Some years ago in that bastion of Americana known as Readers Digest, I recall reading about a survey conducted by Art Linkletter with a group of youngsters. They were asked what was the most popular book in their house? It was a virtual tie between mommy's cookbook and daddy's checkbook.
Yes, times have changed. Just ask Chef Emeril Lagasse or eBay's Meg Whitman.
But it's the symbolism of the checkbook that is in some sense celebrated and apotheosized this Shabbat — known appropriately as Shabbat Shekalim, the "Sabbath of the Shekels."
I would submit to you that symbolism matters, and I mean this in a literal sense.
In the ancient world, a symballein — from which the modern word derives — was a half piece of shard or pottery. A half was held by one group and the other was given to an ally.
Typically, during times of turbulence or war, a person would appear at the gate of one city, and if his half-piece of pottery fit in appropriately to the other half, then he was permitted to enter. It signified that he was a friend. It also represented the fact that they were integrated and connected. Which means that symbolism matters, and often, it matters literally.
So, what is the only thing that two Jews agree upon?
Answer: What the third Jew should give for tzedakah, of course!
Obligation to Contribute
Actually, the Torah itself gives a tantalizing tweak to this concept. This week, we read of a special event in the life of the people Israel: the obligation to contribute a half-shekel.
Originally, when Moses wanted to take a census of the Jewish people, a half-shekel was collected in order to count the population. In the days of the Temple in Jerusalem, a half-shekel was assessed to be allocated to the central communal infrastructure. Some of the money was used for the upkeep of the holy Temple, and some was for communal activity.
Though the shekel was a whole coin — equivalent, by the way, to 8.5 grams of silver — the requirement was for everyone 20 and older to weigh a half-shekel.
The word "shekel" literally means "to weigh."
Put differently, the original half-shekel counted the people; now it was a device for the people to say that the Jewish community and its values counted.
But why a half, and not a full shekel?
The answer, I believe, is in the symbolism — literally. Your half joins with my half, his half joins with her half, and together, the halves form a whole community of caring.
The people Israel is defined in such a way where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Interconnectedness is our strength and our weight. It gives us our gravitas. The idea is that your half-shekel and my half-shekel join to make us part of a network of mutuality.
At its fundamental underpinning, the notion of the machatzit hashekel, the half-shekel — in which the rich are enjoined from giving more and the poor are enjoined from giving less — contains the notion of covenantal community.
Alone, our tradition suggests, we are not complete. Together, we weigh in as the Jewish people. I know of no other people in which this sense of collective and communal responsibility gives it self-definition.
To be vested in the Jewish story often requires our being — literally and symbolically — invested in that story.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.