Shekalim: Reparing the House

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Mishpatim.

Shabbat Shekalim.

The Torah portion Mishpatim is concerned with the laws of a fair and just society; we also have a special Shabbat, called Shekalim, which recalls the collection of money for the upkeep of the ancient Temple. More on Shabbat Shekalim here.

Good afternoon! Hope them’s that are digging out are dug out from the snowstorm, and if you’re not dug out, it’s a perfect time to learn a bit of Torah.

This week we read special passages, a concluding Torah reading and a special haftarah, for the occasion called Shabbat Shekalim, which recalls the collection of a half-shekel from each Israelite for the upkeep of the Temple. The announcement came a month or so before the tax was actually due, and that’s why we read these passages just before the Hebrew month of Adar.

The haftarah for Shekalim tells the story of King Yehoash, who came to the throne at a young age and then set up a system whereby the priests in the Temple would pay for the repair of the property out of a general donation fund. After a while, the king realized that the priests weren’t actually doing the repairs on the building as they should, so he ordered that the funds for the Temple and for the priests should be kept separate, so that they would not be tempted to keep more for their own sustenance and pay out less for the Temple maintenance. Yes, there is actually Biblical precedent for the idea of a synagogue Building Fund!

There’s another lesson here, related to our theme of prayer and what makes it happen (or not.) When the house of prayer is in disrepair- physically, financially, organizationally, or spiritually- somebody has to take the initiative to fix it. Synagogues don’t magically repair themselves, and those in charge may not see all the problems. In our Torah reading, every single Israelite gave a half-shekel for the ancient Temple, indicating that the responsibility for the house of prayer belonged to the entire community, not just the leadership class- which, as the haftarah points out, sometimes gets a little too comfortable with the status quo.

Shabbat Shekalim poses the question: who repairs the house of God? The answer is: while a few people may have specific duties, everybody has the responsibility, and no class of people is exempt from contributing. That, in turn, reminds us that our house of prayer is not truly built unless it is a house of prayer for all people, representing every part of our kehillah, or sacred community. When we collect spiritual gifts from every soul, our house is truly renewed.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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