Shabbat Shekalim (Parashat Pekudei) / A Search for Identity

The nation’s character remains a mystery. The Israelites’ actions represent a psychological contradiction that creates an incoherent picture.

Once a year, on the first of day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the “shekel tax” was levied to support the Temple in Jerusalem. From all the communities of the Jewish Diaspora, messengers were sent with coins for deposit in a special office on the Temple Mount. To commemorate that ancient practice, the Sabbath before the first of Adar (this year, a leap year, it’s the first day of Adar II) is called Shabbat Shekalim, when in addition to Parshat Pekudei (Exodus 38:21-40:38), we also read Exodus 30:11-16.

The passage on the shekel tax is concerned with money collected for the Temple’s construction. God commands the Children of Israel to give “half a shekel after the shekel  of the sanctuary” (Exodus 30:13) – a predetermined, fixed amount, which has nothing to do with the donor’s social status or financial situation.

Not only were the Israelites delighted to donate their half-shekel, they gave far beyond this minimum requirement: “And they came, both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, and brought nose-rings, and ear-rings, and signet-rings, and girdles, all jewels of gold; even every man that brought an offering of gold unto the Lord” (Exod. 35:22).

However, midway between the commandment concerning the shekel tax and the report on the successful collection of the money, the Torah describes another incident in which the Israelites are asked to donate money and also do so willingly – the sin of the golden calf: “And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’ And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears, and brought them unto Aaron” (Exod. 32:2-3).

The Israelites donate both to the Portable Tabernacle’s construction and to the creation of the golden calf; on both occasions, they do so with profound religious fervor. In the first chapter of Tractate Shekalim in the Jerusalem Talmud, Rabbi Ba bar Aha, discusses the juxtaposition of these two incidents: “Rabbi Ba bar Aha, says, ‘You cannot determine this nation’s character: When its members are asked to give their donations for the golden calf, they do so, and, when they are asked to give their donations for the Tabernacle, they also do so” (Jerusalem Talmud, Tracate Shekalim 1:1).

The purpose of the exegetist – according to Rabbi Ba bar Aha – is to “determine this nation’s character,” or, in other words, to enumerate the Israelites’ various actions and to draw from them a conclusion that defines the outstanding characteristic of the Israelites. However, the above two actions, which stem from contrary motivations, do not permit exegetists to perform their proper function, and the nation’s character remains a mystery. The Israelites’ actions represent a psychological contradiction that creates an incoherent picture. Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina seeks to solve this problem: “Rabbi Yossi bar Hanina says: It is written, ‘And thou shalt make an ark-cover of pure gold [Exod. 25:17].’

The gold used for the ark-cover is intended to atone for the gold used for the golden calf.” The term “pure gold” is divided into two parts by Rabbi Yossi: He links tahor (pure) with letaher (to purify), and interprets the phrase as “gold that purifies or atones for sin.” According to this explanation, the gold of the ark-cover atones for the gold of the golden calf.

The two instances in which the Israelites donate gold lie along a narrative axis and are interpreted in accordance with a pattern of sinful behavior and correction of such behavior – that is, thesis and antithesis.

The solution is simple, perhaps even unavoidable; however, the closing of the circle here is not a smooth process. Although this is a narrow solution to a narrative paradox, the nation’s character remains a mystery. While the ark-cover’s gold perhaps atones for that of the golden calf, the movement of the soul that leads the Israelites to donate enthusiastically to both causes remains unchanged, symmetrical, psychotic and unresolved.

In another commentary in the same tractate, Rabbi Judah, son of Pazi, does not try to solve the paradox, but instead utilizes it in order to say something about the nature of the Torah’s text: “Rabbi Judah, son of Pazi, citing Rabi, asks, ‘Where can we read and not be filled with shame?’ On the positive side, it is written, ‘as many as were willing-hearted,’ while, on the negative side, it is written, ‘And all the people broke off the golden rings which were in their ears.’“On the positive side, it is written, ‘And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp,’ while, on the negative side, it is written, ‘And ye came near unto me every one of you.’ On the positive side, it is written, ‘Then sang Moses and the children of Israel [this song unto the Lord]’ [Exod. 15:1], while, on the negative side, it is written, ‘And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried.’"

The commentary opens by asking, “Where can we read and not be filled with shame?” The working assumption behind this rhetorical question is that the Torah is not just a document suited for close textual study, and that its many paradoxes are not merely contradictions between different bits of information. The Torah serves as a platform for identification, and readers pore over its text, searching for their sources and roots. Certain stories in the Torah can fill these readers with pride, while others can fill them with shame.

The Torah does not “surrender” its text without a fight to those who study it while they seek to identify with its stories. Citing Rabi, Rabbi Judah, son of Pazi, presents a series of symmetrical examples. The first of these casts the Israelites in a positive light: “as many as were willing-hearted.” This is part of a verse that depicts the immense generosity displayed by the Israelites in their donations to the Tabernacle. In contrast, there is the verse describing how the Israelites donate their gold for the creation of the golden calf. By itself, the first verse could enable readers to identify with the Israelites and take pride in their actions, but the second verse cancels out such a possibility.

Rabbi Judah, son of Pazi, enumerates other examples of this. Thus, disappointment in the Torah text as the result of an isolated instance of sinful behavior becomes a basic characteristic of the text. It is, of course, possible to identify with the nation congregating at the foot of Mount Sinai just before God grants Israel the Torah, as it is written, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the nether part of the mount” (Exod. 19:17).

The pride that stems from this picture and fills the hearts of readers, however, is nullified by the image of the Israelites congregating before Moses and demanding that he send spies on a reconnaissance mission to the Promised Land: “And ye came near unto me every one of you, and said: ‘Let us send men before us, that they may search the land for us’” (Deuteronomy 1:22).

Similarly, it is, of course, possible to identify with the Israelites singing God’s praises after he splits the Red Sea, thereby enabling them to cross it safely. However, the pride that stems from that picture, too, and fills the hearts of readers, is also nullified by the picture of the Israelites loudly voicing their complaints against Moses after the spies return from Canaan: “And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night” (Numbers 14:1).

“Where can we read and not be filled with shame?” asks the exegetist, and answers that there is no such place in the Torah. The Torah is not a stable plot of land intended to inspire total identification and to promote among its readers a feeling of national pride. Readers who look at the Torah’s text out of a sense of identification can never enjoy peace of mind. Those who seek to identify with Israel will ultimately be left empty-handed. No solution is proposed by the exegetist, who is, however, perhaps making a comment on the use of the Torah text as a source of national pride.