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Parashat Ki Tissa 5779

February 21, 2019

What is a Half Shekel Worth?
A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tissa
By Rabbi Irwin Huberman (’10)

About three years ago, a mysterious envelope with no return address arrived on my desk.

I opened it cautiously, slowly pulling out a blank white folded card which contained half of a twenty dollar bill.

Was this some kind of slur? Was it a practical joke? I paused for a moment, shook my head, and slipped the half bill in my desk drawer and continued with whatever I was doing.

About a month later, I rediscovered the torn bill under a cluster of papers, and later, while making a bank deposit, presented it to the teller.

“What do I do with this?” I asked. “Is there some way I can give it to charity? What is half of a twenty dollar bill worth anyway?

And she coldly replied, “It is worth nothing without the other half.” She then pulled a laminated card from her till, and read off the page. “If a customer presents half a bill and cannot produce the other half, it should be returned to the federal treasury. It is federal property.”

“After all,” she said as she looked up. “You need two hands to clap, and without the second half of this note it’s just paper blowing in the wind.”

I thought of that mysterious envelope as I reflected upon this week’s Torah portion titled, Ki Tissa (When You Take a Census).

In the aftermath of the building of the Tabernacle, God instructs Moses to take a census of Israelite men of military age, as a guarantee or “ransom” against any future plague (Exodus 30:12) or as commentator Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) interprets, against “any injury” from a future war.

Each designated Israelite was commanded to bring a half shekel – which according to Maimonides (1135-1204) was equivalent to about eight ounces of silver. The great commentator Rashi (1040-1105) notes that this collection of silver was used to fashion the sockets which held together the foundation of the Tabernacle.

Rabbis over the centuries have mused over the significance of the half shekel. Why not a full shekel? Why not vary the amount based on a person’s ability to pay?

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) explained that the phrase “the rich shall not pay more than the poor” (Exodus 30:15) guides this commandment.

He noted that the fractional unit was designated to emphasize “equality and unity” and to send a message that each person was equal in God’s eyes – and that no one is complete without another.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, in his book Unlocking the Torah Text: An In-depth Journey Into the Weekly Parsha builds on this point stressing that within a community, we must earn our affiliation. “In order to be counted as a member of the Jewish community, you must actively do something that ‘counts,’” he writes (Page 260).

The Spanish scholar Rabbeinu Behaye (1255 – 1340) saw the commandment as a reminder to think about others who may be financially or spiritually incomplete, and to ensure that they are cared for.

Maimonides advanced as well the importance of balancing two halves of human endeavor: the study of Torah, and work. He stressed that a person who studies, relying solely on charity, will “rob his fellow human beings” (Sefer HaMaddah, Torah Study 3:10)

Indeed, we all need interaction with others — friends, partners, mentors — who challenge our beliefs and our perceptions.

Later in the Parashah, when Moses descends Mount Sinai, he learns that the Israelites have forgotten God’s lesson of spiritual and material unity. The Israelites have created the golden calf.

The transition in Ki Tissa from spiritual elevation to material obsession inspires us this week to consider whether we are putting our own material and spiritual assets to good use. Are we obsessed with self-worship and the acquisition of “things,” or are we using our half shekel to elevate others?

Rabbi Elimelech Weisblum (1717–1787), reminds us that money is like fire; it can be used to protect and nourish, or it can be utilized to burn and destroy.[i]

Which are we choosing: To worship those golden calves which isolate us, or to utilize our half shekel to create synergy with others?

Recent studies have concluded that in spite of all of the technology now available at our fingertips, those who spend hours per day virtually connecting with others have never felt more alone.

Today’s emphasis of self-gratification and isolation reminds us, that in order to meet our full potential, like the communal silver used to form the sockets of the Tabernacle, we must take our own assets, and build a life foundation with others.

Otherwise, we may find ourselves only partially fulfilled, as a half shekel without an equal, or a half twenty dollar bill blowing in the wind.

Indeed, each of us is a half shekel, in search of another to help make us and the world complete.

[i] Noam Elimelech (Reb Elimelech of Lizensk; Poland, 18th century) on Ki Tissa, p. 130 in edition of Yarid Hasefarim, Jerusalem 1995.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR ’11) is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY