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Parshas Pekudei – Shekalim: Forge On

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 “There is a cemetery not far from my house, with graves that date back to the nineteenth century. I have never seen anyone come there to lay a flower. Most people just wander through, read the engravings and say, ‘Wow. Look how old.’ “That cemetery came to mind as I sat in the rabbi’s office, after he quoted a poem both beautiful and heartbreaking. Written by Thomas Hardy, it told of a man among tombstones, conversing with the dead below. The recently buried souls lamented the older souls that had already been forgotten:

They count as quite forgot
They are as men that have existed not
Theirs is a loss past loss of pitiful breath
It is the second death.

“The second death. The unvisited in the nursing homes. The homeless found frozen in the alleys. Who mourned their passing? Who marked their time on earth?

“Once on a trip to Russia,” the rabbi recalled, “we found an old Orthodox synagogue. Inside, there was an elderly man, standing alone, saying the mourner’s kaddish. Being polite, we asked for whom he was saying it. He looked up and answered, ‘I am saying it for myself.’”

The second death. To think that you died and no one would remember you. I wondered if this is why we tried so hard to make our mark in America. To be known. Think of how important celebrity has become… It’s as if we are screaming: Notice me! Remember me! Yet the notoriety barely lasts. Names quickly blur and in times are forgotten.”[1]

 

—————-

“And it came to pass in the days of Achashveirosh… in those days when King Achashveirosh sat on his royal throne which was in Shushan the capital. In the third year of his reign, he made a feast…”

The Gemara[2] explains that Achashveirosh made his grand feast in the third year of his reign when he felt that his monarchy was secure.[3] The world was respectfully aware that Yirmiyahu HaNavi had prophesized[4] that the Babylonian exile would only last seventy years, after which the Bais HaMikdash would be rebuilt.

Achashveirosh was frightened that when the Bais HaMikdash would be rebuilt his kingdom would be disbanded. But in the third year of his reign, the seventy years passed, and the Temple had not been rebuilt. He was sure that the prophecy was incorrect and his monarchy was secure.

The Gemara explains that Achashveirosh was so confident that at the party he donned the Holy vestments of the Kohen Gadol which had been looted from the Bais HaMikdash prior to its destruction.

Seven years earlier the wicked Babylonian king, Balshatzar, was also convinced that Yirmiyahu’s prophecy had been flawed.[5] To celebrate, he arranged a tremendous feast during which he donned the Bigdei Kehuna. It was an act of brazen sacrilege that no one had dared to do before. His retribution came swiftly. By morning he was dead, and his kingdom immediately invaded and conquered, relegating the mighty Babylonian Empire to the history books.

Achashveirosh, too, did not go unpunished for his brazenness. By the day’s end his beloved Queen Vashti – his only legitimate connection to royalty[6] — was dead,a consequence of his own inebriated fury.

It seems from the Gemara’s discussion that Achashveirosh and Balshatzar were only blameworthy because they had miscalculated the seventy years. However, had they been correct in their calculation they would not have been worthy of punishment. Why should the status of the Bigdei Kehuna be based on whether the seventy years were over or not?

The Gemara[7] rules that if a sanctified rooster[8] “rebels” by acting erratically it forfeits its holy status. The commentaries question how a status of holiness can be lost. Rashba explains that if an object’s holiness is based on its value, it is tantamount to a monetary lien on the object.[9] But once the object ceases to function as it should – in this case when the rooster began acting erratically – the Temple treasurer “gives up” on his ability to collect the value of that rooster. Once that occurs, the rooster has no market value, and it no longer possesses any holy status.

With this in mind, Chavatzeles HaSharon[10] offers a fascinating explanation of why the culpability of Achashveirosh and Balshatzar depended on whether the seventy years of Yirmiyahu’s prophecy had indeed passed or not. If the seventy years had concluded with the Temple not being rebuilt, Bnei Yisrael would have despaired. Once that occurred, the bigadim of the Kohen Gadol would have lost their sanctified status, no different than the rooster which loses its sanctified status when the Temple treasurer “gives-up” on its possessing any value.[11]

It is an intriguing concept. If the Jews had reached a level of despair, it would have had halachic ramifications vis-à-vis the status of the holy clothing of the High Priest! The very feeling of forfeiture would have transformed the holiest articles of clothing into commonplace (though expensive) garments.[12]

 

When the Torah recounts Amalek’s virulent attack against Klal Yisroel in the desert the verse states,[13] “He ambushed (vay’zanev) all the stragglers (hanecheshalim) behind you, and you were tired and weary, and did not fear G-d.”

The commentaries explain that, although the Divine Clouds enveloped and protected the nation, it did not harbor sinners. There were malfeasant members from the tribe of Dan who were guilty of idolatry and therefore did not merit the protection of the Ananei HaKavod. It was those individuals that the Torah refers to as “the tired and weary.” Their weariness was not physical but rather a spiritual fatigue which precluded them from the Cloud’s protection. Amalek reasoned that as these Jews were rejected by the Clouds, G-d had rejected them completely. They were sure that the nation would never go to battle in defense of such sinners. Yet it was in their defense that Moshe led the nation to war against Amalek.

It is noteworthy that the eternal battle between Klal Yisrael and Amalek began in defense of blatant sinners. The battle against Amalek symbolized that no Jew is ever scorned and rejected by G-d. Even if he has committed sins that warrant his rejection from the community, he is never rejected by G-d. G-d never gives up on His Children no matter how far they stray. The holy spark within them is innate and eternal.

 

The Gemara[14] states that G-d commanded every Jew to contribute a half-shekel tax in the desert in order to proactively ward off the effect of the shekalim that Haman would offer Achashveirosh as compensation for the genocide of the Jews during the unfolding of the Purim story. Tosafos explains that Haman gave Achashveirosh 10,000 kikar kesef, which is equal to all of the half-shekel given by the 600,000 Jews who left Mitzrayim.[15]

When the Torah gives a reckoning of the contributions to the Mishkan it says that the total amount collected from the mandatory half-shekel tax was one hundred talents of silver. That silver was used to construct the ninety-six silver sockets upon which the forty-eight wooden boards surrounding the Mishkan rested.

However, there was still a certain amount of silver remaining after the sockets were made. But Moshe could not recall what that silver was used for. The scoffers immediately began accusing Moshe of pocketing the excess silver. Their unfounded accusation caused Moshe untold distress. Then finally the Divine Presence reminded Moshe that the excess silver had been used to construct the hooks which held up the pillars. “And from the one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five he made hooks for the pillars…[16]

Why did Moshe forget about that remaining silver?

Rav Moshe Wolfson explains that the silver contributed by the 600,000 Jews was used for the sockets. The remaining 3,550 Jews were sinners who were evicted from the main camp. The silver that they contributed was not used for the sockets but for the hooks that upheld the pillars. Because those who were rejected from the camp donated that silver, Moshe could not recall what they were used for.[17]

Haman offered Achashveirosh 10,000 silver talents to counterbalance the half-shekel that the 600,000 Jews gave in the desert. But he did not offer more to counter the contributions of the remaining 3,550 Jews. Haman, like his ancestor Amalek, was sure that the sinners were rejected and were no longer counted with the rest of the nation. Therefore, he felt no need to counter their contribution.

In fact, this was the logic behind Haman’s entire diabolical plan. He was sure that if he could lure the Jews to sin by having them participate in the party of Achashveirosh they would be rejected by G-d and vulnerable to destruction.[18]

But Amalek and Haman were severely mistaken. Every Jew is beloved and precious, and that never changes.

 

One who would say kaddish for himself has given up and has allowed despondency and despair to overtake him. He may be breathing but he is no longer alive, for he has allowed his spirit of vibrancy to wither.

Amalek was convinced that G-d would forsake egregious sinners. The fact that we continue to wage war against our implacable foe proves that no Jew – no matter how far he has strayed – is dispensable or replaceable. The holiday of Purim is the celebration of the infinitesimal and innumerable value of every single Jew. Even when a Jew has given up on himself he must know that His Creator will never give up on him.

 

 

 


[1] “Have A Little Faith,” Mitch Albom.

[2] Megilla 11b

[3] It was in the year 3395 from Creation.

[4] Yirmiyahu 29:10

[5] He erred in his calculation because he thought the seventy years began from when his father, King Nevuchadnezzar, ascended the throne. Achashveirosh also erred in his calculation because he too began the count prematurely. He reckoned that the seventy years began when Yechoniah HaMelech was exiled by Nevuchadnezzar. In truth, the calculation should have begun from when the first Bais HaMikdash was destroyed in 3338. Indeed in 3408, seventy years after its destruction King Darius, the son of Achashveirosh, permitted the rebuilding of the Bais HaMikdash to commence.

[6] Achashveirosh himself possessed no royal blood. He was a valiant general (Xerxes) who ruthlessly fought his way to the throne. His only legitimacy lay in the fact that he married Vashti, a Babylonian princess.

[7] Chullin 139a

[8] The rooster’s owner pledged the value of the rooster to the Temple.

[9] There are two forms of holiness: “Kedushas haguf” (literally ‘holy body’) which means the object was infused with an intrinsic holiness, and “Kedushas Damim” (literally ‘holy value’) which means that the object itself has not become innately holy, but rather its value is dedicated to the Temple treasury. Our discussion involves an object that possesses the inferior level of Kedushas Damim.

[10] Rabbi Mordechai Carlebach

[11] The Chavatzeles HaSharon then debates whether the Priestly vestments indeed possessed only Kedushas Damim and not Kedushas Haguf.

[12] The only reason Balshatzar and Achashveirosh were culpable is because they erroneously reckoned the seventy years prematurely and the seventy years were not yet over.

[13] Devarim 25:17

[14] Megilla 13b

[15] The commentaries seek to explain how the numbers add up. While half a shekel for 600,000 Jews is 300,000 shekalim, Haman’s 10,000 kikar is the equivalent of 15 million shekel (a kikar is 60 mana and a mana is 25 shekel).  It seems that Haman gave 25 times the amount of shekalim that Bnei Yisrael gave?

The Shnayim Mikra brings from the Chizkuni that since a person lives 70 years, if one started contributing the half-shekel at the age of 20, and continued to give for the next fifty years, he would have given a total of 25 shekel throughout his life. Thus Haman did not only compensate for the one-time contribution of the nation, but he paid the equivalent of a lifetime’s worth for every single Jew.

See also Maharsha, Chizkuni to Shemos 30:14, Vilna Gaon to Esther 3:9, Rav Tzadok Hakohain in Divrei Sofrim (p. 84).

[16] Shemos 38:28

[17] Rav Wolfson explained that all materials donated to the Mishkan were used for the holy vessels or holy courtyards. The only exception was these hooks. The hooks were used to hang the curtains upon the outer courtyard walls. The curtains themselves represented the outermost boundary of the inner elevated sanctuary. Therefore, the hooks that upheld them and protruded outwards did not contain the level of sanctity that the Mishkan had. However they were still ‘connected’. This was symbolic of those who donated the silver for those hooks. They themselves may have been ‘cast out’ but they always remained connected.

[18] As noted Achashveirosh’s party celebrated the fact that the Temple would not be rebuilt. The Jews’ participation in that feast was a terrible affront to G-d and to themselves!

About the Author: Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead, as well as Guidance Counselor and fifth grade Rebbe in ASHAR, and Principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor. He can be reached at stamtorah@gmail.com. Visit him on the web at www.stamtorah.info.


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