By Rabbi Danny Shuman
This Shabbat, in addition to being Parshat Mishpatim and Rosh Chodesh Adar, is also Parshat Shekalim. It is one of the rare times throughout the year that 3 Torah scrolls are taken from the Holy Ark and read in the synagogue. The month we are entering, the month of Adar, is the month of the holiday of Purim, the happiest day on the Jewish Calendar. Hence the instruction of the Mishna “When the month of Adar enters we increase in joy.” In addition, Parshat Shekalim is the first of the 4 special parshiyot read at this time of year in preparation for Purim and Pesach.
Parshat Shekalim discusses the mitzvah that every Jew in the times of the Tabernacle as well as the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was to give a half-shekel annually for the upkeep of the Temple services. The half-shekel was given around Purim time thus the connection to this time of year.
The famous question is asked: Why is the Mitzvah to give only a half-shekel? Shouldn’t we give a whole shekel towards the Temple? Shouldn’t our service to G-d be wholesome and complete? Yet the mitzvah was specifically a half-shekel, no more and no less.
Many answers are given and lessons gleaned:
1) A Jew needs to know that alone we are incomplete, connecting to and joining others is necessary to bring completeness’
2) No matter how much good one has accomplished one should never be satisfied…Thus far we’ve accomplished only half, we need to roll up our sleeves and get back to work;
3) A Jew by him or herself is only half. One needs G-d to be wholesome and complete
While all these answers are insightful and motivating, they all share a common denominator i.e. that wholeness and wholesomeness are the goal. They merely differ in what’s needed to reach it. Each answer emphasizing another component of what’s necessary to reach that goal
I think perhaps one can suggest another approach. That the goal is the half-shekel itself.
I often reflect during Purim, as everyone says L’Chaim, parties and feasts, what it was like to be Queen Esther, the heroine of the Purim story. That year, approximately 2,400 years ago, the Jewish people were saved from annihilation and gained prestigious status in Persian society. All this thanks to Queen Esther who risked her life and pleaded with her anti-Semitic husband, King Achashverosh, to spare her people. In the aftermath, there was much rejoicing and everyone returned to their normal Jewish lives: keeping Shabbat, making Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and Simchas.
But what about Esther? She was still stuck in the palace married to a volatile drunk who in the words of the Talmud “killed his wife for his friend and his friend for his wife.” What would be with HER dreams of having Shabbat dinner with her family, watching her children preform in the Purim plays at The Shushan Jewish Day school and celebrating her children’s Bar and Bat Mitvahs and Jewish weddings? Yet Esther knew that her unique mission in life was to save the Jewish people. As much as she may have yearned for the wholesome Jewish family life she had always dreamt of and witnessed all her childhood friends enjoy, she knew full well that THAT life would never be hers. Yet in that brokenness and void she felt, she recognized beyond a doubt that this was the life G-d wanted her to have. Could she fathom and comprehend why these basic sources of Jewish nachas and pleasure were denied her? Most likely not! However, she realized that we are put in this world to live the life G-d wants us to live not the one we dream about. She led a broken life with broken dreams, but realized this is exactly where she should be and what G-d wants from her. Perhaps this is the true ongoing heroism of Queen Esther.
Each of us have struggles. Some with health, some with children or spouses, some with a livelihood. We think to ourselves: THIS is not what was supposed to be, THIS is not the life I dreamt about. Things in my life are broken, not wholesome and complete the way they were SUPPOSED to be.
The inspiration and life lesson from Esther is NOT that the ultimate is to “live happily ever after.” That works for Disney but real life is infinitely more profound and deep. The real lesson and from Esther is that our struggles, challenges and brokenness in life are exactly where we are supposed to be. Why? We don’t know…and that’s ok! Perhaps that’s why it’s a mitzvah on Purim to drink until “we don’t know the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai,” to instill in us the acceptance that WE are not in charge. Rather, G-d runs the show and has a unique and special mission in this world for each of us. Our job is to remember that we don’t always recognize the blessings of life, and often mistake them for curses.
Purim and Parshat Shekalim teach us that G-d is found in the brokenness as much as in the wholesomeness.* They teach us that the whole shekel is not the objective, rather it is in the half-shekel where so often we can find our unique and deepest relationship with G-d . This Shabbat Shekalim and this coming Purim may we raise our glasses and toast L’chaim together with Moshiach who will usher in an era of revealed good and blessing for the whole world.
Rabbi Dan Shuman is Executive Vice President of Shuman Plastics.
*This thought was inspired by the writings of Rabbi Azriel of Gerona, the 12th century Spanish Kabbalist and teacher of Nachmanides. He authored a classic work entitled Be’ur Eser S’firot where he describes the oneness of G-d. In Responsa number Three he writes: “The Infinite one is perfect and lacks nothing. For if you argue that his power is found in the infinite and not in the finite then you are limiting G-ds perfection.”