Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Rav Moshe Weinberger - Raising Our Heads - Parshas Mishpatim/Shkalim 5778

Below, please find this adaptation of Rav Weinberger's drasha from parshas Mishpatim/Shabbos Shkalim 5778.  Enjoy!

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Rav Moshe Weinberger
Parshas Mishpatim – Shkalim 5778
Raising Our Heads

In parshas Shkalim, the Torah says, “When you count [lit. ‘lift up’] the head of the Jewish people according to their counting” (Shmos 30:12). Commenting on this passuk, the Midrash says, “By your life, just like you stand now and give them parshas Shkalim and raise their heads, so too, every single year, when they read it before Me, it will be as if you are standing there just as you are standing today and raising their heads” (Tanchuma Ki Sisa 3). How does the mitzvah to give a Half Shekel and the reading of parshas Shkalim lift up our heads? What is the connection?

Also, why does Parshas Shkalim always serve as the transition into the month of Adar and the season of Purim? As the first Mishna in Shkalim states, “On the first of Adar, we announce regarding the shkalim.” And the Gemara says, “It is revealed and known before the One who spoke and the world came into being, that in the future, Haman would pay shkalim for the Jewish people. Therefore [Hashem] caused their shkalim to preempt his shkalim. That is why the Mishna says, ‘On the first of Adar…’” (Megillah 13b). How is the mitzvah of giving the Half Shekel able to counteract the money Haman paid Achashveirosh to buy and ultimately destroy us? What is the connection? How is this one mitzvah able to both lift up our heads and defeat Haman’s shkalim?

The primary coin used in the Torah is called the shekel. What is the root meaning of this word? It means “weight,” or “to weigh.” Something weighty, or heavy, is difficult to lift up, as the passuk says “And the hands of Moshe were heavy” (Shmos 14:12) in the fight with Amalek. What happens when weighty matters are treated lightly? The prophet explains that when the time of Moshiach approaches, “they shall behave with arrogance, the youth against the elder and the light-weight against the honorable [נכבד]” (Yeshayahu 3:5).  The word for honorable comes from the root word meaning “heavy.” Those with no substance will treat sages and people with life-experience without any respect. Young people often have no regard for older people, those with experience and wisdom. They feel they cannot daven in the same shul with them. While living in Eretz Yisroel these past few months, I saw that America does not have a monopoly on the prevalence of teen and “young couples” minyanim.  

The Aramaic word for kavod, which simultaneously means “honor” and “weight” is “yakar,” which also means “precious” or “valuable,” as the passuk says, “For the Jewish people, there was light, joy, gladness, and honor” (8:16). And Achashveirosh decreed that “all women must give honor to their husbands…” (1:20). Both of these psukim use the word yakar for honor. When something is seen as weighty, valuable, or expensive, it is given honor. And conversely, calling something of light weight shows that it is cheap, expendable, and not worthy of respect. And what is the word for degradation and disrespect? It is zilzul, which comes from the root word zol, meaning “cheap.” The prophet Yeshayahu uses the word “zalzalim” to refer to twigs (18:5), small branches blown around by the wind without any staying power.

Based on the above, we can see that any reference to the shekel means something which valuable and important. It is heavy and can therefore outweigh anything placed against it. That is why the Navi tells us that Hashem says, “My son Efrayim is precious [yakir] to me” (Yirmiyahu 31:19). When this passuk was written, the tribe of Efrayim was not doing well spiritually. Yet Hashem wanted the prophet to tell us, “Efrayim, you are still My child. You are precious to Me.” Every Jew, regardless of how well he is doing, is important. He or she is a heavy-weight and must recognize his or her own immense value.

Hashem demonstrated how the Half Shekel was meant to look by taking a coin out from under His Throne of Glory (kavod) (Rashi on Shmos 30:13; Tanchuma Ki Sisa 9). This coin is used to count the Jewish people, and, because it comes from under Hashem’s throne above,  its very essence is a testament to every Jew’s value. We come from the upper world. We have unfathomable importance and worth. The half shekel shows us that we can rise above all the details of this world. One of the things done with the half shekel is paying for the communal offerings in the Beis HaMikdash. We “count.” Even the “simplest” Jew is a heavy-weight, whose Half Shekel is used to bring a korban that transcends this world, binding Heaven and Earth together.

The Gemara tells us that when Hashem gave us the Torah, He sent angels to place two crowns on our heads (Shabbos 88a). He wanted us to understand how precious and valuable we are. It was as if He was calling out to each one of us, “Precious Jew! My precious child, Efrayim! Do you have any idea how valuable you are? How important? How honored and respected because of your incomprehensible worth?” When a Jew feels that he is worthless because of what he has done or what he has looked at, he must reach up and feel those crowns on his head in order to remember that he is connected to something much greater than himself. His life has infinite value and importance beyond what he can see in his everyday, pedestrian life.

Similarly, when a Jew reads the Torah and sees the “crowns” drawn over so many of the letters, they remind him that there is something much greater and deeper than what he can see with his eyes. And when a Jew gives the half shekel or reads parshas Shkalim, it reminds him that even he has weight. He is part of a collective body, something larger than himself, part of a mission from G-d Himself. That is how the half shekel lifts up his head.

This is related to the Arizal’s teaching that even though we lost our crowns after the sin of the golden calf, the passuk which teaches us the mitzvah of the Half Shekel shows us that these crowns are returned to us every Shabbos. The passuk says, “When you count [lit. ‘lift up’] the head [ראש]….” If one “lifts up,” i.e., takes the letter above each letter in the word rosh, it spells Shabbos (שבת). Throughout the week, a Jew feels scattered, cheap, and blown around by the winds of the world. But when Shabbos comes, he feels his crowns returning. He can once again access that sense of purpose – that feeling of being part of something larger than himself. He once again feels the weightiness of the holy shekel of which he is a part. 

We can now understand how the Half Shekel preempts Haman’s shkalim. What was the essence of Haman’s shkalim? Esther said, “For I and my nation have been sold to be destroyed, killed, and lost. If we had only been sold as manservants and maidservants, I would have remained silent… (Esther 7:4). Haman’s payoff to Achashveirosh to bring about our genocide made us feel worthless, to the extent that we would not even have complained if we had only been sold as slaves. We felt that a little money was worth more than we were, like we were mere chattel. And while we were despised, Haman was lauded and honored wherever he went and Achashveirosh made him viceroy (ibid. 3:10).

But the mitzvah of the Half Shekel shows us that we are not worthless like our enemies claim and like we often see ourselves. Hashem whispers to us, “Place Me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm because love is as strong as death… If a man would give away all the wealth of his house for love, he would be despised” )Shir HaShirim 8:6-7). Yet Hashem is telling us that we are worth more than all the wealth in the world. We are part of something much greater than ourselves. We are part of Him. And that makes us worthy. That gives us weight and immeasurable importance. They announce the half Shekel on the first of Adar because that is what counteracts the cheapness of Haman. Shabbos Shkalim reminds us that we still have our crowns. We are part of the “royal family,” as children of Hashem.

We need to be reminded of this all of the time. It once happened that the Rebbe Maharash from Lubavitch zy’a, was taking one of his daily walks, deep in thought and not aware of his environment. Because of this, he inadvertently walked into a part of town Jews were not supposed to enter. A Russian guard yelled at him from across the street, but because he was contemplating so deeply, he did not hear the warning. Furious, the soldier ran over to the Rebbe and screamed in his face, “Who are you? Where are you going? What are you doing here?” Not intimidated in the least, the Rebbe asked him, “How much do they pay you?” A bit taken aback that this Jew was talking back to him, the man answered honestly, “I am paid ten rubles per day.” The Rebbe responded, “I will pay you ten times ten rubles to come over to me every day and ask me what  you did today, “Who are you? Where are you going? What are you doing here?”

We forget our value, we see ourselves and cheap and therefore cheapen ourselves only because we fail to think about the greatness we have inside. We forget who we are, who our Father is, where we come from and why we are here. We forget that we are heavy with the responsibility of being a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. May Shabbos Shkalim remind us of who we are and what we are doing. And may we merit to give the half Shekel once again with the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash, may it be soon in our days.

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