Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18, 30:11-16, Parshat Hashavua for Shabbat Shekalim, February 18, 2023

There is a story, probably apocryphal, about the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad Chasidim. He was arrested and imprisoned by the Russian authorities, in a cell with no clock and no calendar. After a number of months he was released and he amazed his jailors by telling them the correct day and date. He explained that the small window of his cell was next to a synagogue. Each day he could hear the congregation praying. By paying attention to the nusach (the melodies) of the prayers he knew whether it was a weekday, or Shabbat, or a holiday. By paying attention to the Torah readings he knew when it was a Monday, a Thursday, or Shabbat, the days on which Torah is read. By paying attention to the melodies, the prayers and the Torah readings he could identify each Jewish holiday. If we pay attention, the Jewish calendar guides us through the year and leads us on our spiritual path. This coming Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim. It comes approximately six weeks before Pesach, on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. It is one of special Shabbats that lead up to Pesach. There is a special maftir (extra) Torah reading that describes the half-shekel every Israelite had to pay to sustain the sacrificial service. In the later ancient period, after some Jews had already been dispersed to Babylonia and Egypt, Shabbat Shekalim reminded them of their obligation to continue to support the Temple in Jerusalem by collecting funds and sending them to the land of Israel. The Zionist movement, in the 19th Century, instituted the half-shekel, as the minimum dues a member had to pay to belong, thus connecting the ancient polity of Israel and Judah to the modern movement to reestablish Jewish sovereignty. For us today, Shabbat Shekalim can remind us of our obligation to support our local Jewish community, our bonds with Jews everywhere in the world and our need to engage with Israel, in good times and challenging times.