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The Real Value of a Half-Shekel

February 12, 2018

Parshat Terumah begins with God asking Moses to embark on the ultimate capital campaign. According to God, Moses is supposed to oversee the construction of elaborate objects, including the ark that will hold the tablets given to Moses on Mount Sinai, an ornate golden menorah and the portable temple and altar, or mishkan, that the Israelites will use as dedicated holy space to make daily sacrifices for the next 40 years.

For a people that was recently freed from more than 400 years of slavery, this was an ambitious task to say the least.

What made this task even more challenging was that God did not ask for run-of-the-mill materials to build these important objects. Quite the opposite. God stated that these objects had to be built out of significant quantities of gold, silver, copper, blue, purple and crimson wool, linen, goat hair, ram skins and acacia wood and needed to be crafted in a very specific way. And even more harrowing for Moses was that God expected that all of these items will be donated by "every person whose heart inspires him to generosity."

After reading this parsha, the question that lingered in my mind was what if people were not interested in gifting some of their limited resources to this project? After all, God was asking for a lot from a people who had very little and who were still trying to understand the rules of life as a free people. But how would Moses proceed if the Israelites were the least bit reticent?

Rashi provides an interesting answer to this question. Rashi says that all of the supplies needed to build the Israelites' dedicated space and ritual objects were given voluntarily, except for the silver. Each individual, according to Rashi, contributed half a shekel to the building campaign, which ultimately equaled the amount of silver that God required for the mishkan.

A half shekel of silver may seem like a very minimal individual contribution to make to such an important project. But Rashi's commentary elicits a very important message about equality. By contributing the half-shekel, each Israelite was opting in to the process of creating holy space.It didn't matter if one Israelite was incredibly enthusiastic about the idea of creating dedicated holy space and was prepared to donate significant resources to this project. Nor did it matter if another Israelite was confused and did not understand what was going on. By donating the half-shekel, each Israelite was, quite literally, buying into the process of creating the framework of the Jewish people equally.

To me, this is a beautiful lesson. Every Israelite probably knew that there were people that had more material resources to give to the community for this important project. But when each Israelite paid his or her half-shekel, the spiritual playing field was leveled and the community's paradigm shifted. What could have been seen as an ambitious and exclusionary project that asked for sizeable donations from a few people, the creation of the mishkan became a project that built consensus and unity. By opting in to the building process, each person gained ownership of the framework of the Israelite's uncertain future and received the privilege of saying that they contributed to the building of the mishkan.

There are a number of lessons that can be discerned from this parsha. The most poignant, in my opinion, is best summarized by the great American poet, Walt Whitman, when he said that "the habit of giving only enhances the desire to give." Parshat Terumah is the start of the building of the mishkan to give back to God and give thanks for the gifts of freedom, survival and chosenness. But to be able to begin this process, each Israelite had to opt in to this notion of giving and understand that their gifts, no matter how large or small, contributed to betterment of the community and were welcome and equal in God's eyes.

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