Friday, March 4, 2011

Parshas Shkalim: A New Lease on Life

Am Yisrael enters into Adar (this year Adar Sheini) by reading what is called Parshas Shkalim. Parshas Shkalim is a small portion found in the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa where HaKadosh Baruch Hu commands Moshe Rabbeinu to take a census of the people via each one donating a Machatzis HaShekel - One half of a Shekel coin to the creation of the Mishan.

Why do we read about Shkalim when Adar begins? Chazal base this custom off the first Mishna found in Messeches Shkalim. The Messeches begins, “B’Echad Ba’Adar Mashmi’in Al HaShkalim” – ‘On the first day of Adar they proclaim about the Shkalim.’ In the times of the Beis HaMikdash, in similar fashion to what we described by the Mishkan, there was a year donation from the people of a half-Shekel. This money was used to pay for Korbanos (sacrifices) and the general upkeep of the Beis HaMikdash. The announcement to bring in these Shkalim was released on the first day of Adar.

We also know the famous Ma’amar Chazal (and catchy song) MiShe’Nichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha - When Adar enters, we increase the happiness level.

What emerges is that Chazal tell us about to spiritual realities that occur simultaneously. The announcement of the Shkalim (based on the Shkalim of the Mishkan) and the amplification of Simcha both emerge from Adar’s arrival.

It would be impossible to say that these two realities - Mashmi’in Al HaShkalim and Marbin B’Simcha - are disconnected. The Jewish approach to spirituality is too sensitive and too nuanced to let such an overlap lay unclarified. The question is: What about Shkalim brings us to a place of Marbin B’Simcha?

We need to begin by first clarifying the nature of the Simcha of Adar. It can’t simply be that there is a holiday – practically every month has some sort of holiday in it. Pesach we celebrate our liberty. Chanuka we celebrate religious dedication. Shavuos commemorates the accaptence of the Torah HaKedosha. Yet none of the months associated with any of these holidays see a clearly stated augmentation of joyfulness. What makes the holiday of Purim unique that it causes a reality of Marbin B’Simcha?

We can answer with a parable that I heard from my dear Rebbe, Rav Elchanan Ehrman Shlit’a: Skydiving. During the drive there…Worry. Suiting up in the equipment…Panic. On the plane-ride up…Terror. As you bullet towards the ground…shock. And then you land safely. You get in your car and go home. The emotions used to describe that car ride are different than that of the others…Bliss. A new lease on life. Pure, unadulterated exhilaration.

Why is this so? The answer is that there are all sorts of joys in life and then there is one happiness that rises above all others, and that is the joy of simply being alive. When my life is put in danger, where there is a chance I just might not make it - and then I get through, I get to approach life with a totally new appreciation. Colors become brighter. Food tastes more flavored. Music is more harmonious. The simple fact that I’m alive on the canvas of the possibility that for a brief moment I almost wasn’t, gives me the ability to live with vitality impossible without such a climactic moment.

This is what sets Purim apart from all other holidays. Like we said, every holiday celebrates a very specific point: Mitzvah-observance, the Torah HaKedosha, freedom. On Purim we are celebrating something qualitatively different. We are celebrating the fact that (to quote my dear grandmother) it’s good be above the ground as opposed to in it.

Haman sought to kill out every last Yiddaleh (Jew in Yiddish) on one day. In the month of Nisan the decree was put out that eleven months later in Adar all of Am Yisrael would be slaughtered. Eleven months. Eleven months of dread. Eleven months of being taunted – “I’m gonna get you.” And then…and the last second…Venahafoch Hu! Everything got turned upside-down and we were saved. Sounds a little like skydiving.

But what caused us to be saved? The Midrash tells us that Haman saught to bribe Achashverosh by paying him ten-thousand silver pieces. When this was happening, HaKadosh Baruch Hu said in Shamayim - “Fool! You think you will decree against them with your money? They already have a Zechus, a merit of money that has far preempted yours!” Which money is that? The Machatzis HaShekel that was used in the desert, the one that we read about on Parshas Shkalim, the entryway into MiShe’Nichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha.

Now things are clear. There is an intrinsic connection between the reading of Parshas Shkalim and MiShe’Nichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha because what granted us the Simchas HaChayim, the joy of simply being alive, was the fact that we donated the Machatzis HaShekel to the Mishkan. In other words, without Parshas Shkalim there would be no possibility for MiShe’Nichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha.

But nowadays in order to experience this spiritual reality we need to take a slightly different root, because – to our great distress – there is no Beis HaMikdash do donate to.

However there is another way other than a monetary donation. That is the donation of my effort, my energy, my emotions. How is a personal investment as good as a monetary one? Because as the Ba’al HaTurim points out, Shekel shares the same Gematria (numerical value) as Nefesh - Soul.

The investment of my Kishkes, of making my Avodas Hashem the central, most important factor in my life is the way that we make our way to Simchas HaChayim. In order to achieve the feeling that life is vibrant we need to be appreciative of the very fact that we are alive, and that is only done by becoming to the root of all life in the universe.

HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us a Bracha to be Zocheh, meritorious enough to experience MiShe’Nichnas Adar Marbin B’Simcha in the light of B’Echad Ba’Adar Mashmi’in Al HaShkalim, meaning that on the first of Adar a proclamation is made to each Shekel, each Nefesh that now is the time to become fully alive. If we can life in the context of all of its beauty, if we can experience Avodas Hashem as the life-changing experience that it is, if we can fully invest ourselves there is no doubt that we will live lives full of Simcha and Shleimus, moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!

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