Sunday, February 26, 2006


This week marks a turning point in the frigid winter season. This Shabbos, along with Parshas Mishpatim, we read Parshas Shekalim, a harbinger of Purim; of warmer days and a season of hope.

Invested in the ritual of the machatzis hashekel that we read about this Shabbos are cogent lessons in how to combat jealousy and divisiveness and attain unity between Jews. In so doing, we are made worthy of Hashem’s great salvation.

Such epic goals do not, at first glance, seem connected to the mitzvah of taking a national census through the counting of the shekalim. But that is only until we take a closer look at the rich symbolism and inner meaning of the mitzvah.

Our first discovery is that the purpose of the ritual of machatzis hashekel is multi-layered.

During the times of the Bais Hamikdosh, all of Klal Yisroel was expected to donate the money needed for the korbanos tzibbur, the daily sacrifices brought on behalf of the nation. The collection took place on Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

One month earlier, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, the leaders began reminding the people to prepare their donations - a half-shekel per person. We will soon see the significance of the proclamation being made on this particular date.

[In the absence of the Bais Hamikdosh, we carry out this mitzvah symbolically by reading the parsha of Shekalim.]

The machatzis hashekel served a second purpose; it was also the vehicle through which a national census was taken of Bnei Yisroel, as Moshe was commanded at the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa.

The Torah does not allow us to count Jews bodily; everyone eligible to be counted contributes a machatzis hashekel and the coins are then counted. The Torah (30:16) relates that the money then went to the Ohel Moed (and later the Bais Hamikdosh) and served as a kapara for Bnei Yisroel.

Rashi on that posuk teaches that the machatzis hashekel accomplished yet a third purpose; it was a kapara for the sin of the eigel, the golden calf.

The Medrash Tanchuma [9] states that Moshe Rabbeinu had difficulty understanding the directive of machatzis hashekel and was shown by Hakadosh Boruch Hu a machatzis hashekel coin made of fire.

What was Moshe’s difficulty and how it was answered with the coin of fire?
The eigel was fashioned out of molten gold - gold that men had eagerly tossed into the fire, each hoping to outdo the other in his contribution so as to own a larger share of the new god that would be sculpted from the molten mass.

Moshe could not understand how the machatzis hashekel could atone for such an egregious sin.

In displaying a fiery machatzis hashekel, Hashem was telling Moshe: if you see Jews run to donate their machatzis hashekel to the Mishkon with the same fervor that they dashed off to pluck the jewelry from their wives in order to melt the gold into an eigel, you will then be assured that the census will not cause a plague.

If people give of their resources with the same dedication to a dovor shebikdusha as they gave to the avodah zorah, that is a sign that they are giving from the depths of their hearts.

If they maintain the Mishkon with the same bren as they subsidized the eigel, you will know that they are not giving selfishly, but are donating for the betterment of the community. Such people are worthy of being protected from a plague.

Because every donor could give no more and no less than a half-shekel, the machatzis hashekel “leveled the field;” it made everyone equal before the shechina and erased the possibility of any individual gaining personal benefit from his contributions.
If the Jewish people, despite the lack of opportunity for self-aggrandizement in this mitzvah, demonstrated the same bren in donating to the Mishkon as when they poured money into their own private projects, that would signify their attainment of a lofty madreiga. At that level, tzedaka tatzil mimovess; charity for purely altruistic purposes saves one from death.

If people can gather together and declare that they recognize that in the eyes of G-d they are equal, if they can stand in line with their machatzis hashekel and not be jealous of each other, that is a sign they are G-d fearing people and no mageifah will befall them.

The Ramban unveils a hidden connection between Parshas Mishpatim and the tenth commandment of the Aseres Hadibros, “Lo Sachmod,” Thou shalt not covet.
Parshas Mishpatim enshrines the doctrine of respecting boundaries between what is ours and what rightfully belongs to others.

An entire body of Divine laws aims to thoroughly embed in our natures an abhorrence for taking what is not ours - and an aversion to even desiring it.
A true yorei Shomayim will be content with what he has and will not jealously eye his neighbor’s possessions.

The Meshech Chochma’s comments at the beginning of Parshas Vaeira regarding the mitzvah of Birkas Hamazon expand on the concept that being content with what Hashem has given us is an expression of deepest emunah.

If people realize that all their possessions are from Hakadosh Boruch Hu, and that he cares for us and all our needs, they will be satisfied with what the Creator, in His wisdom, apportioned to them.

This is the reason we make a brocha achronah after eating an amount of food equal to the volume of an egg or an olive, and not only when we have eaten our full as the Biblical commandment prescribes. We thereby demonstrate our belief that all we have is from Hashem and that even if it is minimal, we are grateful and content with it.

People tend to feel that they are being treated unfairly when observing others who are richer, or who have more kavod or status, or have gotten further in life. Such feelings fuel jealousy, which, in turn, spawns anger and hatred.

Those who aren’t satisfied with their lot in life essentially suffer from a lack of emunah.

People who lie, cheat and steal to get ahead are lacking in belief in Hashem. Individuals who promote themselves incessantly at the expense of others are k’tanei emunah.

On the other hand, when a Jew eats a kezayis and bentches, thanking Hashem for what he has given him, he pays tribute to the fact that all he has is a gift from G-d, and that G-d provides him with precisely what he needs.

“If He deemed me worthy of eating only a kezayis, that will suffice for me. It will be as filling to me as an entire meal,” one is urged to think. “I realize I must be thankful for what I have and I realize that there is a G-d above who is looking out for me.”

By submitting to the counting of Bnei Yisroel through the machatzis hashekel, the Jewish people declared their acceptance that one’s possessions come from Hakadosh Boruch Hu and that witnessing another’s good fortune must never trigger jealousy and resentment.

The wealthy Jews, by giving only a pittance, demonstrated their acceptance that in G-d’s eyes, money is not the measurement of man. They understood that when Jews are counted, they are measured for who they are and what they have done with their G-dly gifts, not in terms of their bank accounts.

The Gemorah comments in Maseches Megillah (13b) that Raish Lakish taught that the Creator knew Haman would one day weigh shekalim with which to bribe Achashveirosh to permit him to kill the Jews on the 14th of Adar.

Hashem therefore caused the rabbis to determine that the proclamation to prepare the shekalim be made on Rosh Chodesh Adar, to counteract Haman’s evil schemes.

What is there about the shekalim of the Mikdosh which had the power to trump the shekalim of Haman? What special force did they possess that they were able to defeat Haman and his nefarious plans?

The Megillah relates that Haman declared to Achashveirosh, “Yeshno am echod mefuzar umeforad bein ha’amim, there is one nation which is scattered and dispersed between the nations…” A deeper explanation offered by the meforshim is that Haman theorized that Am Yisroel suffered from a lack of achdus.

There was no unity among the Jews of his time. They quarreled and were divisive. Haman knew that when harmony and unity are absent among Jews, it is much easier to destroy them.

The Creator therefore caused the Chachomim to announce the upcoming collection of the machatzis hashekel on Rosh Chodesh Adar. The machatzis hashekel served to bring Jews together; it cured jealousy and the hatred it generates between people. Through the machatzis hashekel, Jews were reunified and drawn close to one another in ahavas Yisroel.

The achdus that grew in place of envy, rancor and sinas chinom, saved them from Haman’s evil designs.

May we merit that in our day as well, when the parsha of Shekalim is read, the message of the machatzis hashekel will inspire us to abandon hatred and jealousy and reunite in harmony and brotherhood.

May Hashem grant that by the time Purim arrives, we will be standing k’ish echod b’leiv echod, ready to greet Moshiach tzidkeinu.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Public opinion is a powerful tool. To exploit this tool to its fullest, politicians take polls. In some countries, pollsters taint the results in favor of the candidate they prefer—or are paid to promote.

While it’s common knowledge that the polls are slanted, that does not diminish their power. Based on these doctored-up presentations of public opinion, politicians make fateful decisions that profoundly impact their country as well as the rest of the world.

The media drums the propaganda into people’s psyches until the public is swayed into embracing a platform it would not have supported had the picture not been tailored.

This is precisely what is happening in Israel, where polls are manipulated to show an impending landslide for Kadima, with or without Sharon. Through carefully crafted headlines and news reports, these “findings” are presented as an unchallengeable forecast of the future.

And, in fact, they become the future. Events seem to be careening out of control as a result of reckless human machinations. Yet this, too, is part of the Hashgacha orchestrating world events.

Consider Ehud Olmert, a former mayor who never served in Israel’s army. When he decided to run for the Knesset, the level of support he was able to muster in the Likud was abysmal—he came in number 32 on the Likud list. His accomplishments to date have not altered his profile. Yet, for reasons known only to the Hashgacha, he was in the right place at the right time. Polls now “prove” that under his leadership, the new and untested Kadima party will be swept into power in the upcoming Israeli election.

Ever since the heady days of Oslo, Israelis, who are tired of war, have been led down blind alleys by those who lulled themselves into believing that the Palestinians really want to live in peace. The Israeli public was relentlessly fed the fable that given the opportunity, the Palestinians would forswear terror, opting to live peacefully with Israel.

Agreements were signed, and master terrorist Arafat promised to recognize Israel and to train his people to abandon their blood lust. In return, he was granted control of the West Bank and Gaza and negotiations were launched to grant him and his people a state. Of course, it was all a charade; the Palestinian agenda and habits have not changed an iota. But those in power in Israel refused to face this.

No matter how much Israel compromised for the sake of peace, it was never enough—and it made no difference. Arafat’s terrorist designs against Israel went ahead full force, with the support of the Palestinian people. He is now gone and others have taken his place, continuing his legacy of murder and violence against Jews.

Democracy A Cure-All?
The conventional wisdom has been that people everywhere would choose democracy if only given the chance. The spread of democracy will cure the world of its ills, the current thinking goes. It was considered downright racist to say that democracy wouldn’t work in Arab states, and so an election was set for the people of the non-existent state of Palestine.

As time went on, the lines in the sand Israeli leaders had drawn grew more and more faint. Before anyone knew it, Arabs in East Jerusalem were voting and the terror group Hamas was allowed to contend for power. The polls stressed the unlikelihood of a Hamas win, and presented popular opinion as strongly favoring elections in East Jerusalem as a necessary part of the democratic process.

The impotent Palestinian president promised to disarm Hamas before permitting it to join his coalition, while the U.S. Secretary of State averred that finally attaining a legitimate political voice would compel Hamas to reject terror.

There was nothing to worry about, people said. All the polls showed that Hamas would only win a few seats here and there and nobody doubted their veracity. No plans were made for the minute chance that Hamas would trump Fatah and sweep into power. When it happened, the media reported waves of shock and disbelief across the political spectrum.

In reality, a Hamas victory should have surprised no one. But people tend to let nothing interfere with their wishful thinking and fantasy-like imaginings. Nobody wants to be confronted with reality until it stares them in the face. We have to learn from observing what has taken place on Israel’s political scene that we have to be more mature in assessing our own situation and be more intelligent and honest when planning solutions.

Realistic Solutions

We have to deal with the world the way it is, not the way we want it to be. As the posuk states, “Betachbulos taaseh milchama,” when doing battle you have to have a correct appraisal of your enemy and you must have a candid and intelligent plan for victory.

What we need are realistic solutions to real problems and not grandstanding for the glory of the moment, or ‘fanciful thinking’ that has no application to reality. It is far easier to deliver big speeches and to propose sweeping grandiose elucidations than to sit far from the limelight and develop a workable approach. Clearly thought-out solutions will have a lasting salutary effect on the community long after the speech has been forgotten.

In Parshas Bo we are commanded to rid ourselves of all leavened products before the onset of the Pesach holiday. In Gemorah Pesachim, 12b, Rava discusses the reason Rav Yehuda holds that on Erev Pesach it is permitted to eat chometz only until the end of the fourth hour, even though the chometz only needs to be burnt at the onset of the sixth hour.

His hava aminah is that Rav Yehuda holds ein biur chometz elah seraifah, and therefore the rabbis gave us an hour in which to gather branches for the fire.

If you have ever burned your own chometz, you know that the fire fueled with oil burns spectacularly but quickly fizzes out. The fire that is lit with carefully layered twigs will last far longer and will burn all the chometz as halachically required.

If you take the easy way out and pour an accelerant over the chometz, the fire will likely dissipate before your chometz has been destroyed. Yes, the flames will erupt in a heated rush, but your mission will not be accomplished.

If you only set fire to the chometz bread itself, the fire will not catch on; if you douse it with oil, the fire will blaze instantly and extinguish itself before the bread has been consumed by the flames. It is only if you expend the effort of setting a bed of twigs for the chometz and lighting them methodically that the fire will attain and sustain a heat level sufficient to be mekayeim the mitzvah of tashbisu.

Let us act today with clear-headed decisiveness and not out of desperation tomorrow. Let us not be swayed by what others say, by what seems popular or by what pollsters decide is the winning track.

When we want to excise se’or from our hearts and lives, when something undesirable needs to be uprooted from our world, the temptation is to go for the fireworks. Yet, that approach often boomerangs. At the very least, the success it supposedly generates is shortlived.

Pitfalls Of Arrogance
What prevents us from seeing things as they really are? The culprit seems to be arrogance. Our ego deceives us into letting our emotions rule us.

“Vayechazeik Hashem es lev Paroh” can be explained to mean that Hashem caused Paroh’s inflated opinion of himself to prevent him from acting prudently as his brain dictated. He let his emotions blind him from acknowledging what was plainly obvious to any objective observer. “Haterem teidah ki ovdah Mitzrayim?” his servants challenged him. “How can you not see that Mitzrayim is on a collision course with disaster!”

In our private lives and in the public arena, if we want to succeed, we have to be honest with ourselves and conduct a frank cheshbon hanefesh about where we are, where we ought to be and how we will get there. We have to set priorities; we have to seriously examine what is real and what is fake, what needs to be addressed and what is trivial. We have to examine our hearts to ensure that we are acting with responsibility and foresight and not simply grandstanding.

We must ensure that we are not doing what is opportune only for the moment but will cost us dearly down the road. We cannot be guided by polls or short term solutions. We can’t afford to let our egos derail us from the epic challenges of our day.

Most of all, we can’t lose sight of the fact that Hashem runs the world and controls the hearts and minds of its leaders.

In Israel, prime ministers come, prime ministers go, and the problems escalate. Candidates run for office on different platforms, but once elected and empowered, they end up following the same plan of capitulation. Ehud Barak was depicted as evil incarnate. How dare he deal away parts of Eretz Yisroel, people said. How can he negotiate with the enemy? How can he reward terror? So he was sent home. Amnon Mitzna was selected to run against Ariel Sharon. But he was vilified; his detractors denounced him, claiming he would “give away the store.”

Sharon was elected and re-elected because he promised to be strong and tough. He had a record of a lifetime of achievement in the field of security. He was the father of the settlements, the tormentor of terrorists; no way was he going to cave into anyone’s demands. Yet for all his grandiose protestations, he did precisely that.

Nobody could have imagined that towards the end of his life Sharon would renounce his ideology and totally betray the very people he had fought for and helped build up. Nobody could have written a script with Ehud Olmert in the seat of power. No one would have dreamed that Hamas would be permitted to run in an election for control of the West Bank and Gaza and that they could actually win by a landslide.

That is because we don’t run the world; G-d does, and He has a plan in place. We have to sit back and watch it unfold and realize that He is in control. The president of the United States, the president of Iran and the prime minister of Israel, along with all the presidents, prime ministers and generals of the world, are merely pawns in the hands of the One Above as He readies the world for the coming of Moshiach.

We must pray that the plan unfolds quickly and that we survive the chevlei Moshiach.

Rav Chaim Vital, the talmid of the Arizal, writes in Eitz Hadas Tov, his peirush of Tehillim, Chapter 124, that the last golus will be golus Yishmael.

“There are four goluyos, Bavel, Madai, Yavan and Edom, but at the end of days, Yisroel will be in golus Yishmael… and this exile will be more difficult than the others. This is why his name is Yishmael, because Yisroel will cry out during that golus, and Hashem will listen and respond to them, YishmaEl V’ya’aneim.

“The children of Yishmael will rule over the world and over Yisroel… and attempt to wipe out the name of Israel from under the sky… They will cause Yisroel great tzaros, the likes of which have never before been seen.”

He ends the passage reminding us that “we will have no hope or recourse other than our trust in Hakadosh Boruch Hu that he will save us from their evil hands.”

It would behoove us to follow the advice of Chazal, “Ma yaaseh odom v’yinatzeil me’chevlei Moshiach,” and increase our study of Torah and acts of gemillus chassodim and may we merit to witness the dawning of the Messianic era.