There Are no Lightweights or Heavyweights … Only Half-Weights

Pikudei-Shekalim 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Everyone who is to be counted in the census must give a half-shekel according to the holy standard where a shekel is 20 gerah … the rich may not increase [their donations over and above] and the poor may not diminish [their donations below the amount of] (than) this half-shekel …

-Shemos 30:13,15

I believe with absolute assurance that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His commandments with good and punishes those who violate His commandments.

-Maomonides 11th principle of Faith

Our Rabbis taught: A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious [so that] if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he, for he has tipped his personal scale towards merit; if he commits one aveirah-transgression, woe to him for tipping his personal scale towards guilt … Rabi Eleazar son of Rabi Shimon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of his personal good or bad], if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he for tipping the scale, both for himself and for the whole world, [down] on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for tipping the scale for himself and the whole world towards guilt …

-Kiddushin 40A-B

The silver census money collected from the community came out to 100 kikars–talents and 1775 shekels by the holy standard …  The 100 [silver] kikars were used to cast the foundation sockets for the Mishkan and that the cloth partition. There were a total of 100 foundation sockets made out of 100 [silver] kikars, one kikar for each foundation socket.

–Shemos 38:25,27

Everyone, both rich and poor was commanded to contribute exactly the same coin.  As the census numbers were calculated by counting these coins the need for a standardized contribution is easily understood.  If the wealthy were to drop multiple coins, or a larger, weightier denomination, into the contribution box it would have been impossible to arrive at an accurate tally. Still, it would seem that a full shekel coin, the standard unit of currency, would have been a more appropriate uniform contribution for one and all. On a pragmatic level, it could simply be that this level of contribution might prove onerous for the poorest people in K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, whereas everyone could afford a half-shekel without being pinched too severely.  But the Izhbitzer drew a great, defining lesson in avodas HaShem-serving HaShem, from the use of the half, rather than the whole, shekel.

In our newfangled economies cash money has become nearly obsolete.  With the advents of ACH, wires transfers and scanning codes for payment; even credit cards and checks, that supplanted cash, are becoming passé.  But once-upon-a-time cash was the “new” currency. The truth is that our “fiat money” — paper document banknotes, AKA cash, is intrinsically useless and valueless; they are used only as a medium of exchange. They replaced banknotes of the gold and/or silver standard economies under which governments would not print more banknotes than they had precious metal reserves to back. Under the bimetal standards, one could redeem their dollars for fixed amounts of gold and silver. Before that there was no paper money at all. Currency was exclusively coins made of precious metals; gold and silver.  These coins did have inherent value and the value of the various coin denominations was determined by the weight of precious metal that each contained.  E.g. a silver dollar weighed four times as much as a silver quarter.

We can now understand the etymology of machatzis hashekel-the half shekel.  The verb in lashon kodesh-the holy language, for weighing is sh’kol, the noun for weight — mishkal. Thus, a more precise translation for machatzis hashekel would be “the half weight”.  The full unit of currency, the shekel, was very aptly and descriptively named, as it was the standard unit of weight of precious metal for the currency system. Larcenous coin-debasement practices such as coin-clipping and coin-sweating aimed at reducing the weight of precious metal of the coin while continuing to circulate it at face value. In fact, striping or engraving the rims of coins was first introduced to prevent clipping the coins’ circumference.

Mefarshim-commentaries, have explained that Maimonides 11th principle of faith; belief in reward and punishment, also expresses the belief in human Free-Will.  For as of the Rambam himself writes; if human Free-Will was an illusion if our thoughts, words and deeds were predetermined by Divine Providence then “through what system of justice would HaShem exact punishment from the wicked or compensate the righteous with reward? Would the Judge of all the earth not render justice?” (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:4)

Based on the Gemara  in Kiddushin the Izhbitzer extrapolated from the maftir of Shekalim that we read this week, that the opposite is equally true; that there can be no human Free-Will or, at least, that human Free-Will cannot be fully exercised, unless the willful choices that we make result in the ultimate in reward and punishment. If, when facing every new situation we do not confront the ultimate in reward and punishment, then we are self-sabotaging our Free-Will.

On the Beyond Teshuva Blog the challenge of plateauing has been explored many times.  Most people begin their lives as ovdei HaShem with the period of sustained growth.  Of course we stumble and suffer setbacks but, in general, the arrows on the graphs of our spirituality head upwards.  Then, for a variety of reasons we begin to flatline.  We get into a groove (some would call it a rut) and, essentially, we stop growing.

The Izhbitzer avers that the two primary causes of plateauing are the smug self-perception of secure, set-for-life spiritual wealth on the one hand and the utter hopelessness and sense of futility arising from the self-perception of spiritual poverty on the other hand.

Like the young entrepreneurs who may have found themselves in the right place at the right time making boatloads of money in a go-go economy, some of us, who’ve already learned lots of Torah and performed many mitzvos feel as though we can coast for the rest of our lives.  The spiritually rich, and sometimes even the spiritually nouveau riche, feel as though they’re so far ahead of the game that their next move, i.e. their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly negatively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.  In their delusional organization of reality they imagine that they have a very thick safety cushion, that  they have accumulated such a huge pile of Torah and mitzvos that spiritual bankruptcy, and the draining of their heavenly reward points accounts awaiting them in the afterlife, is unthinkable.

In stark contrast, the spiritually impoverished are paralyzed by hopelessness.  Their self image tends to be one of an inveterate sinner.  Like the compulsive gambler or the irresponsible social climber who purchased a home that he could not afford, who finds his mortgage underwater and his credit rating damaged beyond repair, the spiritually impoverished delude themselves into thinking that the hole of debt that they have dug themselves into is just too deep and profound to ever climb out of. The spiritually poor, and sometimes even those who just transgressed one “whopper” of a sin, feel as though they’re so far behind the game that their next move, i.e.  their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly positively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.

But what the rich and the poor share in common in these cases is an apathetic, detached approach to the future based on a profound sense of one-sidedness and imbalance.  In their minds eye the scales of Divine Justice, reflective of their own personal ledgers, are not in equilibrium.  There is no balance at all between their merits and their demerits, between their credits and their debits between their mitzvos and their aveiros.  As a result the next move is of no consequence.  Irrespective of what they do next time, the lopsided scales will not budge.  What both the smug and the hopeless lack is the machatzis hashekel sensibility.  If only they were to follow the advice of Chaza”l and view the personal, civic and global scales of spiritual merits and demerits to be in perfect equilibrium; their every move would be invested with cosmic consequence.  There would be no room for either taking it easy or for giving up.

This, says the Izhbitzer, is what the pasuk means.  The status of the rich and the poor described in the pasuk is not determined by the size of the persons bank account.  Rather, these terms describe their personal spiritual ledger; the scales of the persons mitzvos and aveiros or, at least, their perception of those scales.  The Torah issues as a stern warning “the rich may not give a more and the poor or may not give less than this half weight.” The Torah doesn’t ask us to build a house of G-d with the full shekel sensibility.  The Torah demands that they “give” i.e. that they perceive and come to realization, that half the standard unit of weight weighs down one side of the scales and that the other half standard unit of weight weighs down the other side of the scales in perfect equilibrium, and that the persons next move, his next exercise of Free-Will, shall tip the scales one way or the other.

Chaza”l have a very close, precise reading of the pasuk “they will make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in THEM.” (Shemos 25:8) Per Chaza”l this means that HaShem declares “I will dwell in them (the builders-klal Yisrael) not in it (the mere building.)”  In other words each and every one of us can become a tabernacle and sanctuary for the Divine Indwelling.  Rashi (Shemos 30:15) says that there were three separate terumos and that the first one that the Torah demanded of klal Yisrael, the machatzis hashekel, was used to supply the silver for the adanim-the foundation sockets of the Mishkan. I’d like to add that in light of the Izhbitzer’s Torah that we learn this take away this lesson: Our lives are meaningful. Our thoughts, our words and our deeds are of cosmic importance and that this gift of the machatzis hashekel sensibility and perception forms the very adanim-foundation sockets, of restructuring ourselves as abodes for the Shechinah.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach II Ki Sisa D”H Inyan Machatzis

See also Bais Yaakov  Ki Sisa 17

Parshas HaChodesh

By Yered Viders

What’s “new” and why is it so important? So focal that Rosh Chodesh is the very first mitzvah given the Jewish nation? So critical that Hashem could have “cut-and-paste” so-to-speak the opening words of the Torah and in place of “In the beginning,” begun the Eternal Word of Emes with “This month (i.e., Nisan) shall be for you the head of all the month”? Of such magnitude that it ushers in the two-week crescendo to leil Seder and Chag Ha’Pesach? Who ‘knew’ what’s the big deal about ‘new’?

One answer lie in the undeniable truth that the excitement of virtually every experience in life wanes after time. Time, as the Vilan Gaon, put it, has a decaying effect. Relationships cool off. Vacation spots become old hat. Part and parcel of our human hard-wiring is the magnetic draw to newness. And while there is much to be said for being satisfied “with our lot,” the Torah wants us to seek out and incorporate newness (“chiddush”) into our lives. For newness has the capacity to propel us forward. To infuse us with enthusiasm. To galvanize our ambitions. To prevent complacency with what was. To stave off despair that it will always be so.

No, my friends, what the world needs more of (in addition to Boston parking spaces) is inspiration. And while our surroundings and stimuli are constantly providing opportunities for inspiration – be it Beethoven’s Fifth for the ears, a dazzling sunset to the eyes or some friend, mentor, book or locale that can jettison our senses and shake us out of the quiet, lonely and desperate path towards ordinariness. For very, very few (if any) find simcha there.

No says the Torah! What will propel you forward lies within! You are charged with the awesome task of becoming the world’s greatest expert in (of all things) – yourself. Know what makes you tick. Know what makes you ticked off. And, above all, know what inspires. For when you can infuse yourself with enthusiasm. When your get-up-and-go isn’t tied to outside sources (who may very well have gone-up-and-left) then you can tap into deep well-springs of simcha. You can strike that oh-so-delicate balance between contentment and yearning. You can draw on the old and make it new – everything – your relationships (namely with Hashem, with yourself and with your loved ones), your learning, your davening, your profession. For the one with chiddush, with freshness, there lies simcha and for the one with simcha life is one giant, beautiful world for me and you to create.

May we always share good “news”