether we share in each other’s individual interests or tastes. We Jews who live in the United States, many of us have been conditioned out of the ability to find our place in this communal mode, and it’s difficult to learn.
But in these days when we are feeling under siege, when we need safe spaces and feel keenly that we cannot carry our burdens alone, Jewish community is a lucky inheritance for us to have. It takes time, yes – and it redeems time:
You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed in its meaning and to be realized in it by you. – Martin Buber (Meaning and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue, by Ronald C Arnett)
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!