OU Torah Insights ProjectParashat Mishpatim-Parashat Shekalim
Parshas Mishpatim and Parshas Shekalim are frequently read on the same Shabbos, and though this may seem to be a random act of the Jewish calendar, a common thread does in fact connect these two Torah readings--money.
Parshas Mishpatim deals with all sorts of monetary issues and is the source for much of Jewish jurisprudence. Parshas Shekalim deals with money as well--the half-shekel given yearly by every Jew for the census and for joint participation in the communal sacrifices brought in the Holy Temple.
There is a contrast between these two Torah readings, as well. Whereas Mishpatim deals with money as a source of conflict, and provides methods for resolution, Shekalim deals with money as a unifying factor, a means to allow each individual to be part of the community.
The two readings therefore complement each other; money can be divisive, "the root of all evil," or it can draw people together for great and holy purposes.
Despite this contrast,we do find one aspect of money common to both Mishpatim and Shekalim: money as kofer, atonement.
In Mishpatim, we read of an ox with a history of goring that kills a human being. "The ox shall be stoned, and also its owner shall be put to death."
However, the parshah continues, the owner can redeem himself through the payment of kofer, an atonement. "If an atonement is imposed upon him, he must give for the redemption of his soul whatever is imposed upon him."
In Shekalim, too, the Torah calls the half-shekel, kofer. "When you take the count of the children of Israel according to their numbers, each will give to G-d an atonement for his soul."
Yet, there remain two basic differences between the kofer of Mishpatim and the kofer of Shekalim. First, the kofer of Mishpatim comes to atone for an act of negligence, while the kofer of Shekalim is incumbent upon everyone regardless of circumstance. Second, the kofer of Mishpatim is not a fixed amount, while the kofer of Shekalim is.
Are these two completely different forms of kofer or are the two more similar than they appear to be?
Mishpatim defines for us the essence of Kofer: an individual was negligent--so negligent that a life was lost. And the negligence stemmed from indifference. The oxs owner knew that his animal had a history of destruction, yet he remained indifferent to the threat. He must atone for his sin through kofer.
The kofer of Shekalim, too, addresses this threat of indifference. People often feel insignificant when they consider themselves within the context of the larger group. And feelings of insignificance can quickly lead to feelings of indifference.
The individual often feels that he or she does not make a difference and consequently makes no attempts at civic participation. Such feelings are detrimental to the group as a whole, for it loses the opportunity to benefit from the strengths and talents of all.
The Torah, therefore, requires kofer when counting the people--as an antidote to indifference. The payment is uniform, a half-shekel each, to indicate the equal significance of each.
One who pays kofer for his oxs attack will certainly take steps to prevent his animals from running wild. His concern for the public welfare will certainly intensify.
But will the same hold true for the Jew who pays his annual half-shekel to the public coffer. Will that simple act foster feelings of concern for the nation?
Moshe Rabbenu may have been troubled by precisely this question. Our rabbis relate, in the Jerusalem Talmud, that Moshe had difficulty envisioning the proper coin to be used for machatzis hashsekel, so G-d showed him the fiery image of the coin.
Did Moshe really have trouble picturing the coin? And if so, couldnt G-d simply give such a coin to Moshe?
Perhaps Moshe was not troubled so much by the physical specifications of the coin, but by its effectiveness in fostering feelings of significance and concern in those who gave it. Moshe was perhaps skeptical as to the value of this coin. Could it dispel indifference? Could it inspire caring?
Moshe was then shown a coin of fire. This demonstration told him that this simple coin did in fact contain the dramatic power to influence people. The combined strength of all Jews, coming together from far and wide, uniting in the service of G-d, has an influence far beyond that which we might expect.
Rabbi Kenneth Auman
Rabbi Auman is rabbi of the Young Israel of Flatbush, in Brooklyn, New York.