I want to share 2 verses from this week’s Torah reading, parashat Ki Tissa; 1st from Exodus 30: 13:
יג זֶה יִתְּנוּ…-מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל… תְּרוּמָה לַיהוָה. 30: 13 This they shall give, every one …, half a shekel … for an offering to the LORD.
And, then, 2 verses letter we read: “The rich shall not give more” (Exodus 30:15) העשיר לא ירבה (שמות ל:טו)
The context of this section is that in order to construct and maintain the Mishkan – the Tabernacle, a half-shekel tax was collected from each male Israelite age 21 and older.
This collection served 2 purposes; a) an accurate census, and, b) to give everyone an equal opportunity to contribute to the Temple.
We can read this verse as does the biblical commentator, Chizkuni (on 30:15): every person had to give equivalent amounts to ensure an accurate census. Or, understand it like Ibn Ezra teaches using 30:12 to explain that the contribution represented “a ransom for [the contributor’s] soul” (30:12). All souls are equal, thus, the contribution always had to be a half-shekel because whether rich or poor, everyone is equal before God.
Think about it for a moment: up to this point in history, no other ancient Near East ancient society had such a declaration of equality. The identical half-shekel donation from every individual etched the value of equality into the consciousness of the Jewish nation; a value that we gave to the world – a value that has only recently, tentatively, barely begun to become a reality in the modern-day Middle East. Except for 1 country – Israel.
Now, we have oft heard how the USA and Israel share an inseparable bond based on shared values of freedom and democracy. However, what really matters, what really counts, pun-intended, is how this concept of equality is actuated!
Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…[and] freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…” This ethos is reflected in the fact that Israel is the most advanced and tolerant country in the Middle East and Israel consistently takes steps to combat racial discrimination and ensure equality across Israeli society.
A recent diplomatic appointment demonstrates how the modern state of Israel works hard to promote this critical value of equal rights for all of its citizens. Moreover, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently noted the significance of the appointment of Ethiopian immigrant Belaynesh Zevadia as Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that beyond the fact that Zevadia is a talented diplomat, “This appointment is particularly significant in that it sends a message about fighting against discrimination, and I am proud to be the first foreign minister to appoint an Ethiopian ambassador on behalf of the state of Israel.” Commenting on her appointment, Zevadia said that “This is proof that in Israel opportunity is available to everyone, native Israelis and new immigrants alike.”
The uniform half shekel donation mandated by the Torah communicated the value of equality before God. Through the years, Israel continues to uphold this sacred value by striving to ensure equal rights for all Israeli citizens: Jew and non-Jew alike. This they shall give, every one …, half a shekel … for an offering to the LORD and by doing so, it becomes a powerful statement to every nation upon the face of the earth. God-willing, 1 day, all nations will learn the lessons taught in this Shabbat’s Torah reading!