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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Mishpatim/Shekalim 5775 "The Unquantifiable Half"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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Rabbi Yisroel Ba’al Shem Tov[1], the founder of the Chassidic movement, was legendary as a holy man who had ‘vision’ beyond physical confines.

On one occasion[2] the Ba’al Shem Tov was traveling with his young grandson, Reb Boruch of Mezhbizh[3]. When they entered a certain town, the Ba’al Shem Tov announced to the townspeople that he wished to meet with the town’s poritz (landowner). The Jews of the city countered that the poritz was a virulent anti-Semite and would never agree to meet with a Jew. Nevertheless, the Ba’al Shem Tov was insistent that the meeting be arranged. Surprisingly, the poritz agreed to meet with the Ba’al Shem Tov. The townspeople were unaware that the young poritz had become ill and feeble. He had heard that the Ba’al Shem Tov could procure miracles and, out of desperation, he agreed to meet with the venerable sage.

The Ba’al Shem Tov told the poritz that, even though he was a relatively young man, he had become sick because of his hedonistic lifestyle. Chasing after his desires without inhibition had enfeebled his body causing it to deteriorate. The Ba’al Shem Tov told the poritz that if he would exercise restraint and self-control he would recover. The incredulous poritz responded, “What about you Rabbi? How do you deal with desires?” The Ba’al Shem Tov replied, “I’m already an old man. Why are you asking me about desires?” With that the meeting ended and the Ba’al Shem Tov and his grandson left.

When they were back on the coach leaving the village, young Brouch turned to his grandfather, “Zeide, why did you tell him that you’re an old man? Why didn’t you tell him the truth; that you fight your desires and inclinations, and have mastered them?”

The Ba’al Shem Tov shook his head and poignantly replied, “Gay zug tzu a goiy vos iz ah yid- Go tell a non-Jew what a Jew is!”[4]

Years later, when Reb Baruch himself became a leading Chassidic Rebbe, he would relate this story. But, after repeating his grandfather’s quip, he would add, “Oon ich zugg, gay zug tzu a yid vos iz a yid- And I say, go tell a Jew what a Jew is!”[5]

“G-d spoke to Moshe saying: When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall give G-d an atonement for his soul… This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census – a half shekel of the sacred shekel… The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel…”[6]

The commentators wonder why every Jew was instructed to donate a half-shekel to the Temple treasury? If the purpose of the half-shekel was to have a census of the nation, why didn’t they each donate a full shekel?

Rabbi Avrohom Schorr[7] offers a novel explanation: Our Sages relate that there were certain unique individuals who were ‘equal’ to many others[8]. That is something only one who possesses Divine Spirit can know. Our finite senses only allow us to see a limited amount of a person’s greatness and, therefore, we can never measure the internal value of an individual. In heaven however, they are privy to things that we cannot see. They can realize the true measure of a person, a value that far exceeds what we attribute to others in this world.

Every individual is part of a greater collective group, on two levels. On a quantitative level, he is another body, no different than anyone else in the group. But on a deeper level he plays a distinct role which grants him certain uniqueness. For example, when deciding how many settings are needed at a corporate dinner, the CEO requires a place setting just as the company’s receptionist does. But when establishing the hierarchy of the company and divvying out tasks, the CEO is undoubtedly far more crucial to the company than the receptionist.

When taking a census of the Jewish nation, G-d wanted us to realize that it is merely a quantitative tally. It is a calculation of the physical members of Klal Yisroel. But the other ‘half’ of the nation, i.e. their qualitative value, is immeasurable. No census could possibly reveal the intrinsic value of a Jew, or the Jewish people as a whole.

Our Sages explain[9] that giving the half-shekel tax served as atonement for their participation in the sin of the Golden Calf. The root cause of that sin stemmed from feelings of despondency, inadequacy, and hopelessness. They panicked and declared, “For this man Moshe that has brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him[10].” In fact, the root of almost all sin and impurities stem from feelings of lowliness, sadness, and lack of regard for one’s own greatness.

Therefore, when they contributed the half-shekel, it served as atonement for them because it rectified the root of the sin. The half-shekel symbolized that they could not contribute anything toward their qualitative value, because that aspect was simply incalculable. The greatness of a Jew can never be measured in quantifiable terms.

The Gemara[11] explains that man contains ‘six similarities’ - three similarities with the ministering angels and three similarities with animals. The half-shekel allows for a count of the ‘half’ of man which is tantamount to quantifiable animals. But our better half, our souls which connect us to the Divine, cannot be calculated.

The Zohar[12] writes that whoever feels pained about the tragic and untimely deaths of the sons of Aharon[13] will have his sins forgiven.

How can one be expected to genuinely cry over a tragedy that occurred over 3000 years ago? Even had they not died in such a tragic manner, they would be long gone by now?

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz zt’l answers that when a righteous person dies, the world suffers irreplaceable loss. The reason we cry about the deaths of the two sons of Aharon is because the entire world lost out because of it. Had they lived longer they could have had a greater effect on the world. That loss is so great, that it continues to have a negative effect even after 3000 years. Although it may not be discernable to us, the world would be a different place had they not died when they did. That is certainly something to cry about!

Building on this point, we can add that we ourselves do not realize the extent of the heinous evils perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II (as well as all the other myriad tragedies we have suffered throughout exile). When it is said that they murdered ‘six-million’, in a sense, that is only half the damage. On a deeper and more tragic level, they destroyed six million worlds, each greater than the next. That loss is far more painful and irreplaceable.

“Moshe wrote all the Words of G-d… and they brought up elevation offerings, and they slaughtered bulls…. Moshe took half the blood and placed it in basins, and half the blood he threw upon the altar. He took the Book of the Covenant and read it in earshot of the people, and they said, “Everything that G-d has spoken (na’aseh v’nishma) we will do and we will hear”. Moshe took the blood and threw it on the people, and he said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant that G-d sealed with you concerning these matters’.”[14]

The Jews’ unconditional acceptance of G-d’s commands has become immortalized as the greatest testament of our acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven. Whenever children are taught about the giving of the Torah they are taught to repeat the hallowed refrain, “We will do and we will hear.” The burgeoning Jewish nation pledged to adhere to the Word of G-d, even before fully comprehending the rationale and logic for each commandment.

In a homiletical fashion, we can explain that their commitment to ‘do’ and ‘hear’ refers to two different aspects of our connection with G-d’s Word.

“We will do” refers to the actions that the nation was obligated to perform, and the prohibitions that they had to be wary of. That component is quantifiable - 613 commandments, and many added Rabbinic precautionary laws.

“We will hear” refers to the internal commitment within the heart of each Jew. In regards to actions everyone is equal and must perform the commandments in basically the same manner. Within one’s heart however, every person serves G-d, and connects with Him, in his own way and on his own level. That vital component of Judaism is not quantifiable.

Both components are necessary. One who is merely a ‘Jew at heart’ is as remiss as one who performs all requirements mechanically, without feeling or emotion. The binding Covenant at Sinai included both aspects.

We can add that this was part of the significance of the fact that Moshe divided the blood. Half the blood was cast on the altar to symbolize the requisite service that had to be followed as commanded. But the other half was sprinkled on the people to symbolize that each of them had to develop their own inner connection with G-d.

The half-shekel, the division of the blood, and the two aspects of “we will do and we will hear”, all symbolize the fact that serving G-d entails a quantitative collective connection, as well as a personal qualitative inner connection. Together they make up the perfect Jew!

“We will do and we will hear”

“This shall they give…a half shekel of the sacred shekel.”

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[1] 1698-1760

[2] I heard this story from the Mashgiach, Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman shlita, Staff Orientation, Camp Dora Golding, summer 5764

[3] 1753-1811

[4] In other words, the Ba’al Shem Tov felt that the crass poritz could never comprehend the concept of vanquishing one’s desires and being in total control, something every Torah Jew strives to attain. The most the poritz could understand was to keep his desires somewhat in check.

[5] In other words, we ourselves do not appreciate our greatness and immeasurable value.

[6] Shemos 30:11-16

[7] Halekach V’halibuv

[8] For example, the Medrash states that Moshe was equal to all of Klal Yisroel (Tanchuma, Beshalach, 10). Also, gemara Bava Basra (121) states that Yair ben Menashe was as great as most of the members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court).

[9] See Yerushalmi Shekalim 2:3; see also Tanchuma, Ki Sisa 10.

[10] Shemos 32:1

[11] Chagiga 16a

[12] מגן אברהם, או''ח תרכ''א

[13] See Vayikra, chapter 10

[14] Shemos 24:4-8

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