Parashat Mishpatim – Shabbat Shekalim 5772 (on slavery and incremental ethics)

Devar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar

In our maftir for shabbat shekalim we read that all of those included in this tax must give preciscely one half-shekel::

הֶעָשִׁיר לֹא-יַרְבֶּה וְהַדַּל לֹא יַמְעִיט מִמַּחֲצִית הַשָּׁקֶל לָתֵת אֶת-תְּרוּמַת ה’ לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם

The wealthy shall not give more, and the impoverished shall not give less than the half-shekel, the donation for God, to atone for your “nefashot” – your lives. (Ex.30:15)

The purpose of the donation of the half-shekel is to count the number of Israelites that could be called up to the army, and so if anyone gives more or less it will throw the count off. However, couldn’t even biblical accounting methods could make appropriate corrections?! Furthermore, this money is going to support the building of the tabernacle, when next week we will read that the everyone gave to the tabernacle according to their heart’s desire (Ex. 25:2), not a fixed sum. Why, then, do we have this stipulated amount here?

Ibn Ezra comments obliquely:

The verse states the reason why the wealthy shall not give more, and the impoverished shall not give less,  

כי כפר נפש הוא 

because it is atonement for your nefesh – your life.

According to the verse, the half-shekel serves another purpose, aside from helping with fundraising for the tabernacle and counting the population – it effects kapara – atonement. How exactly does this comment explain the law of giving neither more nor less than the prescribed half-shekel?

Asher Vaizer, editor of a 20th C edition of Ibn ezra’s commentary must have agreed that this was unclear, and adds the footnote:

ביחס לנפש כולם שווים

With respect to one’s “nefesh”, everyone is equal.

Nefesh is a tricky word to translate. I translated it in our verse as “life” –  for it is our lives that could be forfeit if we do not give the half-shekel. Other translations use “soul” or “person”. This is also the word used to describe us in the passages about yom kippur, where we fast to “afflict our nefashot” – really, it means ourselves.

Hence, this law is an expression of the profound conviction, that, no matter our station in life, when it comes down to who we really are, we are are all equal. No matter in which percentile of earners we find ourselves, we are fundamentally alike.

When we turn to our main Torah reading this week now, we can be sincerely surprised to find it opening with the laws of treatment of a Hebrew slave. Ironing out the various kinds of slavery in Biblical and rabbinic sources is tricky, but from this text on its own, it seems that included is what the rabbis refer to as mocher atzmo mipne dohako – the person who sold himself into slavery because of pressing hardship (Mechilta). One who has fallen on such tough times financially that they must sell the only thing they have left – their freedom.

Surely the passage in parshat Shekalim would describe this individual as amongst the “impoverished” who gives the half-shekel alongside their hedge fund managing neighbor, for the two are supposed to be equal in nefesh.

Now, the Torah does give you, a number of rights as Hebrew slave, perhaps even to a radical degree for the ancient world. You rest on shabbat and yom tov, and are protected if you flee your master, amongst other privileges which slaves might not expect.

Nevertheless, what could be more fundamental to your nefesh – to who you are – than whether you are under the control of yourself or of another person. Would not this be the first protection given to someone of equal nefesh – that you are an independent human being, not a piece of property?!

If we return to the laws of the half-shekel we see further that not “everyone – rich or poor” gives a half-shekel. In fact, it is only men, and only those above the age of twenty!

Where now is our principle of “all are equal, with respect to who we really are”?!

We find this all the time in the Torah – inspiring values – not only equality, but also emet, truth, tzedek, Justice, hesed, lovingkindness… alongside some laws that, even if viewed charitably as balancing these values against other realities, still seem to be poor compromises to our eyes.

This is not just in the Torah – the very same disparity regarding slavery is found in the founding documents of this country – the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal”, and the Constitution’s “free Persons” contrasted with “other Persons”.

So too in all of us. It is the human condition – at its best! – to gain new insights into how we have, thus far, applied our principles all too selectively. Scientists, philosophers and theologians have been oppressed by those championing the pursuit of truth. Enforcers of law have acted against those seeking justice denied by the establishment. Preachers of lovingkindness have directed cruelty against those they perceive as a threat.

Today, same-sex marriage is seen as a basic matter of equality by many Americans who would not have classified it in those terms only a few years ago. All of humanity falls prey to leaving our values unfulfilled.

Nevertheless, perhaps this moral inconsistency need not be seen as an Original Sin. British philosopher Simon Blackburn encourages us to avoid black-and-white ethical evaluations, and to instead take a gradualist approach, asking ourselves if an action is more or less admirable, or more or less callous. (Being Good, 64-65) Without excessive apologetics, then, we can assess that the Torah’s laws on slavery are “more egalitarian” than those of law codes with which it is contemporary. Even so, the Torah’s value of equality encourages us to push still further forward, and the rabbinic laws on slavery are “more egalitarian” than the biblical. Today’s elimination of halakhically-sanctioned slavery is “more egalitarian” still. Perhaps tomorrow we will be united in campaigning for an end to all slavery that remains in our world.

Every year at the High Holidays we commit ourselves to teshuva, repentance. This is not just a process of trying to repair the past year’s sins, but recommitting to the work of improving ourselves. It would be churlish to end Yom Kippur saying, “I am going to be a perfect baal hesed this year. All of my interactions with others will be entirely full of lovingkindness.” This is beyond any person’s capabilities. But we can make progress – we can be more kind than we were in the last year.

And the Torah was written for us, according to a midrash in the Talmud. Moses explained to the angels that the Torah should not be kept in heaven, because it contains teachings that can only be relevant for those who face ethical challenges. (BT Shabbat 82a) So, the Torah contains a snapshot of Jewish law in its imperfection, admitting the institution of slavery for those in financial straits. Yet it also contains the seeds of this slavery’s eradication in its lesson that both rich and poor are fundamentally equal.

As the Torah’s laws fall short of its lofty values, so do we. But as halakha makes progress, so may we.

Shabbat shalom