Half a Shekel of Guilt Money

P'kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

My Uncle Max, of blessed memory, used to put a few coins into the pushke of a little yeshivah in Jerusalem every time its representatives would come to America, knocking on doors. He did this every year for most of his life, but unbeknownst to most of our family, he steadily increased his donations until he was truly supporting this yeshivah. When he found out I was going to Israel to study, he insisted I visit "his yeshivah" and gave me the pile of yellowing Yiddish letters of thanks to him for his generosity. Surely I could take a class or two there! I was Max's niece! So there I stood, in Mea Shearim, and trosh yeshivah sang my uncle's praises. And then he looked at me solemnly and said, "But there are some things that half a shekel cannot buy."

I think of this story every year at the reading of Parashat P'kudei. The children of Israel contribute gold for the building of the sanctuary — gold, Rashi suggests, as atonement for the golden calf. Guilt money. They wanted a God they could see, and so they built an idol. Now, to atone for that idol, they want to build a house they can see for a God they cannot. So do we, every time we contribute money to places that "seem more Jewish." We see something in that building that we do not see in ourselves.

And why only half a shekel for each person entered in the records? (Exod. 38:26) Because, a hasidic midrash suggests, the shekel represents the Jewish neshamah, the Jewish "soul." Half is from above, and half is acquired by our own efforts. We must acquire by our own efforts the beauty, strength, and life of our sanctuaries.

When we start seeing ourselves as whole Jews, we will give as much as is needed to our own institutions and stop supporting those that continue to close their doors to our "nieces" and secretly or openly bite the hand that feeds them. Then our leaders, like Moses of old, will say, "We have enough." And then we will be blessed, just as Moses blessed the Israelites who performed the work of building their sanctuary in their time.

For further reading
Down to Earth Judaism, Part Two on "Money," especially pages 212-239, Arthur Waskow, (William Morrow and Company, 1995).

Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the rabbi of City Shul in Toronto, Canada.

Build It and They Will Pray

Daver Acher By: Loui Dobin

It is fascinating to note the number of individual elements that go into the construction of the works of humankind. Even a simple "tent to dwell in" has a myriad of pieces that must fit together to create a whole that will stand against the wind and the elements. How many more pieces had to fit together to create the house in which God dwells! Pekude begins with a detailing of the "parts list" for the Tabernacle. Indeed, partially through the portion, it is once again summarized. (Is this perhaps God's attempt to make sure that all the pieces indeed came in the box?)

As modern architecture holds that form follows function so it seems did God and our ancestors. Consider:

* It seems as though every color, every texture, and every craft is used in the construction.

Why isn't the entire structure made of gold, silver, and copper? Why is wood used as well? Why the need for tapestry as well as structural elements? One cannot build a home based on only the things that one likes the most. Beautiful decoration is needed in the home, but so is plumbing. Love is needed in the home, but so is discipline. Recreation and fun are necessary in a family, but so is homework. What are the different elements needed to create a modern family or synagogue? A modern nation? A modern world?

* Why was God so specific in the design elements of the Tabernacle? Why were things not left to the builders' inspiration?

It seems that God was, as always, wise in drawing a "blueprint." God must have known that one must begin with the end in sight. We must also have an idea of what we want our family/home and community/synagogue to look like before we begin to create them. If we know what we want to see when the work is done, we can become what we have set out to be. What methods can we use to see the end before we begin? What goals need to be laid out, and what elements need to be taken into account?

* Why were households assessed equally for the gold and silver needed for the construction?

Could it be that this method of financing assured that all members of the community would own an equal share in the project? All would feel as though they had a part of it, that it would belong to them. The only way to engage people in the work of their community is to insure that they are involved directly in its support through their financial resources or through their time and talent. How can we make certain that all members of our family or community have a role in projects, programs, and activities that we are about to undertake? How do we involve the youngest and weakest, as well as the most experienced and resourceful?

* Why are there so many different jewels for the vestments? Why are there so many different colors of yarn?

This structure was to be a Tabernacle for the entire community and Aaron and his sons were to be the priests for the entire people. The Tabernacle and priests were needed to represent and serve all the people. Not everyone is smart or beautiful or scholarly. Not everyone is a good farmer or a strong soldier. Not all are young, and not all are old. It takes all kinds to make a people, and we are all jewels.

And when all was finished, when the final product was presented to Moses, it was approved without changes. The vestments were put on the priests. The table was laid out with bread, and a cloud settled over the Tabernacle, as God took up residence in a new home. The people knew that they wouldn't move onward until the cloud lifted and it was time to go.

How in our time can we be sure of when to move? We have no cloud to guide us. We have no sure and easy sign that the time has come. However, if we have built our community and our family according to God's plan, the cloud will lift, and we will know.

Loui Dobin is the executive director of the URJ Greene Family Camp.

Reference Materials

P’kudei, Exodus 38:21-40:38
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 680-690; Revised Edition, pp. 627-636;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 545-566

Originally published: