This Shabbat is Shabbat Shekalim, the first of the five special Shabbatot (and four parshiot) that precede Pesach every year. With the reading of the maftir this week, we initiate the season of redemption as the light begins returning to the world. Our Sages chose to begin the cycle with the reading of Shekalim, the collection of the half shekel, because this signifies important preconditions for the redemption of Israel. In this spirit we also symbolically give the half shekel in shul every year on Purim, now only a couple of weeks away.
The importance of the collection of the half shekel for the process of redemption derives on its surface from the acknowledgment of the importance of every Jewish person and our unification into a whole in the service of Hashem. Our haftara brings out another, deeper significance of this mitzvah. In previous years we have examined the unique historical context of this haftara that our Sages chose to be associated with the reading of Parshat Shekalim. We find the young king Yehoash (Yoash) under the tutelage of the Kohen Gadol Yehoyada restoring, albeit imperfectly, the proper worship of Hashem to Israel. They have purified and reinstated the Beit HaMikdash, and the kohanim are being retrained in its affairs.
Yehoash notes that the “maintenance of the house” (bedek habayit) has been neglected, and he views the kohanim with some suspicion as they are the recipients of donations from the rest of Israel, but it’s unclear how these donations are being supervised and allocated or to whose benefit. According to Abarbanel, the kohanim had been avoiding the collection of donations exactly because they wanted to escape such suspicion, and they weren’t sure how best to manage the finances of the Beit HaMikdash.
The Aish Kodesh spoke about Shabbat Shekalim in 1940, which was a leap year and corresponded to Parshat Pekudei – much later than usual. He drew out the similarities between the account of the shekalim and the completion of the work of building the Mishkan in the parsha that week. He explains that Moshe was given a comprehensive and prophetic awareness of the meaning of the vessels of the Mishkan, whereas Betzalel was given as much insight as was necessary for him to successfully complete the task. Much of the true significance of the vessels and the surface was concealed among the “secrets” of the Torah. To the common folk of Israel this knowledge was inaccessible and beyond their comprehension, but nevertheless it was the desire of Moshe and of Hashem that they should be participants. Hashem wanted for His Shechina to dwell “in the midst of” Israel (Shemot 25:8), and in order to achieve this Israel had to be partners in the process.
So Israel was given the mitzvah of bringing the half shekel, which would be used to purchase materials and to maintain the House of Hashem. This could be understood by everybody at their level, but with their full participation – without regard to stature, wealth, or Torah knowledge. The Aish Kodesh says that by participating in a material sense in the building of the Mishkan, every individual in Israel became a dwelling place for the immanence of the Divine, not only the collective.
This is the challenge faced by Yehoash and Yehoyada in our haftara, regarding the kohanim and also the common folk of Israel. The community of that generation had strayed so far from the proper service of Hashem that they were neglecting even the most fundamental aspects of what it meant to be a Jew, let alone the deeper and secret truths. The putative leaders were self-interested and couldn’t be trusted to manage even the finances of the Mishkan. Those who were scrupulous refused to accept payment and those who were not rationalized using it for their own needs as they viewed themselves as public servants deserving of remuneration from the public. Unfortunately, we learn from the haftara that the worship of idols was never successfully extirpated from the hearts of this generation (Melachim II 12:4). In order to begin the process of preparing the People of Israel to return to the true and proper service of Hashem, the financial affairs of the Beit HaMikdash must first be brought in order. This is a corrective to the spiritual weakness of the kohanim as well as the disinterest of the community at large.
Although this work was begun by Yehoash, it was unfortunately not completed successfully in his lifetime. We read Parshat Shekalim every year and this haftara with it in the hope that ours will be the generation and the era when the work is finally completed of making the heart of every member of the community of Israel a suitable home for the Shechina to rest in.