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Parashat Pekudei 5774 — 02/26/2014

Parashat Pekudei 5774 — 02/26/2014

One beka per person – a half-shekel by the Sanctuary standard (38:26)

One hundred talents of this silver was used to cast the sockets of the Mishkan (38:27)

From the silver which everyone had to contribute to the construction of the Mishkan, Hashem commanded that sockets be made. All of the Mishkan’s vertical beams would be anchored in these sockets. Hashem wanted each and every person to have a share [in the Mishkan’s ability to stand]. So, too, regarding upholding the Torah: an equal role is played by those who learn the Torah and those who support the learners. Both uphold the world and are equal partners in this accomplishment.

   Of course, the yetzer hara does everything in its power to entice the learners to stop learning, and the supporters to stop supporting the learners. But when it sees that the learners pay no heed, it turns its focus to the supporters of the Torah. And here it enjoys success in weakening their hand, because they fail to recognize how great their obligation is to support Torah.’  (Chafetz Chaim)

   A student who had become wealthy after marrying asked the Chafetz Chaim why he had grown hardhearted about giving charity.  As a poor student he had craved doing tzedakah and chesed and had chased after every such opportunity.  But now that he was rich, he had become like a differen person – and giving was difficult for him.

   The Chafetz Chaim answered that this difficulty stemmed from a problem identified by our Sages: The greater the person, the greater his yetzer hara….  (Ma’aseh leMelech)

The last few years in US politics have seen any number of influential members of government brought down by a variety of scandals.  The behavior has ranged from merely stupid (Anthony Weiner) to reprehensible (Kwame Kilpatrick, John Edwards), but all of it leaves one scratching one’s head and wondering, “What were they thinking?”  Obviously, these folks do not believe that Gd is aware of what they are doing, but in today’s social media environment, with virtually everyone in possession of a video device (some even with apps that will stream the data real-time to the cloud, in case the device is confiscated or smashed), do they believe anything is secret any more?

Our Sages answer that the greater the person, the greater his yetzer hara (evil inclination).  Essentially, once a person gets into a position of power or influence, he all too often sees himself as somehow both above the moral order of the universe, and impervious to criticism.  Like a teenager who thinks he’s invincible and takes foolish risks, people in positions of power all too often take foolish risks with their families and careers and end up losing it all.  Perhaps this is Hashem’s way of reintroducing humility to a world where it’s generally quite lacking.

Perhaps we can understand this a bit better with an analogy from Physics.  Physics describes creation as being made up of layers – the surface level of macroscopic objects, the molecular layer, the atomic layer, the subatomic particle layer, etc.  As we go to deeper, more fundamental layers, there is more energy, and, if we can act on those layers, our actions are more powerful, for good or otherwise.  Nuclear energy, both for civilian and for military use, is a perfect example.

In the same way, the spiritual universe is structured in layers.  There is the surface, physical layer, there are layers of mind, intellect, emotions, etc.  If we are able to act on the subtler layers, our actions are more powerful – their effects spread out and influence other people and the other objects in our environment.  And again, this influence can be for good or otherwise.  Mitzvah performance is generally an action which takes place using physical objects (our body, some wine or candles) but which actually has its root in the infinite, unbounded basis of all existence.  It therefore spreads only positive influence throughout creation, and, I suspect, actually conditions the individual to be able to act from increasingly subtler spiritual levels.  The eventual goal is for our mind to be so established in its infinite basis, that all our thoughts and actions are infinitely powerful and completely in tune with Gd’s Will.

Now this description of life in which the mind is infinitely powerful and completely righteous is a description of the goal of spiritual development.  The wicket gets a bit stickier when we discuss the path.  As we grow spiritually, our thoughts do get much more powerful, and therefore we become much more able to influence the world around us.  Unfortunately, although we do find ourselves acting more and more in life-supporting ways, we still have old habits and physical urges – the yetzer hara – to overcome.  Since we have not perfected ourselves, there is still the possibility that we will act inappropriately, and when we do, the negative influence we have can be quite powerful.  The Land of Oz has good witches and wicked witches, and sometimes it takes more than just a bucket of water to exorcise the latter from our consciousness!

Any action has an equal and opposite reaction.  If we put positive influences into the environment, they return to us as positive results; we say they are blessings from Gd.  If we do the opposite, we get the opposite results.  We call these Divine punishments, but they are less in the way of retribution and more in the way of incentives to correct our behavior.  The more aware and alert we are, the more quickly we can internalize these messages and correct our thinking and our behavior.

With this model we can understand another principle our Sages often emphasize.  Gd is extremely exacting with great people.  If we’re shooting a rocket to the moon, it is important that the initial launch be in the proper direction.  If it isn’t, then any tiny deviation will get magnified more and more as the rocket gets further down its path.  When we make mistakes, since we are generally not operating on such a subtle level, a small deviation will not produce such a powerful negative influence on the surface, simply because it’s quite close to the surface to begin with.  Gd may specify some corrective tonic, but it doesn’t need to be all that powerful – the deviation it’s intended to correct is not that powerful.

A great person, on the other hand, is operating at a very deep level, and any small deviations on that level in fact get magnified and can cause very serious consequences, with correspondingly strong reactions.  Thus, our Sages tell us, Abraham’s small expression of lack of belief when Gd tells him that he will have progeny by Sarah led to the Egyptian exile.  Yosef asked the cupbearer twice to remember him – an initiative that would have been perfectly acceptable for an ordinary person – and Gd let him sit in the dungeon for two extra years to contemplate the nature of action, both individual and Divine.  Moses’ hitting the rock at Merivah, instead of speaking to it, led to his not being able to lead us into the Land of Israel, which in turn left us vulnerable to idolatry and exile.  Scripture is filled with examples of this principle.

The Jewish people and Jews individually are committed to a path of spiritual growth towards perfection in action and closeness to Gd.  Our verse, as interpreted by the Chofetz Chaim, teaches us that if we want that growth to be smooth, we need to be careful of our thought, speech and actions.  To help us along, we have all the details of halachah.  Adhering to our tradition speeds our growth, and keeps us safe along the way.

Shemoneh Esrei

My Gd, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile

And may my soul be stilled to those who curse me

And may my soul be as dust to everyone.

Open my heart to Your Torah, and may my soul pursue Your commandments

And as for all who plan evil against me,

Quickly revoke their plans and disrupt their thoughts…

We’ve actually finished the 19 blessings of the “18 blessings,” but the Amidah prayer includes this concluding prayer (the first part of which we’ll look at this week, and the second part next week Gd willing).  The Talmud, in tractate Berachot (“Blessings”) gives a number of examples of prayers that the various Sages would say on their own, once they had completed the prescribed text of Shemoneh Esrei.  This prayer was composed by Mar, son of Ravina.  I don’t know why the Sages chose this one in particular to recite as opposed to any of the others.  Since the Talmud gives many different examples, it implies that the form of this closing statement must have been fairly fluid for quite some time after the Talmud was redacted.  It’s also possible that the people “voted with their feet” so to speak, and customary practice simply became codified as halachah after the fact.

There is really quite a lot in this prayer.  We ask Gd for the strength to bear with fortitude anything that life throws at us (i.e. that Gd challenges us with!).  We pray for help in not lashing out, either verbally or in action, and certainly to avoid instigating wrongdoing from our side.  The ability to hold back and not respond to provocation is very hard to develop, but the reward for doing so is very great, both in this world and in the next.  There is a well-known contemporary story about a childless couple in Israel, who went to a well-known Rabbi for a blessing that they should be able to have children.  After several fruitless attempts, he told them that they didn’t need a blessing from him, but rather from someone who could hear themselves reviled and not respond.  At about the same time an American couple made aliyah and bought an apartment nearby.  A short time later both couples were at a gathering, when an obviously deranged woman entered and started cursing the American couple.  The Israeli woman went to them and begged them not to answer, which they didn’t.  When the deranged woman finally left, the Israeli couple asked their new American friends for a blessing, which they gladly gave.  Less than a year later they had a son.  Such is the power of holding one’s tongue.  Try it – the world will be a much better place for having a deeper level of silence.

Shabbat Shekalim

The Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Adar (Adar II in a leap year) is called Shabbat Shekalim, in remembrance of the collection of the annual half-shekel assessment owed by every Jewish male over the age of 20.  These half-shekels were sent to the Temple and placed in a chamber in the Temple complex.  Three times a year, around the three festivals, a withdrawal was made from the chamber, and the funds were used to purchase the communal offerings offered daily and the additional offerings for special occasions like the Festivals and New Moons (see Parashat Pinchas, BeMidbar Chapters 28 and 29, for a listing of the occasions and the offerings to be made – alternatively, the Rosh Chodesh and Festival Mussaf services all mention their respective additional offerings).  At the end of the year any funds remaining were set aside for maintenance of the Temple and associated structures.  As of the first of Nisan (the first month of the year, see Parashat Bo) all offerings had to be purchased with “new” shekels, i.e. those donated for the upcoming year.  Shabbat Shekalim reminds us of the announcements that were made throughout the Jewish world for everyone to bring their half-shekel donations either to the Temple directly or to collection points whence they would be aggregated and sent to the Temple.  One wonders if nowadays one could simply send a credit-card number to the Temple treasurer from a hand-held device.

Since the shekels came from all over the Diaspora, there were money-changers in the Temple to make sure that the shekels deposited in the chamber were kosher, Sanctuary-standard shekels.  (They also provided similar services for pilgrims who needed to purchase offerings at other times of the year.)  A shekel is about half a Troy ounce, so a half-shekel is ~¼ Troy oz, or about $5 at today’s (mid-December 2013) prices.  It is likely that these money-changers were the ones featured in the story in the Christian bible.

Tractate Shekalim of the Talmud describes the entire process in great detail.  I believe it is the only tractate that has a Gemara in Yerushalmi and not in the Bavli; many editions of the Bavli print the Yerushalmi Gemara.