Friday, March 7, 2008

Derashah: Shekalim - A Community's Lost Limbs

Here's the derashah I expect to give tomorrow. We have a Bar Mitzvah in shul this week, and I wanted to speak about something else entirely, but that will have to wait.

I was sitting in the waiting area at the Honda dealership while my car was being inspected on Thursday, when I got the call about the attack at Yeshivat Mercaz haRav. I had a laptop with me, and went on-line, and felt like I had been gutted, just gutted. All around, of course, people drank their coffee and read their newspapers and sold cars, and I was just in shock.

There was a time, not that long ago, when these attacks were so familiar that I was numb to them, when not a week passed without a bus bombing or a shooting. But, thank Gd, for many months the IDF and police have been successful in halting the attacks, in catching bombers. Just a couple of weeks ago terrorists broke into a yeshiva but were killed, thank Gd, before they could strike. And so, with the passage of time since the last mega-attack, I’d forgotten what it felt like… until Thursday. And for all the forgetting, my feelings were the same old feelings. Wanting to book a flight to Israel today. Wanting to lash out. Wanting to sit down and cry.

The news hurt not just because these were yeshiva students. The news hurt not just because I know the yeshiva, because I’ve been there. The news hurt because we are all half-shekalim, every Jew is a half-shekel, and every Jew has just had his other half torn away.

We read this morning, from the third Torah, about the half-shekel each Jew donated to the mishkan in the desert. That half-shekel contribution was intended for a specific purpose - to pay for the korban tamid, for the daily offering that was brought in the Mishkan, and later in the Beis haMikdash.

Because every Jew contributed to that collection, every Jew had a portion in each korban. No Jew could do it alone, no Jew was permitted to make a mega-donation and cover a year’s offerings, or even a single day’s korban. No, the korban had to be a product of communal funds, so that each Jew had a portion. Each of us owned an incomplete part as a יחיד, an individual, made whole by the rest of the ציבור, the community.

The Jew exists as an individual, and the Jew exists as a member of a community.
· We are responsible for ourselves personally, we have a connection to Gd personally, we take responsibility for our transgressions and receive credit for our mitzvot personally.
· And we are also part of a community, a loving ציבור, such that we are taught to study communally, to daven communally, to celebrate our Yamim Tovim communally, and to bring our korbanos communally.

This individuality and this community each stem from different missions:
· We are individuals, because each of us is created in the image Gd designed for us, as an Adam and as a Chavah, with a mission of לעבדה ולשמרה, to perform the mitzvot, the tasks of growth that Gd set before us in this world.
· But we are also community because in caring for each other and working together we can multiply our individual strengths and create an umbrella which protects all of us, and which builds opportunities for all of us to grow as individual Jews. כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, all of us are responsible for each other, practically and spiritually.
Individuals grow; communities protect those individuals and build opportunities for those individuals.

Rav Adin Steinsaltz underscored this communal responsibility in a comment on the Shma, that critical declaration of Jewish beliefs and Jewish responsibility.
· In the first paragraph of the Shma, Moshe turns to each individual Jew, speaking in the singular, and says, “You shall love HaShem your Gd, with all of your heart, with all of your life, and with all of your מאד, your wealth.”
· But in the second paragraph of Shma, Moshe turns to the Jews en masse, speaking in the plural, and says, “You shall serve Gd with all of your hearts, with all of your lives.” And Moshe stops there, without mentioning serving Gd with our wealth.
Rav Adin Steinsaltz explained that this is because the individual’s chief responsibility is to connect with Gd, which means using every resource at our disposal to make that connection. The community, though, has a chief responsibility of protecting its citizens - and so Gd demands not that we turn our communal resources to Gd, but rather that we turn them to taking care of each other.

Which brings us back to this past Thursday.
When members of the community are murdered, each part of the community must feel that we have lost limbs. This is not hyperbole, and it’s no analogy - the community now lacks eight young men who would have strengthened it; where they once stood, we now have a gaping hole.

This means the community has failed. The community that is worldwide Jewry, that is responsible to use its מאד to shelter its citizens through tzedakah, through physical protection, through the spiritual protection that comes with our mitzvos and our tehillim - failed in its task. We failed in our task.

These moments of failure are times when people want to run from community, from ציבור. Being a half-shekel, being part of ציבור, expected to protect our globe-trotting family, is intimidating in its unreasonable expectations.
But running from the expectations of ציבור means abandoning the blessings brought by those expectations.
ציבור’s blessings include automatic relatives who envelop us in their embrace when we need it most, whose world is rocked when we are harmed and whose smiles shine like the Sun when we succeed.
ציבור’s blessings include the intellectual enrichment that comes from a millenia-old tradition, from text and debate and study and commentary and super-commentary and a Torah that cannot be confined to paper because it is so broad and deep and alive.
ציבור’s blessings include the emotional enrichment that comes with reaching out to unseen others, people whose names we don’t know, whose faces we’ve never seen, whose connection to us we cannot easily define, but who reach out and embrace us, in return.

For all of the communal pain of the past few days, I would never want to abandon those blessings. Instead, after our initial feelings of pain and failure, we need to move forward.
This, too, is the mission of community; as Rav Soloveitchik said regarding a general response to tragedy, our response is not “Why me,” but “What now,” “What can I do now?” And community that recognizes that we are all half-shekalim, that we all contribute to a greater whole, is ideally positioned to address the “What now” question.
· First, we protect. We reach out to each other and make sure that we are all taken care of. We reach out to family first, and then to local people, and then to our family in Israel, and then beyond. We look out for financial needs, as we will with Matanos laEvyonim, and we look out for psychological needs and spiritual needs.
· And then we build. We make sure that everyone has a chance to grow, to flourish in our individual ways. We build up our community institutions, whether by tzedakah or by volunteering our time and effort - to our shul, to our Day School, to our Mikvah, to our Eruv, to our LVKC, to ask the leadership of each organization, “How can I help you to build the community?” And then, once our own institutions are strong, to do the same for Israel, and beyond.
This won’t bring back the eight victims from Thursday, but it is the way community responds to its loss - by redoubling our efforts to protect, and to build, for the future.

1. Rav Steinsaltz's comment is in his Commentary to the Siddur. Rav Soloveitchik's theme is developed in Kol Dodi Dofek.

2. I removed the "Bar Mitzvah" ending from this on-line version. Had it not been a Bar Mitzvah week, I probably would have closed with Esther's לך כנוס את כל היהודים וצומו עלי - the community working to protect the individual, who is in turn working for the community.

3. It feels like this vision of Community is the opposite of Democracy as it is practiced today. In today's Democracy, the voice of the people is heard, each individual speaking for his own personal interest. In this vision, the sectors of the community are responsible to support the good of the whole.

4. Update: The OU just sent out a link to this appropriate Dvar Torah from Rav Kook, on the half-shekel and Jewish unity.


  1. I agree that we are all part of one community and that we bear responsibility for each other.

    Ultimately Olmert and company as the elected gov't have to take the appropriate steps to handle matters such as these.

    It must be more than lip service. It must be more than crocodile tears. What happens in our homeland impacts all of us.

  2. Chalk another one up to where were you when.

  3. Jack-
    Yes - and the same goes for our own commitment.

    I don't doubt that the memory is going to surface every time I go back into that dealership.

  4. Nice post, rabbi.

    I've discussed the half-shekel offering in the context of our membership and dues structure, but you've just given me a new perspective on it.

    It's hard sometimes to feel a connection to what's going on in Israel, except for the places I've been, when I feel I/we (my local community) has so little voice about the decisions that are made there. Thanks for reframing it.