Vayakhel/Shekalim: Neither More nor Less

This essay requires two introductory clarifications.

First of all, this Shabbat, we supplement the regular weekly reading, Parshat Vayakhel (Exodus 35:1-38:20), with a brief passage from the beginning of last week’s parsha, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-16). Why?

Because this Shabbat is the first of a series of Shabbatot that mark several significant events on the Jewish calendar. This week, we recall the ancient requirement that each of us must contribute one half-shekel to the Holy Temple at this time of year to help fund the communal sacrifices. Therefore, we read the passage in Ki Tisa which alludes to this mitzvah.

Secondly, a phrase in this passage evokes within me the image of the seventh-grade teacher who introduced me to the Mussar Movement, a nineteenth century social and educational phenomenon that emphasized ethical behavior and advocated the study of biblical and talmudic texts from ethical perspectives.

His name was Rabbi Simcha Zissel Levovitz, of blessed memory. He had studied in the famed Lithuanian yeshivot, witnessed their destruction, and escaped the Holocaust. He reached the shores of America just a few years before I was privileged to experience his tutelage.

I must confess that, to say the least, I did not then appreciate the wisdom that he tried to teach me. He spoke in broken English. He was understandably totally ignorant of the interests and preoccupations of a twelve-year-old Brooklyn boy in the early 1950s. Somehow, however, he was able to leave a lasting impression upon me, an impression which expands and deepens with every passing year.

There was an important fact about his origins that he never shared with our class but which I discovered much later in my life. He was the son of one of the most brilliant proponents of the teachings of the Mussar Movement. His name was Rabb Yerucham Levovitz, of blessed memory. He reached the apex of his long career while serving as mashgiach, or spiritual guide, of the Yeshiva of Mir in pre-Holocaust Lithuania. He passed away shortly before the Holocaust and left scant published writings in his lifetime.

It was left to his son, my seventh grade rebbe, to publish several volumes of his teachings, compiled from his father’s notebooks, from his own notes, and from the notes and recollections of his father’s numerous disciples.

These several volumes, well-edited and enriched by my Rebbe’s thorough hand and insightful intellect, have a prominent place on my own bookshelves and remain a cherished source of moral teaching for me. My own interests in psychology help me especially appreciate Rav Yerucham’s insistence that in order to be a moral and ethical person, one must know oneself well.

This brings us to this week’s “supplemental” passage. It begins with the command that all who are counted in the census must give a half-shekel as a terumah, a donation, to the Lord. “The wealthy must not give more, nor may the poor give less, than the half-shekel…”

Rav Yerucham, in the first volume of his Da’as Chochmah U’Mussar, finds this sentence challenging. He underscores the fact that the great medieval commentator Ramban insists that these are strict prohibitions, technical violations of biblical commands. No matter how destitute, the poor man sins if he does not manage to scrounge for the required funds. More puzzling, the rich man sins if he donates more than the half-shekel.

Rav Yerucham wonders about this. He first attests to a fundamental premise of the Mussar Movement. All Torah prohibitions are meant to challenge our self-control, to test our ability to deny our temptations, to refrain from activities that we desire, whether they are forbidden foods, insulting others, or avoiding illicit relationships. What is the challenge to the rich person? Is he tested by being told that he may not give more? Even the richest of men, unless excessively stingy, would be upset if he was instructed­ not to write a check!

Rav Yerucham responds by clarifying the psychology of the rich man. The rich man seeks acclaim, adulation, power. He wants people to know how wealthy he is because that is how he can attain high positions in society. He wants to achieve positions of power even if he is totally unqualified to occupy those positions. Consider how many high positions in political and institutional life are filled by those whose only qualifications are their bank accounts!

Yes, argues Rav Yerucham, the rich man is indeed tempted to donate much more that a half-shekel to the Temple. He must, therefore, be instructed to control his impulse and to recognize limitations, be they intellectual, spiritual, or physical.

Rav Yerucham builds upon this insight by quoting another Medieval rabbinic sage, Rabbenu Yonah, who remarked, “The wise must guard his wisdom as the philanthropist guards his wealth.” As Rav Yerucham explains, “Just as the philanthropist must not be deluded into thinking that his wealth qualifies him to speak on matters that are beyond his ken, so must one who is wise in many respects not think that he knows it all.”

I would go further than Rav Yerucham, if that’s acceptable. For his reflections, profound and vital as they are, are limited to the rich and wise. But I maintain that just as the wealthy and the wise are prone to overestimate their capabilities, so are the poor prone to underestimate theirs.

Therefore, the Torah tells the poor person, “You are not as poor as you think. You can earn more, you can improve your position in life, you are encouraged to donate a half shekel just as your rich neighbor is required to donate.”

And so too, to those who are not considered wise: the message is that you are wiser than you think. You are capable of studying, of growing beyond what you believe are your limitations.

These are the lessons of the Mussar Movement. To those who are likely to think too much of themselves: don’t tread beyond your very real limitations. Be honest with yourself! Know your place. And to those of you who are too humble, too self-deprecating: know that you have untouched potential. You can go much higher than you can now imagine.

I close by changing “channels” from the Mussar approach to a Chassidic teaching of the great scholar, author of Avnei Nezer, Admo”r Rebbe Avraham of Sochatchov, of blessed memory, a near-contemporary of Rav Yerucham.

He sees great significance in the fact that the public announcement that the half-shekel is due is declared just prior to the month of Purim and the month of Pesach. It is at this time of year that we all want to reconnect to the Jewish people and to the Almighty. But for the past many months, we may have distanced ourselves from our Jewish community and may have alienated ourselves from the Lord. With the half-shekel, suggests the Sochatchover, we “buy our way” back into the community of Israel and thereby regain our membership in His people. That’s how we reconnect to the Almighty. That’s how we approach the holy days that lie ahead in the coming months.

Not a bad deal for a half-shekel!