In honor of my daughter, Devorah, upon her becoming a bat-mitzva today.
May the special joy of Adar remain with you throughout your life, until 120, amen.
The opening Mishna of Masekhet Shekalim teaches that in the times of the Beit Ha-mikdash, announcements were made starting on the first of Adar instructing people to send the mandatory annual machatzit ha-shekel tax to the Temple. The new funds needed to be collected by the first of the next month, Nissan, when the public sacrifices were to be purchased with the new revenue, and thus on Rosh Chodesh Adar people would begin sending in their donations.
The Gemara in Masekhet Megila (13b) finds a connection between this mitzva, which was observed during the month of Adar, and the Purim story, which of course took place in this month: “God knew that Haman would take shekalim through Israel; therefore, He made their shekalim precede [Haman’s].” This refers to Haman’s request that the king authorize the extermination of the kingdom’s Jews, which would result in their property – a total of “ten thousand talents of silver” (Ester 3:9) – being brought into the royal treasury. Achashveirosh consented, and even allowed Haman to keep this enormous fortune. The Gemara comments that the mitzva of machatzit ha-shekel “preceded” Haman’s plot, and thus enabled the Jews to escape. In other words, the Gemara appears to view this specific mitzva as the source of merit through which the Jews were saved from Haman.
What might be the connection between the machatzit ha-shekel obligation and the Purim miracle?
The machatzit ha-shekel donation essentially established a link between each member of Am Yisrael and the Beit Ha-mikdash. Wherever a person was and whatever he was involved with, he was linked to the Mikdash through his contribution, as the offerings brought in the Temple represented him as part of the Jewish Nation. Symbolically, then, the mitzva of machatzit ha-shekel might signify the connection each and every Jew has to God, regardless of where he is, not just geographically, but spiritually. Just as the small half-coin binds every person to the sanctity of the Mikdash, similarly, the “half-shekel” contributions that every person makes, the imperfect but not at all insignificant mitzvot which he performs, binds him to the Almighty. Although we are all just a “half,” and are all far from perfect, nevertheless, we must acknowledge, appreciate and rejoice over our connection to the “Beit Ha-mikdash,” to the Almighty. Despite our failures, our mistakes, our flaws, our imperfections, our deficiencies and our faults, we are still linked to God through the “half-shekel” that we have given, our modest but still meaningful achievements.
If, indeed, this is the theme – or one of the themes – of the machatzit ha-shekel, then we can perhaps understand the connection drawn by the Gemara between this mitzva and the Purim story. As the Gemara famously comments (Megilla 13a), the Jews of Shushan participated in Achashveirosh’s feast – likely reflecting their integration in the decadent Persian society. The Gemara earlier (11b) tells that the utensils of the Beit Ha-mikdash, which were looted at the time of the fall of Jerusalem, were used during this feast, and that Achashveirosh donned the priestly garments (12a). This likely refers to the Jews’ perception of their condition in Persia, that in their minds, the Beit Ha-mikdash had been replaced by Achashveriosh’s palace, and that he had replaced the kohen gadol. The sanctity and spirituality of Jerusalem had given way to the indulgence and debauchery of Shushan. But the threat posed by Haman, and the miracle through which the Jews were saved, reminded them of their everlasting, unshakeable bond to the “Beit Ha-mikdash,” to Torah, to their tradition, and to the Almighty. They were shown that even as they found themselves submerged in Persian society, they nevertheless had a “machatzit ha-shekel,” a small element of sanctity within them that continued to sustain their connection to God. And thus, as the Gemara teaches in Masekhet Shabbat (88a), the Purim miracle inspired the Jews to reaffirm their commitment to the Torah. They recognized that their cultural distance from the Torah’s ideal did not absolve them of the obligation to do what they can, to achieve to the best of their ability under their circumstances. They understood that the Torah remained relevant and binding even in Shushan, and despite their having veered very far from the spiritual standards to which the Torah wants us to aspire. Even in Shushan, they were linked to the sanctity of the Beit Ha-mikdash. This link is what saved them from Haman’s edict, and is what underlies the festive Purim celebration.
The special joy of Purim is the joy of the machatzit ha-shekel – of recognizing and celebrating the “half” that we get right, all the goodness within us. And it is for this reason, perhaps, that Kabbalistic tradition associates Purim with the diametrically opposite observance on the Jewish calendar – the Yom Kippur fast. On Yom Kippur, we focus our attention on the “missing half,” on all that we are capable of achieving but have failed to achieve. We reflect upon the mistakes we have made which could and should have been avoided, and all the failures which could have been successes. We cry, repent, and resolve to make a sincere effort to improve. The mirror image of Yom Kippur is Purim, the day when we celebrate our machatzit ha-shekel – the “half” that we can and must be proud of, all that we have achieved which maintains our connection to God. We indulge in feasting and merrymaking to demonstrate that even in “Shushan,” when we find ourselves distant from the spiritual ideal, we are nevertheless unshakably bound to Torah and to the Almighty.
“Mi-she’nikhnas Adar marbim be-simcha” – “When Adar comes, we increase our joy.” This month, the month of the machatzit ha-shekel and the Purim miracle, is the time to celebrate who we are and what we’ve achieved, to take pride and exult in all that is good about us and our nation, and to rejoice over our special, eternal and unbreakable relationship with our Creator.