For the week ending 5 March 2011 / 28 Adar I 5771

The Mitzvah of Machtzit Hashekel

by Rabbi Yitzchak Breitowitz
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The Talmud in Megilla recounts that G-d knew that Haman would try to destroy the Jewish people by giving Achashverosh 10,000 talents of silver. Therefore, in order to countermand the effect of Haman’s shekalim, G-d gave us our own mitzvah of contributing the “half-shekel”, and we give ours first (starting from Rosh Chodesh Adar). The meaning of this passage is somewhat obscure. How do our shekalim protect us from the shekalim of Haman? Do we still need that protection after thousands of years? Are we offering G-d a bribe? And the bribe is not even going to the same source anyway (i.e. Achashverosh).

To understand this, we need to delve into the source of Haman's power over us. In Megillat Esther, Haman states to the king: "There is a nation that is scattered and separated among all the provinces of your kingdom". The Book of Esther does not contain an explicit mention of the name of G-d. Nevertheless, there is a tradition that every time the word "melech" is stated, it refers not only to the flesh and blood Achashverosh but also the ultimate King of Kings — G-d. Thus, in any verse that describes Haman talking to the king, there is a “lower” meaning and an “upper” meaning. The lower meaning is flesh and blood: Haman speaking to flesh and blood Achashverosh. The deeper, mystical meaning is that the evil force which Haman represents (the power of Amalek) is declaring something to G-d.

We can apply this concept to the above-quoted statement of Haman about the Jewish People and understand it on two levels. On one level, the physical Haman is declaring to Achashverosh, "Don't worry about killing the Jews; they are scattered, dispersed and numerically insignificant. No one will rise to defend them and they are powerless to defend themselves". At the same time, on the mystical level we understand this verse as the power of Amalek proclaiming toG-d: "The Jewish people are unworthy of Divine Protection and love because they are scattered and separated among themselves. They are polarized, in dissention, filled with endless rivalries and sinat chinam (groundless hatred). They are not deserving of Your assistance, and should therefore be destroyed by Haman's decree." The external Amalek has no power over us unless we have within us an internal Amalek, and this internal Amalek — our eternal Achilles heel — is none other than our own sinat chinam, lack of unity and absence of a deep heartfelt ahavat Yisrael. What Benjamin Franklin said about the new American republic is even more true about Am Yisrael: "We must hang together or we will surely hang separately."

If the spiritual flaw within Klal Yisrael that made us vulnerable to Haman was disunity and dissention, this is why Esther's first response to Mordechai had to be "let us gather all the Jews together." This is why Purim, which celebrates the defeat of the external Amalek, puts such a premium on building bonds of friendship and love through shaloch manot ( gifts of food) and matanos l' evyonim (charity to the poor). We celebrate the defeat of Amalek by resolving in our own lives to eradicate the root cause of its power. And finally, this is why the machtzit hashekel can countermand and annul the power of Haman's shekalim.

Machtzit hashekel is a great lesson in unity and interdependence, and this can be seen in two different respects. First, it represents the idea of equality — everyone must give the same. "The rich cannot give more and the poor cannot give less.” Why is that? We can understand why you can't give less — the Torah establishes a minimum that everyone must reach. But what is wrong with giving more? If I wanted to give extra money to a shul or a yeshiva, would they turn me down? And yet the Torah is just as insistent that the rich give no more than the absolute requirement.

The lesson here is that when it comes to service of G-d, rich and poor stand before the Almighty with full equality. As long as we do the best with whatever resources we have, even if objectively we may be doing less than the other fellow, we stand equally cherished by our Creator. Indeed, five dollars given by a person who is poor may be even more significant than a million dollars given by a multibillionaire. G-d looks at our struggles and our sacrifices. How much of an effort did we put forth — l’fum tza’ara agra("according to the effort is the reward") (Pirkei Avot).

This is true not only in the financial realm. "Rich" and "poor" can encompass the whole range of physical, mental and spiritual attainments — intelligence, strength, energy and organizational skills. Each of us is blessed with unique talents and abilities, and instead of being envious of the abilities that others have that we may lack, all of us need to be attuned to our special gifts. We needs to focus on our unique potentials, to appreciate who we are and what we can become, and to remember that as long as we try to be the best that we can be with the abilities that G-d has given us we stand before G-d equal to the greatest millionaire and even equal to the greatest tzaddik.

Thus, by stressing the equality of "rich and poor", however those terms are defined, machtzit hashekel contributes to a respect and a love for the uniqueness of each Jew as well as an enhanced appreciation for oneself, which in turn eliminates the jealousy, envy and one-upmanship that so often poison human relations.

But there is a second way that machtzit hashekel builds unity — not only by stressing our uniqueness but also our interdependence. Something that is one-half is by definition incomplete and defective, and can only achieve wholeness by being joined to another half. No Jew can truly serve G-d fully unless he is joined to the Community of Israel.

This can be proven by a simple numerical calculation.There are 613 commandments in the Torah: 248 positive commandments and 365 negative commandments. According to our Sages each positive commandment corresponds to and provides spiritual life for a particular bone in the body, and each negative commandment does the same for the sinews and ligaments. If a person is lacking even a single mitzvah, therefore, there is something missing from his spiritual makeup. However, this raises a serious problem. There has never been and will never be a Jew, no matter how righteous, who was able to keep all 613 mitzvot. Some are only for men, some for women, some for kohanim, many apply only in the Land of Israel, and a large number cannot be done by anybody when there is no Beit HaMikdash. No matter how great a person might be, standing alone there is simply no way his relationship to G-d — a relationship that depends on fulfilment of all of the 613 commandments — can be anything other than incomplete, truncated, and defective.

Nevertheless, this is true only if I stand before G-d as an individual. To the extent I link myself to Klal Yisrael with bonds of unity and love, a Klal Yisrael which is a transcendent eternal entity with a past, present, and future, the mitzvot of any segment of that entity become my mitzvot because I am part of that whole. The mitzvot of the men become the women's, the mitzvot of the women become the men's, the mitzvot of the kohanim become the mitzvot of us all, and even the mitzvos of the past that we can no longer keep — like korbanot — become our mitzvot.

This occurs when we link ourselves to the holy Community of Israel, which as a cosmic entity had been able to keep them. Thus, while it is technically true that “I” cannot keep 613 mitzvot and “you” cannot keep 613 mitzvot, “we together” are able to do so through our connection with bonds of love and friendship to Klal Yisrael. Ironically, therefore, unity and ahavat Yisrael are not only matters of benevolence, altruism and concern for others, but are actually necessary for selfish reasons. Even if my only concern was for myself (which of course it shouldn't be), unity is essential for my own spiritual welfare.

These then are the two lessons of machtzit hashekel: equality and interdependence. These lessons are to recognize the uniqueness and indispensability of our role in the formation of a Jewish society, to realize how much we count and how much we are needed — and at the same time we need to recognize our interdependence and how much we need to be connected to others. And if it was the attitudes of the machtzit hashekel that gave us the wherewithal to defeat Haman in the time of Achashverosh, it will be those same attitudes that will give us the strength to defeat the modem successors of Haman who try to destroy us up to this very day.

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