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Mishpatim 5769

Parshat Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim
(2 Kings 12:1-17)
February 21, 2009
27 Shevat 5769

This Shabbat ushers in the first of four special Shabbatot which precede the holiday of Pesah. This Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim, was intended as a reminder of the special half shekel poll tax paid by each Jew for maintenance of the Temple and its ritual. The haftarah recalls an episode in the history of the nation when the king, Jehoash, attempted to insure the proper use of these funds for the repair of the Temple: \”Jehoash said to the priests: \’All the money, current money, brought into the House of the Lord as sacred donations – any money a man may pay as the money equivalent of persons (kesef nefesh erko), or any other money that a man may be minded to bring to the House of the Lord – let the priests receive it, each from his benefactor; they, in turn, shall make repairs on the House, wherever damage may be found.\’\” (12:5-6)

Rashi notes that this verse deals with two kinds of contributions: one, the half shekel tax and the other, contributions based on the worth of the individual (kesef nefesh erko) – all given for the task of refurbishing the Temple.

The following midrash from the Mechilta deRabbi Ishmael, a midrash on the book of Exodus from the period of the Mishnah (2nd century CE), takes the idea found in these taxes/contributions in a interesting direction: \”Rabbi Ishmael says: Come and see how merciful He by whose word the world came into being (God) is to flesh and blood. For a man can redeem himself from the Heavenly judgment by paying money, as it is said: \”When you take the sum of the children of Israel, according to their number,\” etc. (Ex. 30.12) [the half shekel tax], and it says: \”The money equivalent of persons\” (II Kings 12.5), and it says: \”The ransom of a man\’s life are his riches\” (Prov. 13.8), and it says: \”Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to thee, and break off thy sins by almsgiving\” (Dan. 4.24), and it says: \”If there be for him an angel, an intercessor, one among a thousand, to vouch for man\’s uprightness; then He is gracious unto him, and said: \’Deliver him from going down to the pit, I have found a ransom\’ \” (Job 33.23-24). We thus can learn: …There are those declared by court guilty of death that can be redeemed and there are those sentenced by court to death that cannot be redeemed.\’ (adapted from Masekhet Nezikin 10 Horowitz Rabin ed. p. 286)

The idea found in this midrash is religiously disturbing yet attractive. It would seem that Rabbi Ishmael asserts that one can buy one\’s self redemption from one\’s sins. How can this be? Shouldn\’t justice require that one face the consequences of one\’s sins. This midrash wants us to know that God gives us the latitude to rectify certain of our sins without paying an \”ultimate price\”. Instead we can redeem ourselves through acts of \”tzedakah – righteousness\” and God counts this as a form of atonement. This gives us the opportunity to cleanse ourselves and to live another day – to be renewed and redeemed by using a part of ourselves to repair things and do something that will make God\’s world a better place. God\’s \”gift\” to us, tempered His strict justice with mercy, ultimately is good for all of us, both God and human beings.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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