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Ki Tissa: The Half Shekel, Me and You

Check out these coins!

Although it is a coin from the State of Israel, the notion of it goes back to this week’s Torah reading. As the parsha, Ki Tissa, begins, God instructs Moses to take a census of the Israelites. Well, really just the men above age 20. Essentially it was a draft lottery, counting the number of individuals available for battle. However, instead of simply lining everyone up and counting them, or having them call out a count, each one is to contribute a half shekel coin. Then, the coins will be counted and they will indirectly yield the number of members of the community. There is a little bit of a superstitious concern about numbering a group, a sense that when we number people it is somehow limiting.

As any fundraiser will tell you, there are community needs that require big dollars, big donations. And it is also the case that it is vital that every single person feel, KNOW, that they have a role to play in supporting the community. The message of the half-shekel is one of unity- fundamentally, each person has the capacity to give, and, through their giving, to create a mishkan, a place of holiness, as our ancestors were in the midst of constructing a portable sanctuary in the wilderness. We surely hope that each and every member of Temple Chai will give as they can towards the construction of our new holy place, that each of us will create our own individual connection to our new campus.

I have a very personal relationship with the half-shekel. On May 8th , 2015, Ron and I were hiking in the preserve. When we got to the top of a climb, he pulled these coins out of his jeans’ pocket, and started telling me this random and relatively incomprehensible story about how he had brought two half-shekels home from Israel in hopes that he would meet his other half.

Confession. I had no idea what he was talking about. It was only when he extracted this beautiful ring from the same pocket that I began to understand. He wanted to propose marriage, and he believed that I was the half-shekel to complement his. Once I figured it out, of course I said yes, and now this particular parsha has an extra-special

meaning for us. Today we no longer collect a half-shekel in order to count our members. But we each continue to play a role in creating a holy place within our community by our tzedakah, and also by the energy and love that we give to each other. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we have replaced a sanctuary in space with a sanctuary in time.

Through our acts of kindness and forgiveness, we add to the kedusha, the fundamental holiness, of the world in which we live. Conversely, our negative energy is like air pollution, creating an environment that is toxic to all. What are we giving in order to create holiness in our community, to build the mishkan in time as we once built a mishkan in space?

The kabbalists say that for each action we take in the world we create either a good angel or an evil angel. I think that for each action we take we create holiness or the lack thereof in the world. The half-shekel teaches us that we each have something to give, something to contribute, and the choice is in our hands. Which choice will create holiness in our world?

The mishkan is both a physical structure as well as the space between us. We learned that in last week’s parsha, as we read in Exodus 25:8- “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. The presence of God dwells in our connections with each other, in our kindness and forgiveness, the gentle ways that we work together to create holiness. And in this capacity we are all equal- whoever we are, rich or poor, our half-shekel is of ultimate value.

Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that “this half-shekel is called “a ransom for your soul,” for your soul is truly in danger if you do not consciously contribute to this Mishkan of community and acknowledge the equal value of each and every one of us. We can only build this holy place together. And we cannot sustain a spiritual practice that is blind to our interdependence with all of life.

The half-shekel we contribute is a reminder of the truth of our interdependency. Giving it consciously, we are saying, “Count me in!” Just by being alive and present I become an integral part of (the) . . . community. My half-shekel redeems me from the illusion of separation. The blessing of the half-shekel is that it saves me from inflation and self-importance… after all it’s only a half-shekel, only a miniscule part of the whole. And the blessing of the half-shekel saves me from invisibility or demeaning of my self-worth… after all my contribution is of equal value to everyone else’s, and the Mishkan could not be held

together without it.”

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