Shabbat Shekalim תשפב

            This Shabbat, the Shabbat that precedes Rosh Chodes Adar, the first day of Adar, is called שבת שקלים – Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat of the coins. 

            When the Holy Temple stood, the Jewish community – צבור – tzibur, was obligated to bring two sacrifices daily: one, first thing in the morning, קרבן תמיד של שחר, and one at the end of the day, קרבן תמיד שך בין הערבים. Because they were community sacrifices, they needed to be purchased with community funds. Each person had a mandatory obligation to donate a half-a-shekel once a year to fund the purchase of the two sheep per day, that were sacrificed on their behalf. 

The law is that the animals purchased for one fiscal year may not be used in another. The fiscal year for sacrifices begins with Nissan, the first month of the Jewish year and any leftover animals from the previous year were disqualified for use after Nissan. Hence, they needed to collect the money to purchase the new crop of animals for the new year’s sacrifices, before Nissan. Therefore, starting from the first of Adar- the prior month- the community leaders would begin announcing and urging people to bring their half-shekel to the Tabernacle/Holy Temple, where they were collected and earmarked for the purchase of sheep for the daily sacrifices for the coming year. This is why the Shabbat before the 1st of Adar is called Paarshat Shekalim, to remind us of the times in our history when the call was made for the people to bring in their half-shekels. 

This coming Shabbat morning in Shuls the world over, Shabbat Shekalim will be observed by reading the segment in the Torah commanding the Jewish men in the wilderness, to each donate a half a shekel to the construction of the Tabernacle – the Mishkan. Although those particular half shekels were not used for the daily sacrifices, rather, they were melted down and used to form the 100 silver sockets that supported the beams of the Mishkan, since, in subsequent years they were used for the sacrifices, reading this section of the Torah reminds us of the half-shekel collection which began on the first of Adar. 

Even though we do not have the Holy Temple with daily sacrifices, since the Holy Temple can be built at any time, we may soon find ourselves bringing daily sacrifices again. Reading about it every year keeps us prepared and ready to act when it happens. Additionally, the Sages teach us, ונשלמה פרים שפתינו, that since we do not have the Holy Temple, Hashem accepts our reading of the Torah portion about the sacrifices, as if we have actually brought them. 

The verse says (Exodus 30:13):

יג) זֶה יִתְּנוּ כָּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַידֹוָד

13) This shall they give, everyone who passes through the census, half a shekel of the sacred shekel, the shekel is twenty geras, half a shekel as a portion to Hashem. 

The verse announces: This they shall give. To what does this refer? “This” is a demonstrative pronoun, which usually refers to something tangible in front of you. How does it fit here?

Rashi quotes the Midrash (Tanchuma 9) which says that Moshe had difficulty understanding the commandment of the half-shekel. In response, Hashem showed him a “coin of fire” and said, “This is what they should give!” 

What perplexed Moshe about the half shekel, and how did the coin of fire answer Moshe’s question? 

The Chatam Sofer explains that Moshe couldn’t understand how giving a donation of a half shekel would bring blessing to a person. Everything we have comes from Hashem’s goodness and generosity. Why would we be worthy of great reward for giving Him back some of what He gave us in the first place? If I gave you a box of 50 chocolates, and then asked you for one, would you hesitate to give it to me? 

Hashem answered Moshe; I am not interested in the money they give me. I am interested in the thoughts, the love, and the feelings with which they give it. I want the “fire” that is created in the hearts and minds of the people as they make their contribution. 

I gleaned a second explanation from a lecture that I heard from Hagaon Rav Moshe Shapiro זצ”ל (1935-2017). 

When we want to assess an item’s value, the conventional way to do so is to determine how much it sells for on the open market. The amount of money that people are prepared to pay for it gives us an idea of its value. Money serves as the tool for measuring value

            Human beings need many articles in order to get through life. We are actually the neediest creatures on the planet; from the moment we are born until the moment we leave this earth. Just to survive we need so many things. Imagine winter without central heating in your house, and a warm coat and gloves to go outdoors with, just to mention a few. 

                 If I raise sheep, I can shear the sheep and make myself a warm wool coat, but where will I get my food from? I don’t grow wheat and peas on my farm, just sheep and cattle. Well, if you raise crops and need a warm coat, I can give you a coat and, in return, you will give me crops and vegetables to eat. How many vegetables I will receive in exchange for one coat is determined by the law of supply and demand. If there are many coats available, I will receive fewer crops for the coat than if there are only a few coats. Bartering can alleviate some of our needs, but it is a very difficult system to use for everything. If I have a coat to barter, I have to find a person who needs it and also has extra vegetables to give away. The other person needs to find someone who has an extra coat and needs vegetables. Without Craig’s List, this would be very difficult!

                 What is the solution? Money! Man created a monetary system with a specific value to each denomination and with set prices for all the items people need based on the demand for them. Thus, a person can purchase a coat and vegetables without having to raise either. 

                 Even though neither the Torah nor the prophets invented the idea of money, the Torah accepts the concept and works with a monetary system. Governments mint money and set its value so that commerce can run smoothly via its monetary system. People are paid for their work in money and purchase what they need with their earned money, or they sell their goods for money and purchase what they need with the money they received for the sale of their items. 

                 This is why money is so precious and its pursuit occupies most people’s existence. Money contains infinite value because money has limitless possibilities! When you have an item, you are limited to the uses of that item, as it can only do certain things. With money, you have the ability to buy anything and everything in the world! All options are open before you. 

                 This is a great system, and it operates very well most of the time. But the reality is that the actual money itself has no value. A bill is an almost worthless piece of paper. How much more did it cost to print a $1,000 bill than a $1.00 bill? Probably nothing. Still, the $1,000 bill is worth a thousand times more than the $1.00 bill and has a thousand times more buying power. The value of money depends on the trust people have in the monetary system, that they will be able to buy what they want with it. When confidence in the dollar plunges, so does its purchasing power. What happens to money when the government decides to mint a new currency and dispose of the old one? All the thousands and thousands of dollars that people saved immediately become totally worthless. 

                 There is another dimension to this concept. 

                 Money is the tool used to assess value in material matters. What tool do we use to assess the value and worth of a human being? Is money an appropriate way to assess the value and importance of a human being? 

                 The Baal Hamaor – Rabbi Zerachyah HaLevi (1130-1186) writes:

בעל המאור על הרי”ף ברכות דף א/א

במקומות רבים בכתוב נקראת הנפש החיה כבוד כדכתיב לכן שמח לבי ויגל כבודי. וכתיב עורה כבודי. וכתיב למען יזמרך כבוד

In many places in scripture the living soul of a person is called “my honor” as it says, (Psalms 16:9) “For this reason my heart rejoices and my honor is elated,” and (Psalms 57:9) “Awake my honor awake,” and (Psalms 30:13) So that my honor might sing to You.”

                 The fact that King David refers to one’s soul as “his honor” teaches us a profound lesson about ourselves. A person must feel that he has importance and is worthy of honor. He must feel a value and importance to his existence, for this is the gauge by which a person assesses value and importance to himself. Rabbi Shapiro would often quote one of his teachers who said that if a person ever came to a point in his life where he felt that he was utterly useless, with no value or importance whatsoever, he would have to cease to exist. So essential is self-worth to a person, that he could not continue living without the feeling that he has some value. When a person reaches that point, when he can’t find any importance for himself, sometimes, instead of dying, his psychological defense mechanism tells him that he is not worthless at all. He is actually the most important person in the world. He is the great Abraham Lincoln! These people are the Abraham Lincolns, George Washingtons and Napoleons that fill the insane asylums. 

                 This is why honor is so coveted in this world. It validates our existence and provides us with the relevance and importance we seek to feel, because we are living a meaningful life. 

                 True honor, must be earned; it cannot be bought or mandated. So, how does one acquire honor?

                 The word כבוד – kavod – which means honor, comes from the word כבד which means heavy. Something heavy that is not easily transported and doesn’t change hands easily, is something formidable that gets our attention. We must pay attention to it because of its size. Figuratively speaking, an item with a high price tag- something very desirable and respected, so to speak- doesn’t change hands from one owner to another very easily either. One must save up for a long time to afford it. It is like something very heavy that is very difficult to move from one owner to another, which demands our attention. 

                 A person earns our respect and honor when he has overcome difficult challenges in his life. He has removed many heavy items – obstacles – from his way. He has overcome them and has not allowed them to impede his growth or prevent him from achieving his goal. In doing so, he has added great value and meaning to his life. He has made himself into a very formidable person, one who grabs our attention and cannot be easily dismissed. He has achieved importance through his actions, and we naturally honor and respect him for his accomplishments.

                 This applies to all areas of life. One can earn respect in any vocation or endeavor. 

                 There is one great problem with this definition of honor. The definition of what is valuable, worthy, and important, is completely subjective. It depends on the perspective of the observer to evaluate if the accomplishment achieved is worthy of respect. What constitutes the greatest accomplishment to one person may be the greatest failure in the eyes of another. We see this all the time. One person lauds someone for his great deed, while another vilifies him for the very same act. Similarly, in today’s world, success and importance are determined by the net worth of a person. He is important if he makes the Forbes 100 richest people in the world. To many others, having money doesn’t add anything to a person’s greatness. It is something external that doesn’t make him any more of a person. In many cases, it actually detracts from his character, making him haughty and difficult to deal with. 

                 This is true of objects as well. An item’s value is subjective. Someone may pay a million dollars for a painting that another person wouldn’t pay ten dollars for. He has no appreciation for art. It will sell for the million, only because there are enough like-minded people who attribute value to that piece of art. But if that artist fell out of favor for some reason, the value of the piece would drop drastically. 

                 In summary, money is the gauge for value and worth in objects, and honor is the gauge of value and importance in a person. But they are only artificial gauges because they depend on popular opinion to determine what is valuable and what is not.  

                 Is there anything in the world that has intrinsic value that is not dependent on the valuation of others to determine its worth? Yes, there is.

                 We say in our prayers every Shabbat morning: 

אֵין כְּעֶרְכֶּךָ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵינוּ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה

There is nothing as valued as You, Hashem, in this world.

                 Hashem’s value system – that which Hashem places value in— is the only true value system in this world. Its value is intrinsic and eternal. It is not subject to external influences and evaluations. It does not fluctuate with the market or public opinion; its value is its essence and it will never change. 

                 Hashem’s value system is in the Torah and He has shared it with us. He has clearly expressed to us what is important and what is not, what we should do, and what we should not. The mitzvot are what we should do. Doing a mitzvah adds holiness to you and makes you a greater person. A mitzvah can never lose its value and benefit. A commandment not to do something renders that thing always the wrong thing to do, no matter how “good” we think it is. You are saving yourself from harm by refraining from doing it. The Torah, for example, is replete with commandments cautioning us to treat our fellow with respect, not to speak poorly about him, hurt his feelings, or embarrass him in public. Treating your fellow as yourself, will make you a better human being. 

                 These are some of Hashem’s values and they are absolute; not dependent on any other factors. When one treats his fellow like himself, it is a truly great accomplishment. When one does the mitzvot and learns Torah, he is truly worthy of respect and honor. When one chooses to use his money for charity and to help others, instead of hoarding it for himself, this is a monumental accomplishment.

A riddle from the Ben Ish Chai (1835-1909)

What Am I?

Something very common

Something very pretty

I am physical and I eat physical things

I can eat much more than my weight or size

When I eat something, you can’t tell I have eaten it

Even though I am very small, I can become very large in a second

Everything else in the world can be cut in two to create two smaller pieces – I can’t be cut in two- not because I’m so strong, rather, my constitution simply doesn’t allow for it

I can be born in a second and die in a second, but I can literally live forever if I have enough food

My offspring are born with me and die with me

Everyone in the world needs me and I can’t exist without others but… 

It is only by destroying them to their core that I am able to exist

By destroying them I destroy myself and cease to live

            When you look at the incredible properties of this physical thing, you think to yourself- it is impossible for such a thing to exist. But when you see the answer, fire, you realize, that it really does exist. The point is that fire is the closest thing to something spiritual that we have in the world, therefore it is used as a metaphor for spirituality. 

                 This is the meaning of the “coin of fire” that Hashem showed Moshe. The coin represents the method through which we assess value and importance to something, and the fire represents the component of spirituality, the only truly valuable commodity in the world. Thus, Hashem’s answer to Moshe was, I am not interested in the money, I am interested in how much true value, spirituality, you have. How much are you giving of yourselves to acquire spirituality, the only thing with intrinsic and eternal value. How much fire – spirituality -do you have in yourself? How truly important and valuable are you? 

                 There is yet another level of depth here. 

                 Fire consumes everything and turns it into fire like itself. The consumed object thus becomes fuel for the fire and feeds it. The value system of Hashem consumes all other value systems in the world, and turns them into itself.

                 How is that? This “coin of fire” that Hashem showed Moshe was, in actuality, the transformed material half-shekel coin given by the Jewish people. When we give our material, earthly coin to the Holy Temple with the proper holy thoughts, we transform it into a “coin of fire,” because the spiritual act transforms the physical act into a spiritual one. 

                 With this being said, it is entirely possible that every single time a person uses money to make a purchase, he can transform that money into a “coin of fire.” How is that? If he purchases the worldly goods to help him serve Hashem. For example, since he needs to eat food so that he can function to do mitzvot, the money used to buy the food is holy. Because he needs clothing so that he can look respectable and be a proper representative of Hashem, the money used to purchase respectable clothing becomes holy. When a person lives a spiritually rich life, every physical need can be used to serve Hashem, and all his purchases turned into a “coin of fire.”

                 This idea stands in sharp contrast to our world’s general value system where money is hoarded for the honor it bestows upon its owners and for its buying power of goods and services, often of dubious spiritual value.             How privileged we are to have the Torah to guide us and set down the proper values for us, so we do not follow the masses who are investing their time and energy in items that have no eternal value and which they cannot take with them when they go to the World to Come.    

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