Would you like to save your soul? Not a question we Jews normally ask, yet, this week’s parsha, Ki Tissa, comes to teach us precisely that- how to save our souls. The answer can be summarized in one word- giving. As the portion opens, Moses is taking a census of the people. Our tradition is sensitive about counting people directly. There is a practice, for example, that, rather than counting people for a minyan directly- one, two, three, one recites a verse with ten words and assigns each word to one individual- “Hoshia et amecha u’varech et nachalatecha. . .” There is something about counting that creates a sense of finitude, of limitation. No further growth is possible- the number is complete.
So instead, Moses asks each person to contribute a half-shekel towards the work of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness. When the half-shekalim are counted, they will indirectly yield the number of members of the community. As any fundraiser will tell you, there are community needs that require big dollars, big donations. And it is also the case that it is vital that every single person feel, KNOW, that they have a role to play in supporting the community. The message of the half-shekel is one of unity- fundamentally, each person has the capacity to give, and, through their giving, to create a mishkan, a place of holiness.
Today we no longer collect this half-shekel. But we each continue to play a role in creating a holy place within our community by our tzedakah, and also by the energy and love that we give to each other. To paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, we have replaced a sanctuary in space with a sanctuary in time.
Through our acts of kindness and forgiveness, we add to the kedusha, the fundamental holiness, of the world in which we live. Conversely, our negative energy is like air pollution, creating an environment that is toxic to all. I thought of this last week, when I had lunch at a place called “Tubac Jack’s,” located, ironically enough, in the adorable little town of Tubac. Apparently there had been a 5-day festival of some sort that had just concluded the previous day. As we sat down to order, the waitress, to her great embarrassment, replied to each item we tried to order with the words, “We’re out of that. I’m so sorry. I’m so embarrassed. I can’t believe we’re out of that too!”
We had a choice. We could rant and rave about the incredibly poor service, or we could just laugh with her about the ridiculousness of the situation. Which attitude would we give to that situation, which energy, anger or kindness, would be put into the world? We chose the latter route, and had a wonderful time. And, I might add, we were rewarded, because she recommended a phenomenal hike in Madera Canyon that we never would have found without her suggestion. Between the three of us we turned a potentially negative and volatile situation into such a joyous moment that we went back the next day, and, lo and behold, they actually had walnuts for their raspberry walnut salad. We had the choice between anger and blame, kindness and forgiveness. We chose kindness and forgiveness. What are we giving in order to create holiness in our community, to build the mishkan in time as we once built a mishkan in space?
The kabbalists say that for each action we take in the world we create either a good angel or an evil angel. I think that for each action we take we create holiness or the lack thereof in the world. The half-shekel teaches us that we each have something to give, something to contribute, and the choice is in our hands. Which choice will create holiness in our world?
The mishkan is both a physical structure as well as the space between us. We learned that in last week’s parsha, as we read in Exodus 25:8- “Let them build me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. The presence of God dwells in our connections with each other, in our kindness and forgiveness, the gentle ways that we work together to create holiness. And in this capacity we are all equal- whoever we are, rich or poor, our half-shekel is of ultimate value.
Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that “this half-shekel is called “a ransom for your soul,” for your soul is truly in danger if you do not consciously contribute to this Mishkan of community and acknowledge the equal value of each and every one of us. We can only build this holy place together. And we cannot sustain a spiritual practice that is blind to our interdependency with all of life.
The half-shekel we contribute is a reminder of the truth of our interdependency. Giving it consciously, we are saying, “Count me in!” Just by being alive and present I become an integral part of (the) . . . community. My half-shekel redeems me from the illusion of separation. The blessing of the half-shekel is that it saves me from inflation and self-importance… after all it’s only a half-shekel, only a miniscule part of the whole. And the blessing of the half-shekel saves me from invisibility or demeaning of my self-worth… after all my contribution is of equal value to everyone else’s, and the Mishkan could not be held together without it.”
The parsha then describes another threat to the soul of the community, as the people join together to build a golden calf. As Moses descends the mountain, he is so enraged that he destroys the two tablets of the covenant which he has just spent 40 days preparing. And then, a remarkable thing happens. God threatens to destroy the Israelites, and Moses heart turns and opens. In chapter 32:30 he begs God for forgiveness, and God replies, “Whoever has sinned against me, I will erase it from my book.”
In Ki Tissa, God is revealed as:
El rachum v’chanun- compassionate and loving
Erech apayim v’rav chesed v’emet- Slow to anger and filled with kindess and truth
Notzer chesed l’alafim- kind to the thousands
Nosay avon v’fesha v’chatah v’nakey- forgiving wrong and sin and error
These qualities are what each of us can bring to the world and create a beautiful mishkan in which we can all dwell.