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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Mishpatim/Shekalim 5772 "The Other Half of the Coin"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Almost ten years ago, my family celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of my younger brother, Yaakov Meir. At the reception, my older brother R’ Yitzie, spoke and shared the following thought: “Let us imagine a family on their way to a vacation. The car is completely packed with suitcases and provisions for the getaway. After a few hours of driving and six bathroom breaks, the atmosphere in the car is becoming quite tense. The younger kids are getting rowdy and k’vetchy, the older kids are beyond restless, and the parents are at wits end. They have been traveling down the seemingly endless Thruway for three hours, passing nothing but the continuous blur of bare trees.

Just then, the father announces that their exit is not too far ahead. “It’s starting to get dark so I am having a hard time seeing the signs. Everyone, please look out your window and let me know if you see a sign for Exit 392.” All at once, the car becomes completely silent. Faces are pressed against the glass as all family members eagerly search for the first appearance of a sign heralding the imminent “Exit 392”. Suddenly, the first sign comes into view and everyone starts screaming in a frenzied tone, “There it is!” “There is the sign!” “It’s three miles ahead!” “We’re almost there!” “Yippeeee!” More signs come into view and the excitement in the car keeps mounting - two miles, one mile, a half-mile, and then….Exit 392 in all of its glory!

“The father stops the car and everyone jumps out to marvel at the sign. They have been waiting for this exit for so long and here it is at long last. They stop a passing car and ask the driver to take pictures of them huddled in front of the sign. They gleefully take out their barbecue to prepare a delicious supper replete with steaks, burgers, and franks. As they eat, they reminisce about the lengthy trip and how long it took them to get there, how many times they had to stop along the way, and how they had thought they would never get there.

“When they finally finished the celebration, they packed everything up and gathered back into the car. With a final look at the sign, they slammed the van doors shut. The father pulled back onto the Thruway and continued down the highway into the oblivion of headlights and the blur of bare trees.

“It seems like a ridiculous story. The family had finally arrived at the exit but they failed to realize what that meant. They celebrated finding the exit, but they didn’t get off the highway. What’s the use of finding the exit it you don’t follow it?”

At this point, my older brother turned to the new Bar Mitzvah and said, “Yaakov, today you are becoming a Bar Mitzvah! Many people celebrate their Bar Mitzvah with gala celebrations, beautiful receptions, and tremendous fanfare. But as soon as the guests leave and the lights in the hall are dimmed, they return to their daily lives and the whole shebang becomes an expensive memory. In a sense, such people are no different than the family who found the exit but, after pictures and supper in front of the sign, got back on the highway.

“A Bar Mitzvah, and any other joyous occasion, must be viewed as an exit. The celebration is wonderful but the real greatness is dependent on you. You have to follow this exit as it leads you to a new road - a road of spiritual pursuit, which will help you develop the greatness that you innately possess. All of tonight’s celebration is merely externals. It’s the other component, the one that remains hidden from view, i.e. the commitment you accept upon yourself tonight in utilizing this ‘exit’, which comprises the focal point of your Bar Mitzvah celebration.”

The transmitting of the Torah at Sinai was an unprecedented and unrepeated Revelation of G-d’s Omnipotence and Divinity. When the event was over, Moshe Rabbeinu began the arduous task of teaching the young nation the many laws and commandments that they would now have to abide by.

Parshas Mishpatim commences with G-d’s introductory statement to Moshe, “And these are the judgments that you shall place before them.” Rashi explains that the pasuk begins with the conjunctive “and” to show that the laws in the parsha are a supplement to the previous statements or events. Thus, Parshas Mishpatim, which delineates many of the myriad laws that now must be learned and practiced, has an inextricable connection with the Revelation of Sinai and the conclusion of Parshas Yisro.

Just prior to the transmission of the Torah, G-d related to Moshe, (19:9) “Behold, I am coming to you through the thickness of a cloud in order that the people shall hear when I speak to you and also in you they will believe eternally.” What is the meaning of this guarantee that the people will maintain their faith in Moshe perpetually from this day forward?

After the conclusion of its listing of the laws and prohibitions, Parshas Mishpatim continues by reverting to its narration of the events that transpired at Matan Torah. The Torah explains that the masses offered special offerings to G-d. (24:6-8) “And Moshe took half of the blood (from the sacrifices) and he placed it into a bowl, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar…And Moshe took the blood (from the bowl) and he sprinkled it on the people and he proclaimed, ‘behold, this is the blood of the covenant that G-d has made with you for all of these things’.” What was the significance of the fact that Moshe divided the blood and sprinkled half on the altar and half on the people?

“Parshas Shekalim” is the first of four unique Torah portions read during various Shabbosos prior to Pesach. The portion of Shekalim recounts the half-shekel tax which every Jew was obligated to contribute to the Temple treasury prior to the month of Nissan. After Klal Yisroel entered Eretz Yisroel and the Bais Hamikdash was built, just prior to the beginning of the month of Adar, the courts would send out emissaries to remind the people of their obligation to contribute a half-Shekel to the Temple treasury[1]. In commemoration of that injunction by the courts, we read Parshas Shekalim during the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar.

“This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census- a half-Shekel of the sacred Shekel…half a Shekel as a portion to Hashem…The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel…[2]

The vernacular of the pasuk seems redundant; why does the Torah repeat that the required contribution was a half-shekel within the same pasuk?

The Yerushalmi (Shekalim 1:4) relates in the name of Rabbi Meir that G-d took out a ‘fiery coin’ from beneath His Throne of Glory and showed it to Moshe declaring, “like this you shall give”. The commentators question why this was necessary. What was so complex about a tax of a half-shekel that Moshe couldn’t comprehend without a Divine demonstration?

In order to answer the aforementioned inquiries, we must preface with a final question: The punishment for transgressing any of the negative commandments in the Torah is – unless otherwise noted – lashes. The pasuk states, “With forty lashes he shall be smitten”[3]. However, the Gemara[4] utilizes a scriptural exegesis to conclude that in reality only thirty-nine lashes are given to the culpable sinner. Why would the Torah state that forty lashes are mandated, if in reality the Torah only wanted the person to receive thirty-nine?

In order to answer this question, the Shinova Rebbe zt’l referenced a Gemarah in B’rachos (7a). The Gemarah states that one feeling/thought of humility and subjugation is more valuable than one hundred lashes. In other words, when one sins he creates a certain distance between himself and G-d, as it were. He has blemished his pure soul and has infused within himself a certain degree of impurity and waywardness. The point of lashes or any form of punishment is to make the sinner cognizant of the spiritual damage he has wrought. In a sense, it is to “beat it out of him” so that he will be motivated to repent and repair his spiritual breaches. If the whole point of the lashes is to only awaken within the sinner a sense of contriteness and humility before G-d, than surely the emotion itself is more valuable and precious than the lashes.

The Shemen Rosh[5] expounds on the explanation of the Shinova Rav to explain our questions. Ultimately, the point of all the judgments, laws, and commandments that the Torah demands of us, is to create within us a sense of responsibility, humility, and subjugation before G-d. It is to inculcate within us the notion that we are not a lawless people. Rather, we must be disciplined and regimented in all of our daily affairs. To a great extent, that is the goal of our observance and adherence to Torah law.

Ramban[6] writes that it is possible for one to be a repulsive individual even though he meticulously observes all of the mitzvos. Such an individual adheres to the letter of the law, but completely neglects the spirit of the law. Thus, Parshas Mishpatim - which begins the discussion of the laws and commandments as they apply to the daily and mundane affairs of a Jew’s life - begins with the conjunctive “and”. The point is to reinforce the fact that, no less than the great revelation of Sinai with all of its wonders and open miracles, the purpose of all of these laws too is so that, “the people shall hear when I speak to you and also in you they will believe eternally.”

When Moshe divided the blood of the sacrifices offered after Matan Torah, he was symbolizing this message. Just as all of the thirty-nine lashes are only administered in order to achieve the “fortieth” lash, i.e. the internal feeling of contriteness and repentance, so too the atonement that is achieved from a sacrifice is not in the offering itself as much as in the inner awakening of emotions that transpire in the heart of the one who offered the sacrifice.

“And Moshe took the blood[7] and he sprinkled it on the people and he proclaimed, ‘behold, this is the blood of the covenant that G-d has made with you for all of these things.” The essence of the covenant was that they come to the realization that ‘all of these things’ was to reach a level of internal devotion and connection with G-d, as it were. It is not the rituals of the sacrifice that matter most but the contrite heart and the spiritual catharsis it generates.

When G-d commanded that each Jew offer a half-shekel as atonement, it was to symbolize that the physical giving was only half the job. Were they commanded to give a full shekel, they might feel that the act of giving was itself a complete act and they have now achieved full repentance. The half-shekel reminded them that the remainder of their ‘giving’ was on a very personal level, within the heart and soul of each individual.

When G-d originally commanded Moshe to instruct the Jews to contribute the half-Shekel, Moshe wondered why they were not expected to give a complete Shekel. G-d showed Moshe a coin of fire to symbolize that indeed each Jew was expected to give a complete Shekel. However the second half of the coin had to emanate from the internal flames of passion within one’s heart.

With this in mind the verse is not redundant at all. When the verse repeats that the amount to be given is a half-Shekel, it is referring to the second half - the spiritual/emotional component, of the Shekel. “This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census- a half-Shekel of the sacred Shekel”. If one will wonder about the second half of the coin, the verse continues, “half a Shekel as a portion to Hashem”, the other half remains clandestine and is only realized by G-d and the person himself.

In our time, we remain in exile and do not have the merit to fulfill this obligation to contribute a half-Shekel to the Temple treasury. Still, we have the ability to contribute the second and more vital half of the Shekel.

Like so many components of Judaism, the physical action of performing the mitzvah also helps us achieve a spiritually emotional ascension, as it were. Each mitzvah in its own unique manner guides us and helps us feel a certain level of connection with our Creator, as it were. The universal goal of all of the mitzvos and Torah observance, is for one to always feel loved in the eyes of G-d.

The introduction for the months of joy and redemption, Adar and Nissan, is with the reading of the giving of the half-Shekel.

It is not merely the symbolisms, rituals, and customs which we must be vigilant to adhere to, but also the internal message and spiritual potential that these mitzvos provide.

“This shall they give”

“Half a Shekel as a portion to Hashem”

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[1] (It seems that even historically this was a busy season for accountants and tax collectors…)

[2] Parshas Ki Sisa, Shemos 30:13-15

[3] Devorim 25:3

[4] Makkos 22a

[5] Harav Asher Katz – the Viener Rebbe shlit’a

[6] beginning of Parshas Kedoshim

[7] from the bowl

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