Saturday, February 9, 2013


Parshas Mishpatim

The Four Parashiot: Mis'mach Ge'ulah l'G'ulah



No one knew how to speak Lashon haRa as well as Haman. (BT Megillah 13b). Keep in mind that Lashon haRa is defined as true but degrading statements (slander is know by a different ignonomous title: Motzi Shem Ra). What did Haman say about the B'nei Yisra'el? He claimed that we are a "dispersed and disconnected people". This is, both from a perspective of Hazal's history and what we can approximate from Biblical narrative, an accurate description of the B'nei Yisra'el during this time.

There are many indications - in the Megillah, in Sefer Ezra and in Rabbinic literature - of the lack of unity and mutual concern to be found among the Judean exiles in Persia during the reign of Ahashverosh (and his predecessors). They had assimilated to the point where Jewish concerns, specifically of the welfare of the nascent and beleagured community "back home" who had returned and rebuilt the Beit haMikdash, were apparently not at the forefront of the Jewish community's conscience. Besides their assimiliation into Persi an culture (to the point where they were willing participants in Ahashverosh's idolatrous orgy - see R. Shim'on b. Yohai's comments in BT Megillah 12a) and the high rate of intermarriage prevalent in that community (see Ezra 9), the fact that it took the queen's order to assemble the Jews together in Shushan may be an indication of how "dispersed and disconnected" they really were.

What is the antidote for this lack of mutual and communal concern? Note Esther's response to Mordechai: "Assemble all of the Jews together..." (4:16). Esther understood that the first step needed in order to effect national salvation (or, in other words, to create the necessary conditions for national redemption) is to ensure that there is a nation to save. We can not be an Am Nosha (redeemed nation - Devarim 33:29) if we are not a nation to begin with.

And so, we begin the process of nation-building by publicly reading the Parashah of Shekalim: And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, When you take the census of the people of Yisra'el according to their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to Hashem, when you count them; that there should be no plague among them, when you count them. This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary; a shekel is twenty gerahs; a half shekel shall be the offering of Hashem. Every one who passes among those who are counted, from twenty years old and above, shall give an offering to Hashem. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give an offering to Hashem, to make an atonement for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money of the people of Yisra'el, and shall appoint it for the service of the Tent of Meeting; that it may be a memorial to the people of Yisra'el before Hash em, to make an atonement for your souls.

The first lesson we are taught in this Parashah is not the obligation to donate to the building of the Mishkan - we've already learned about that (Sh'mot 25:2). Rather, we learn that everyone must participate in this donation - and that everyone has an equal amount of responsibility towards this project. In other words, no individual can exempt himself from his responsibility towards the community - and no one should think that his part is either more or less significant than his fellow's. It is often this sense of exaggerated self -importance on the one hand and (its equally dangerous opposite number) self -negation on the other which causes individuals to lose a sense of perspective regarding their role and responsibility within the body politic.

Note that the Torah obligates each person to give the same amount: The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less. Besides this common standard, the Torah teaches us another valuable lesson regarding the role of the individual within the community: This they shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary;

The Torah clearly prescribes the gift of half of a shekel; why doesn't the Torah just obligate a full shekel; or, that particular amount is inherently significant, obligate a gift of 10 gera of silver. Why phrase it as half a shekel (thus leading to the Halakhic obligation to change money in order to give an actual half-shekel piece)?

The answer which suggests itself is that the Torah is teaching us about the power of the individual - and his limitations. Everyone is needed for the public welfare to be secure - but no individual, no matter how rich, intelligent or powerful, is capable of succeeding on his own. Any nation-building enterprise demands, first and foremost, a partnership. When each individual recognizes his own strengths, not negating his own value (the poor shall not give less) nor overestimate his indispensability (The rich shall not give more), he can also understand that he needs his fellow as much as his fellow needs him (half a shekel).


On the Shabbat immediately before Purim, we take out a second Sefer Torah and read Parashat Zakhor: Remember what Amalek did to you by the way, when you came forth out of Egypt; How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you, when you were faint and weary; and he did not fear God. Therefore it shall be, when Hashem your God has given you rest from all your enemies around, in the land which Hashem your God gives you for an inheritance to possess, that you shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget it.

What is the connection between this Parashah and Purim? Keep in mind that if we are only concerned with having this section read once a year, we have already done so in the late summer - and the related Parashah (Sh'mot 17:8-16) was read a month ago. Although Haman's Amalek-association (genealogical, ideological or both) is strongly alluded to in the Megillah, this still doesn't explain this extra reading at this time; after all, we don't take out a second Sefer Torah on the Shabbat of Hol haMo'ed Pesach in order to read about the prohibitions of allowing an Egyptian convert into the community for two generations - or how we must treat Egyptians in general - even though these laws are clearly associated with the events celebrated on Pesach.

A careful look at the nature of Amalek's attack reveals an intricate connection to the Purim story beyond the ancestry of Haman. How did Amalek attack us? How he met you by the way, and struck at your rear, all who were feeble behind you...In other words, the infirm, old and weak who were walking at the back of the Israelite camp were the targets of these tribal warriors (see Ibn Ezra ad loc.) The question must be asked: Why were these people walking at the back of the camp? Why weren't they placed safely in the middle, with strong, young and healthy men on the outskirts of this nomadic community?

The only conclusion which may be drawn is that the community itself did not demonstrate sufficient and appropriate concern for the weak and less capable within the group. To wit, Amalek was only able to successfully attack us when our own sense of common and mutual concern was lax. (See the comment of the Mekhilta on the verse And Amalek came and fought Yisra'el at Refidim - that Refidim implies that the B'nei Yisra'el acted deficiently in their own observace of Torah).

The sequence of Shekalim-Zakhor is one which seems to produce a dialectic tension. Shekalim teaches the equal responsibility of each person - no more, no less - towards the communal enterprise. From Parashat Zakhor, conversely, we learn that those who are stronger have a greater share of the responsibility towards their weaker fellows. Which is it? Do we have equal responsibilities or not?

This tension is immediately ameliorated when we consider which attitude each Parashah is coming to correct. At its foundation, a community must recognize the equal worth of each member and no one's worth should either be negated nor should it be overemphasized to the point of feeling like a "whole shekel". Once that sense of common obligation and equal responsibility is internalized, we do a "reality check" and note that some people, due to circumstances of birth and other Divine blessings, are more gifted than others at different things. There are brilliant theoreticians, military strategists, composers of beautiful music, and so on. Some of them, due to their engagement and involvement with their own art, are not as strong as others in other disciplines. As a result, each person needs to channel his talents towards the good of the community; strength, wisdom, wealth etc. do not breed rights; rather, they are cause for responsibility.

Both of these lessons are brought to the fore within the context of the Purim story. As noted above, Esther directed Mordechai to "assemble all of the people together", implying the commonality expressed by Parashat Shekalim. Within the celebration of Purim, however, we see an emphasis on our responsibilities towards those less fortunate: that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. (Esther 9:22).

Note the words of Rambam in codifying the Purim budget in MT Hilkhot Megillah 2:17: It is preferable for a person to spend more on his gifts to the poor than on his feast and sending portions to his friends. For there is no greater or more glorious happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, orphan, widow and stranger. One who gladdens the heart of these destitute people is similar to the Shekhinah, as it says: To bring life to the spirit of the lowly and to restore the heart of the downtrodden.

In sum, the two lessons which we need to learn in order to build a nation (which can then become a "nation which is redeemed") are the [limited] value of each member and the responsibility of each member towards each other, particularly those less "privileged". These lessons bring us to the first level of redemption - the redemption of Purim, a redemption born of Jewish unity.


Once we have forged the unity necessary to create and maintain a healthy nation, there is yet one significant step we must take to be worthy of Ge'ulah. Any group which has achieved cohesion must also have a goal towards which that cooperative spirit is focused. If communal concern and mutual respect become ends in and of themselves, there is little reason to think that they will endure. It is the engine of common purpose and direction which ultimately drives the community (and, writ large, the nation).

What is our goal? Towards what do we aim our national resources? The answer is provided in the introductory chapter to the Stand at Sinai: but you shall be for Me a kingdom of Kohanim and a holy nation... (Sh'mot 19:6)

Our national charter is not just to be a unified people, an ethical beacon whose communal and national behavior exemplify sensitivity to others and respect for each member of the K'lal. We are called to be much more than that - we are charged to be a holy nation, a nation which strives to infuse its national life - and the personal lives of its members - with sanctity. We aim to bring God's Name into this world and to bring this world to a greater realization of His Presence.

After we have achieved the lonGodesired unity on Purim, balancing the demands of Shekalim and Zakhor, we then move this unified nation towards the national agenda of purity and holiness.

The selection known as Parashat Parah details the laws of the red heifer, used to purify anyone who has come into contact with the dead and has, as a result, become Tamei (ritually impure). His Tum'ah prevents him from entering the Mikdash/Mishkan and from partaking in any of the sancta. This ritual is, as Rashi (BT Megillah 29a) points out, Taharatan shel Yisra'el - the purification of the B'nei Yisra'el.

After we have gelled as a nation, we must move, together, towards the purity which allows us to reenter the Mikdash - so that we can continue on our national mission of bringing this world to God - and revealing God to this world.



Which brings us to the last of the four Parashiot, the one which, as we noted in last week's issue, seems the most problematic.

The opening line of this Parashah, haChodesh haZeh Lakhem, is itself somewhat difficult to understand. Although it has been Halakhically rendered as a command (either the command to declare the New Moon or to maintain a calendar with the month of Aviv at its head - see Rashi and Ramban ad loc.), the wording seems to be lacking a verb. We would expect it to read: haChodesh haZeh Yihyeh Lakhem.

S'forno notes that this opening line is, indeed, not phrased as a command; rather, it is a declarative statement: This month is yours. Here is his comment: From here on the months shall be yours, to do with them as you wish. During the days of the slavery your days were not your own, rather they were committed to other people's work and contingent upon their will. Therefore It is the first one for you of the months of the year - because now you began your life of free -will.

Our liberation, giving us the opportunity to create the conditions necessary for redemption, can only come when, as a united nation, we have become purified and moved our national agenda towards our mission of becoming a holy nation. As soon as we achieve that lofty goal, the time is ours - to act as we choose. If we choose wisely, the celebration of the past Exodus can become the promised future redemption.



We can now appreciate the analogy presented by R. Levi in the selection from the Yerushalmi cited above: Just as we don't drink between the third and fourth cup (but we may between the others), similarly, we don't skip a Shabbat between Parah and haChodesh.

Since the goal of the entire sequence of these Parashiot is to engender the necessary environment for turning Pesach from past into present - ensuring a brighter future - the analogy of the four cups, which are a vehicle for celebrating that freedom are, indeed, an apt analogy.

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