The Lesson from Half a Shekel

I used to lead services with my friend Yoni Stadlin at the Jewish Home and Hospital in Manhattan.  One of the songs he led was called The Giving Song, as it is about the benefits of giving to others. The song goes “Deep inside my heart I got this everlasting light it’s shining like the sun it radiates on everyone.  Cuz the more that I live the more I’ve got to give; it’s the way that I live it’s what I’m living for.”

Songs like Yoni’s emphasize the importance of providing for others and correlate to the emphasis on giving within our tradition.  General practice according to the Bible is “to give what your heart desires,” as we read next week in Parshat Terumah (Exodus 25:1).  There is no limit on what one can give mentioned when talking about providing for the stranger, orphan and widow.  Therefore I find interesting our Maftir for this week, where everyone is commanded to bring the same amount (half a shekel) as an offering to God upon being counted in the census (Exodus 30:12-15).  What is significant about the bringing of the half a shekel is that everyone had to bring exactly that amount: no more and no less.  In a religion that emphasizes giving to such a degree, why set a limit on how much you can give?

In the Book of Exodus, there is a tension between having everyone give the same amount versus give whatever they are able to.  In a few weeks we will see that the Israelites were allowed to give whatever they wanted to construct the Tabernacle.  It turns out that they were so zealous in their gifts that Moses had to tell them to stop.  People came to Moses and exclaimed that “the people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that God has commanded to be done” (Exodus 36:5).  After this, Moses informed the people “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” (Exodus 36:6).

This example of the Israelites giving so much of their resources for a communal structure is astounding.  However, the difficulty with allowing people to give as much as they desire is that people do not always have the means by which to give.  I imagine that some Israelites had taken more gold from Egypt which they could donate to construction of the Tabernacle.  God did not want to embarrass those who had lesser means and thus in this week’s Maftir, God requested that every person give half a shekel-no more and no less.  This had two purposes: it made everyone an equal contributor in the construction of the Tabernacle and reminded everyone that they had an equal stake in the community.  The latter purpose is exuded by the rabbinic principle kol yisrael arevin zeh bazeh, that all of Israel has an equal responsibility in the construction of the Tabernacle.

The idea of communal responsibility is one that is not so easy to fulfill in modern times.  With so many familial needs: grandchildren’s schooling, health care, house mortgage, etc. it becomes difficult to provide for the community as well.  There are people blessed in their resources who make generous donations year after year to communal causes.  If we are not in that situation, however, than how can the notion of the Israelites providing for communal needs transfer into our lives?  I will start out with an extreme example and then touch on one that I believe can work for our larger community.

Occasionally, I get to read examples of great altruism.  One an article from the New York Times, entitled “A Donor Match over Small Talk and Coffee,” talks about a kidney donation that will be made by Starbucks employee Sandie Anderson to Annamarie Ausnes.  In small talk, Anderson discovered that Ausnes was in need of a kidney and she was a perfect match.  On March 11th 2008, the two women underwent surgery for Ausnes to receive the kidney.  The fact that a Starbucks employee offered to donate a body part to someone she did not know is an amazing act of selfless kindness, demonstrating to us that acts of great altruism exist in our society.  However, while these opportunities are awe-inspiring to hear about, it would not be feasible to do something like this on a regular basis.

A small but far-reaching way that we can work to create a community which emphasizes giving of oneself to others is to be in dialogue with the other members of the community to get to know them personally.  Part of this is learning what makes them unique and part is discovering what their concerns are.  Through a Community Organizing class at JTS, we set up a House Meeting drive brought students from each of the 5 academic schools there in dialogue with members of the faculty and administration regarding common concerns and ways to make the community stronger.  Through the drive, I heard people share similar concerns which they previously believed were theirs alone.  I also discovered that people had the desire to pool their individual resources to help one another.  Through a one hour conversation, we set the ground to create a vibrant community.  This is not the same degree of altruism as Sadie Anderson offering her kidney to Annamarie Ausnes, but it is a way on a larger scale to create a community of responsibility.

One of the great things about being part of the Jericho Jewish Center is that we have feelings of responsibility for one another, as evident by the large turnouts at Shiva Minyanim or by people inquiring about others’ well-being. However, I feel that we can take this further by reflecting on what is the contribution that each of us will give individually to strengthen our synagogue. For some it might be volunteering to serve on a committee or on the board; for others it might entail helping to plan an event and for others it might be giving of financial resources to help our congregation.

In conclusion, we have examined the tension between allowing people to provide whatever they wanted versus the universal requirement of giving half a shekel.  The giving of half a shekel ensured equal responsibility and an equal stake in the community.  It is difficult to create a community of responsibility when we each have so many needs.  At times there might be the opportunity to do an act of extreme altruism, like donating a kidney, but a more regular approach is to meet people you don’t know and get to know them as a full person: what makes them unique, what are some of their greatest ambitions and what they are concerned or afraid about (what keeps them up at night).  This is a difficult task and it is a bit idealistic.  However, by setting up a community where people can relate to one another in a personal and meaningful way, we can fulfill the maxim of kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh to create a community whose members look out for one another and which lives based on the principle of giving to others.

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