The biblical “Machtzit HaShekel” Half-Shekel contribution to the Mishkan tabernacle is a special seasonal Torah reading in the weeks leading up to Purim. It’s a half-coin piece, in America it would be something like a 50 cent piece. I was playing with ideas on this subject on social-media, thinking of something to share at Friday Night dinner. Then I get a tweet back from an alum: “I carry a Chetzi (Half)-Shekel with me.”
Wait, not many diaspora Jews carry around half-shekel coins in their wallets! Most young Americans today hardly have cash on them altogether. And you can’t be sure with this guy, he could be saying it sarcastically, maybe figuratively, and it’s hard to tell from a tweet. So I asked if this was literally or figuratively, and he responded: “Oh, it’s literal! It’s one of several physical reminders that I carry with me. For example I have a 5 of hearts for my immediate family…”
And what is the symbolism in carrying around a half-shekel coin? This is what this UAlbany alumnus wrote me: “The chetzi (half)-Shekel is a reminder of our responsibility to the greater community, even if it seems to be small (amount).”
It blew my mind! Half-Shekel is something I think about this time of year as it becomes relevant to the Torah portion or seasonal holiday connection. But this guy carries the half-shekel around with him all year, for years, as a physical reminder of our personal responsibility to the greater community, and that even small contributions (as little as 50 cents) are valuable and important.
Now you must understand. This alumnus is not some spiritualist or holy dude. He’s a very regular normal guy. He has a great hearty laugh, enjoys the company of close friends, he’s a loyal friend, loves TV shows, and sports – don’t get me started on this guy and sports: He’s passionate, verbal, vocal, articulate – invested with every fiber of his being. He usually roots for losing teams (he’s loyal there, too!) and has choice words in person or online for whenever bad trades or bad calls or bad moves are made. He’s animated, dynamic, expressive – even about something silly like “The Breakfast Song” (which he and friend spoofed even better than the original). He would post bear pictures of himself to express his current mood: angry bears, yawning bears, hungry bears, knowing bears, bears wanting to curl up and hibernate. Speaking of bears, he also introduced me to some beers, he’s a connoisseur of things like beer and music, movies and sports, of course, sports.
Yes, he is intelligent and something of a scholar, he earned advanced degrees and has a good understanding of history and Jewish community. He is a deep rich fellow, and a thoughtful, reflective type, an interesting guy and a great conversationalist. But I tell you all this above regular stuff about him because you should realize that this is not a Rabbi, or old Russian Jew or a long white bearded guy from Jerusalem or something. He is a very normal, regular guy and lots of fun to be with… he’s fit right in here with the guys at this Shabbos table and be the life of the party.
— and yet, and that’s the beauty of it, he keeps that half-shekel piece on his person to remind himself of each individual’s responsibility to the greater community, even in small ways.