Shabbat Shekalim:counting ourselves and making ourselves count

In the month of Adar there are 4 extra Torah portions read after the weekly reading each shabbat which give their names to that shabbat. The first of these, read on the shabbat after Rosh Chodesh Adar (the new moon of the month of Adar) is Shekalim.

The extra piece speaks of the census which is taken in the wilderness, where the people are to donate a half shekel each as ‘kofer nafsho’ (a ransom for his soul) and kesef hakippurim (atonement money). This offering to God, which is to be the same amount for everyone counted, regardless of their financial worth, is to fund the service of the tent of meeting.

The half-shekel tax that pays for the maintenance of the worship system is to be paid by the first day of the month of Nisan and so the extra reading at the beginning of Adar functions as a reminder to the community that the payment is about to be due. It has always been a source of amusement to me that many modern synagogues hold their AGM’s (and therefore the beginning of the subscription year) at around this time, in order to nudge their members to think about their membership payments, although now we do not suggest that such payment would effect an atonement.

The way of not counting people but instead counting the coins of identical value goes deep in the Jewish psyche. David incurred the wrath of God and an ensuing plague when he counted the Israelites (2Sam24) and while the commentators suggest it was because the census was not authorised, there has remained a fear of counting individuals in case of danger. This may have had to do with the belief that numbering people implied diminishing them in some way, or that the biblical census was usually associated with upcoming military activity in which many of the people numbered would lose their lives. To this day there is a general Jewish fear of censuses, and when counting a minyan for prayer people will either use the loophole of a negative (as in ‘not one, not two, not three etc.) or a recite a verse with ten words (such as Psalm 28 v9 which has the added benefit of acting as a prayer, translating as “save Your people and bless your inheritance and tend them and carry them forever”).

Whatever the reason for it, this method of counting identically valued coins teaches some valuable lessons. It shows us that while each person may have his or her own individual financial worth, everyone has the same value before God. And it causes us to ask about the significance of each person bringing only a half shekel rather than a whole one.’ Many explanations are offered by commentators: – that the half shekel may represent the time of day when the sin of the golden calf was committed (midday). That it is the equivalent to the penalty for those who disobey the 10 commandments and so this payment can be seen as a kind of atonement. They are all ingenious explanations, but the one I prefer is of a different order – According to Rambam, the use of a half shekel rather than a whole one teaches us that no person is complete when alone – we can only attain full spiritual completeness when we are in relationship with others, when we are in a community of shared interest. And I would add to this view that not only can we not be not be complete when alone, but that our completion is a process rather than an existential state. So that just as the world is in a state of continuing completion we too are always in the position of completing ourselves. And just as the world needs our work and our active interest for is continuation, so do we need the active interest of and participation in the community of ideas and of other people.

As each of us gives of our time and wealth to the community we are also aware of our own needs and our own lacks, we are each looking to be fulfilled by the ‘other half’ that can be found in relationship with other people.

Shabbat Shekalim begins the run up to Pesach, the time of redemption and the beginning of peoplehood rather than the collection of individuals. It is a liturgical nudge, a reminder that we are not fulfilled by ourselves, that we are a work in progress. This year it is paired with parashat vayakhel, the Torah reading that begins with assembling the whole people. The message is clear – community is our natural state however individual and singular we know ourselves to be. No person is complete on their own, but we are all of equal value to God, however much or little we materially own. And every one of us has something to offer the community, every single one of us counts.

Shekalim: The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list

“The ETERNAL spoke to Moses, saying: ‘When you take the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to God, when you number them; that there be no plague among them, when you numbers them. This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary–the shekel is twenty gerahs–half a shekel for an offering to the ETERNAL. Every one that passes among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of the ETERNAL. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the ETERNAL, to make atonement for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Israel before the ETERNAL to make atonement for your souls.'(Ex 30 11-16)”

Shabbat Shekalim comes around the beginning of the new month of Adar, in order to give a good month’s notice of the beginning of the month of Nisan, the month in which Pesach falls at the full moon. It is also read at this time because, according to tradition, the census of which it speaks was taken on the first of Nisan, so the reading is also acting of a reminder of that census and its purpose. The passage reminds us of the census taken in the wilderness through the donation of a half shekel coin, given not apparently only for the purpose of counting people, but also as a kind of sacrifice to offer atonement for sin, and also to provide for the maintenance of the Tent of Meeting – the forerunner to Temple and Synagogue as the space which reminds the people that God is among them. On Shabbat Shekalim, we also read a haftarah portion from 2 Kings which also makes reference to the census money and the use of it for Temple maintenance.

It is a complex text raising a lot of questions. What is the atonement being offered? What plague is being avoided? What could possibly be the difficulty with a census, a direct count of the military age men? There seems to be an ancient taboo against counting people which operates still today. By tradition one never counts people – when checking that there are ten people for a minyan a verse from the psalms is read “Hoshia et amekha, u’varekh et nahalatekha, ur’em v’nas’em ad ha’olam” [Save Your nation and bless Your inheritance, tend to them and raise them up, forever – Psalm 28:9]. It has ten words, each used to check off the people until it is clear that there are ten or over.

So why don’t we count people? Rashi suggests that numbering people means we don’t see their full humanity, and in some way we diminish them. He brings to his argument the ancient text of the Hebrew bible translated by Onkelos into Aramaic – the word for census becomes ‘taking’ – in some way by numbering people we take from them something essential. So he tells us we should never do a head count, but instead take from each of them a token, and then count those tokens. If we do not, we risk a plague coming upon us, as happened when David conducted a census. The Talmud also asks and answers our question – but differently:

“Why are people not counted directly? … Rabbi Isaac says ‘It is forbidden to count Israel, even for the performance of a mitzvah.’ … “The Talmudic discussion focuses on the verse: “The number of B’nei Yisrael will be like the sands of the sea which cannot be measured or counted …” (Hosea 2:1). In other words it is a sort of denial of faith, that the promise given to Abraham that his descendants would be beyond counting would somehow be compromised by the act of counting.

I am not sure that either of these responses gives us the authoritative reason for why counting people is so viscerally wrong. But there is something very powerful in the refusal to see people in terms of numbers. And interesting too that in the act of finding out how many men of military age are available in the community – for that must be the primary purpose of this counting – other things are woven in. Each person who is eligible gives half a shekel, something we are reminded is based on a known weight of silver equal to twenty gerahs. So each person gives the equivalent of ten gerahs. This half shekel coin must have been one of the smallest – but possibly not THE smallest – coin, something that was within everyone’s reach to donate. But add to that is the instruction – both rich and poor will contribute the same amount, neither more nor less. This reminds us that both rich and poor are equally valued in the eyes of God. The contribution of each one is of equal importance. So in the act of assessing capacity for military strength, everyone is expected to give something, and relative wealth is made irrelevant – everyone contributes the same. The fact that it is coins and not people being counted for this is also a salutary lesson – on the one hand there is something that seems to be a little coldly dispassionate about counting the silver tokens rather than the human beings, but at the same time the humanity of the individuals is being preserved – only the contribution they give is being counted. And then the piece de resistance – the silver tokens that are given are to be used not for war, not in any way for aggrandizing the powerful or for claiming the territory of others – all the contributions are used to maintain the Tent of Meeting – in effect they are the synagogue subscriptions. It is no accident that many synagogues finish their financial years at this time – the Torah reading reminds everyone of the need to give, to contribute to the well-being of the community. Without such offerings no synagogue or Jewish institution would survive.

The passage we read as maftir for Shabbat Shekalim is a well known one with clear parallels in today’s practice. The need to be able to call together a force to defend the people and the land; the need for the humanity of that force to be defended too so that the soldiers do not lose their essential souls in the fighting they do is vital, and there is much to be said about how that particular lesson is not being applied well in the current situation in Israel – just look at the website of Breaking the Silence, the testimony of Israeli soldiers, to see how values and humanity can be eroded. The imperative to never diminish people by reducing them to numbers on a list is one to which our own recent history bears painful testimony. But something else struck me powerfully this year when reading the piece. The half-ness of the shekel and the fact that a half shekel is ten gerahs.

Why a half shekel? One response is that this is a coin within reach of everyone, something that is not too big a sacrifice to give but not so small as to be insignificant. That may well be true, there is no clear economic scale for us to check it against but it has a sort of inherent likelihood. But think a little more and other values emerge. A half shekel is not complete – it requires another half to complete it. What we are saying by giving this ‘half’ is that we are making a contribution, but on its own it is not powerful enough – we need to be part of a community in order to play out our values successfully.

To be part of a community, we have first to count ourselves, to give something that can itself be noted and counted. The half shekel that we give demonstrates that we need someone else in the community to fulfill us and make us whole, to partner us and complete us. Judaism teaches that life is not to be lived as an ascetic, removing ourselves from the pleasures of people – life is to be lived in community – so public prayer for example requires a minyan – hence the need to count the people to ensure ten are present. Community is an essential tool in tikkun olam, in repairing the world. It is certainly true that one person alone can make a difference, but working together with others creates a whole world of other possibilities. We all need other people to fulfill us and the offer of a half shekel not only allows ourselves into the community, it invites others to be our partner.

With increasing joy, we explore our dark side: Purim thoughts

purim shadowPurim is possibly the hardest Jewish festival to explain, to Jews and non Jews alike. A festival whose roots are not in Torah, whose story is found in the only biblical book not to mention God, Megillat Esther is also notable for its lack of references to the Land of Israel, or to Temple rite, or any recognisably Jewish expression. Instead we know this festival for noise making, drinking to excess, the celebration of violence, and some distinctly “unreligious” behaviour and clothing.
Set in Persia in the third year of the King Ahasuerus (said to be Xerxes, King of Persia in the 5th Century BCE), a Jewish man named Mordechai allows his niece Esther to go forward in the beauty contest to be queen after Vashti has been expelled for insubordination. Esther duly becomes that mythical creature, a Jewish princess, but does not reveal her Jewish identity to anyone until plans for genocide against the Jews are unveiled by Haman, the King’s senior minister, and Esther finds herself in a position of potential influence of the King. Esther persuades the King that Haman must be removed from power but tragically the decree, once made, cannot be retracted and so the only remedy is to command the Jews to defend themselves against the attacking Persians. So on the date chosen by casting lots (Purim), the thirteenth day of the month of Adar, five hundred attackers are killed in Shushan, the capital city and seventy five thousand are killed in the rest of the empire. No material possessions are taken – this was simply an act of self defence. The next day, (14th Adar) was designated a day of celebration of the survival, and Esther sends a letter throughout the Empire commanding an annual commemoration of the event.
There is no evidence of Esther or of this particular event outside of the megillah, but the genre of the story of course is one we know well – that Jews living on sufferance in a land that is not their own find that they become disliked or scapegoated or simply political pawns in someone else’s power game. It could be because they are successful in the land and become the victims of jealousy, or else that they are not successful and seen as parasites. Whatever the pretext, the historical Jewish experience has been of differing levels of insecurity and an apprehensive reliance on the goodwill of a host community; usually the apprehension has had a good basis as in difficult times the Jewish community have traditionally been vulnerable. This festival then does not mark an agricultural milestone nor a theological event, but it does speak to the lived experience of a people in Diaspora.
The Havdalah service with which we mark at the end of the Sabbath on a Saturday night is a bittersweet event – we are leaving behind the solace of the Shabbat, and entering a working week once more, with its concomitant expectation that we are facing all the problems of the outside world once more. The service begins with a number of verses taken primarily from the book of Psalms and from the prophet Isaiah, which refer to the protection of God and the hope for divine salvation. One verse stands out for me in this collection of verses that hope for relief from a worrying world – that from the book of Esther “La’yehudim ha’yetah orah ve’simcha ve’sasson viykar The Jews had light, happiness, joy and honour”. (Esther 8:16) which is followed by a heartfelt addition – the response: “Cayn tihyeh lanu – May it be the same for us”. The use of this verse here in the service marking the end of shabbat and the start of the working week, and the response which is added to it liturgically, speaks to me of the clear and frequent anxiety of the Jewish community who, having taken time out from the world to create the Shabbat experience of security, peacefulness and warmth within their homes now know that this time out of time is over for the week and they have to get through another six days in a hostile world before having the possibility of experiencing this peace again.
Purim is unusual because it is a fantasy which we act out for one day each year and for this small amount of time all the usual rules are relaxed. Drinking is encouraged, there is a carnival atmosphere as people wear fancy dress and may even abandon the prohibition of cross dressing (OH 696:8). We joyously and noisily blot out the name of Haman as the Megillah is being read aloud in the synagogue. We celebrate the reversal of our usual story – for once we are the victors not the victims. For once we get to stand up and fight back. In the short space of this festival we act out a revenge fantasy against all those who blindly want to destroy or humiliate us.
But this is not without a degree of conflicted anxiety. While the need to imagine winning against one’s enemies for at least one day a year was clearly understood, at the same time the effect of this fantasy being enacted in a public show was not ignored. Right back Talmudic times (Megillah 7a) we read that Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah taught that Esther had to plead for her story to be told. This is something quite unique in tradition where remembering is the essence of our activity.
“Rav Shmuel Bar Yehudah said: “Esther sent a message to the Sages: “Place me in Jewish memory for all generations!” But the sages replied “Your story would incite the nations against us.”. However Esther replied: [It’s too late for that.] My story is already recorded in the chronicles of Medean and Persian kings.”
– In other words, while the celebration of the story of Purim might damage interfaith relationships, and even potentially contribute a pretext for a pogrom, it could not be hidden away and therefore might as well be told.
There remain a large number of apologetics in our tradition to mitigate the effect of the festival – for example one comment on Esther 9:5 “And the Jews smote all their enemies with the stroke of the sword, slaughtering and exterminating; and they did to their enemies as they wished.” Is that the words “vaya’asu besone’eihem kiretzonam” — “they did to their enemies as they wished” is understood to mean that the Jews acted the way their enemies had wished to do to them – in other words this is simply a reversal of the active and passive objects of the verbs, not a new activity.
In the early life of Reform Judaism there was a question whether Purim should continue to be marked – it seemed to the fastidious European reformers to be distasteful, noisy, cruel, uncivilized – all the things we had moved on from, or so we thought. But any idea of removing it from our calendar has long gone – it has become clear that Purim is a necessary festival, allowing us to explore our darker side in safety and with clear and certain boundaries for a very short time each year. Even though we are now not a people who are entirely dependent on a host community but have a land of our own, the story of Purim retains its importance and its meaning for us and we have to express our pain and frustration at having been the scapegoat in so many places over so many generations. The question now is of course, how we engage with our dark side outside of Purim, how the pain which some say our history has bred into our DNA can be dealt with so that it is not suppressed but is acknowledged while not being allowed to colour our judgements today. This is a priority for our generation and those who follow us. As we rightly celebrate our survival through centuries of persecution, and our ability and right to fight for that survival keeping our values and responsibilities intact we should remember the importance of keeping perspective and limits that the festival also highlights, and remember too that our identity is based on the how we behave all the days of the year.