The cold desert sand found its way in between my toes as I walked silently through a small patch of the Arava wilderness. The hues of the early morning sun glistened off the mountains of Edom leaving me in a moment of awe at the sheer beauty of my surroundings and of those who make their lives there. This fleeting ephemeral moment of ‘at-oneness’ with nature was transformed as I stepped into the garden. Beautiful colors of emerald, lapis lazuli and scarlet caught my eye and fragrances of lavender, sage and mint enveloped me in a full sensory experience.
Standing in the middle of Kibbutz Lotan’s Center for Creative Ecology I had a flash image of the Mishkan BaMidbar – the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. Built with such awe inspiring color and precision, using raw materials available to desert sojourners, the mishkan became the central institution for a people in formation and a true product of our collective.
This week we finish the book of Exodus reading Parshat Pekudei. Here we learn about the important and diverse role played by such figures as Itamar ben Aharon HaKohen and Betzalel Ben Uri Ben Hur, and how they succinctly complemented each other fusing their various skill sets in accomplishing both aesthetics and practicality. According to Rashi, Betzalel built the outer structure of the mishkan and then filled it with the various tools and instruments:
אמר לו משה בצל אל היית, כי בודאי כך צוה לי הקדוש ברוך הוא
וכן עשה המשכן תחלה ואחר כך עשה הכלים
“Moses said to him [Bezalel], ‘You were in the shadow of God [בְּצֵל אֵל, which is the meaning of Bezalel’s name], for surely that is what the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded me.’ And so he did: [Bezalel] first [made] the Mishkan, and afterwards he made the furnishings.”
(Rashi on Exodus 38:22)
Betzalel (in Rashi’s perception) is an important example (which preceded movies about Baseball in Iowa) showing how we are to build the institutions and then fill them. Let’s imagine today that we had a central institution for the entire Jewish people. How would we build it? What would it look like? How would we decide on who would be Betzalel, who would play Itamar, who would have the honor of being Ahaliav Ben Ahisamakh who was charged with working with all of the resources, colors and decorative materials? Of course this would not be easy, and I am sure that no one can imagine an easy decision and delegating this work in today’s Jewish world.
The first question that many might ask is: How do we pay for it?
The answer is easy and is found in the calendric significance of this Shabbat. As we approach the month of Adar II we mark this Shabbat as Shabbat Shekalim. Shabbat Shekalim is when we commemorate the ancient annual tax known as the “half shekel”. This annual tax – in Hebrew the machatzit hashekel – was due on the 1st of Nissan. One month earlier, on the 1st of Adar, the courts began posting reminders about this Biblical obligation. In commemoration, Shabbat Shekalim is the first of four readings added during or immediately before the month of Adar (in this case of a leap or “pregnant” year – Adar II), and the Torah reading of last Shabbat was supplemented with the verses (Exodus 30:11-16) that relate God’s commandment to Moses regarding the first giving of the half-shekel.
According to the text of Exodus 30:11-16, the obligation to give half a shekel as an offering to God is related to the census; and the offering was binding on all those who were numbered, from twenty years old and upward. According to the text, this offering of a fixed sum is a ransom to the Lord for every person numbered, given to prevent a plague from breaking out among them during the census.
While the half shekel was seen as a preventative measure in combating potential physical strife, let us now imagine what that might look like today.
Of course, as Zionists, we do have a central institution. We have a State of Israel and along with it are its national institutions of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and the Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL). Each of these institutions takes on a role similar to those of Itamar, Betzalel and Itamar in designing, shaping and building our Jewish society in Israel.
As Reform Jews, we have an important opportunity to make sure that we are represented and are able to contribute to the design and make up of our central institutions. This Shabbat Shekalim is a quintessential time to remind each and every member of our movement and our communities that not only are we responsible for giving our (modern equivalent) of a half-shekel but that we must come to the ohel mo’ed – The Tent of Meeting and help the ARZAs and ARZENUs of the world by being “pekudei”, by being counted as a member, as one who leaves their mark.
When I completed an inspiring ARZA Leadership Mission and three-day meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, during which we visited the important and pioneering work of the Reform movement in Israel, I found myself more enthused than ever to continue the sacred work of building our mishkan and filling it with color, content and resources.
By this time next year many of us around the world will be in the midst of elections to the World Zionist Congress. We will be working to build our mishkan – our central institution. Each vote and each half-shekel is essential towards the goal of creating an Israel that is awe-inspiring, representative of all Jews, and a place that we can be proud of.
While quantity is not always a precursor for quality, as we move in to the book of “Numbers” – in this case the numbers do indeed matter. Let us all be “Pekudei haKehila” and take the responsibility upon us all. In completing this book we need the strength of our entire movement.
Hazak Hazak V’Nithazek! Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov
About the author:
Rabbi Josh Weinberg serves as the URJ’s Vice President for Israel and Zionism and as the Executive Director of ARZA. He currently lives in New York, with his wife and four daughters.
The above article formerly appeared as #208 in our Torah from Around the World series, pubished in an earlier year.