The Other Side of the Coin

Parashat Mishpatim/Shabbat Shekalim (Judith Trust Inclusivity Shabbat)
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Other Side of the Coin

I have a few questions for you.
Why do you come to synagogue?
Do you have friends here at Sinai?
And if you have friends here at Sinai, how important is the social aspect of Sinai to you?

Everyone wants to be comfortable. It’s human nature to connect with our peers and like-minded friends. Similar in worldview, age, belief-system, ethnic background, socio-economic status and level of ability. And usually, this seems good enough in our lives – isn’t this what friendship is about? But maybe it’s actually not what being part of Sinai is about. Having friends in the community is vital – we are all part of this community because we want to be uplifted by those we have bonded with. But what is powerful about ‘community’ is actually how it orchestrates and facilitates encounters between people who we might not ordinarily connect with. Tots, teens and senior citizens. British-born and immigrants. The young and old. Gay and straight. The well-to-do and the economically more vulnerable. People with varying levels of ability. People who are neurotypical or not neurotypical. Those of us who are shy or outgoing. Those of us who are religious or secular.

In other words, a community is a great way to live outside the box and experience meaningful connections in ways which we may not ordinarily expect. It is this aspect of community that makes it different from a friendship or peer group. We are not only a bunch of friends; we are a covenantal community who seek to touch each other’s lives in meaningful, inclusive and compassionate ways. The question then remains, how do we do that? This week, because it is Shabbat Shekalim as well as Parashat Mishpatim, the first of the four Shabbatot leading up to Pesach, we enjoyed two Torah readings. Two Torah readings present us with an interesting challenge: is there a connection between them? The first reading we heard, Mishpatim, is all about the ethical and legal injunctions that flow from embracing the covenant.

This is the parashah that gives us that timeless line: ‘na’aseh v’nishmah’ – ‘we will do and we will hear’ (Ex. 24:7). The overarching theme of the parashah is covenant. Covenant as a relationship of meaning and obligation. It’s about building a kehillah kedoshah, a sacred community of inclusivity. The second Torah reading is about something entirely different – or is it? Exodus chapter 30 addresses the obligatory donation to the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in the desert. Although the Israelites will come to donate incredible wealth voluntarily, they are actually commanded to give the half-shekel: ‘Zeh yit’nu kol ha’over al haf’kudim machazit ha’shekel…’ – ‘this is what all those who are listed in the accountings [of the census] shall give; half a shekel’ (Ex. 30:13). And later we learn that this donation is not only obligatory but also a ‘flat-tax’: ‘the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less… as expiation for your persons’.

I’ve always wondered at the intent of the verse. The Torah is usually very good at acknowledging power differentials and socio-economic inequality and usually displays great sensitivity in how it treats the poor. But this time, we have a flat-tax, or dare I say, a type of poll tax! Doesn’t it seem unfair that the rich and poor should cough up an equal amount – a burden which will tax the poor unequally? Perhaps, but there’s also another way to read it. After all, the verse says, ‘lechaper al nafshoteihem’ – ‘…for the expiation [or atonement] of their persons’. There is an intrinsic connection being made between an obligation to give and our fundamental equal value as human beings in relationship with God. In the Torah’s worldview, we all need an equal and meaningful relationship with God, including God’s forgiveness, love and grace. It is God then, Who becomes the placeholder for radical equality. No person is any less – and we are all equally empowered to contribute. Would this have the status of a voluntary gift, it would lose its moral imperative. We have to give because we are all equal before God. It is the Torah’s way of not only asserting the covenant that was established six chapters earlier in Mishpatim, but also a way of asserting our inalienable value as human beings. No matter where we are in our varying abilities and identities – we all have something to give.

Today is not only Shabbat Shekalim – it’s also Judith Trust Inclusivity Shabbat. Judith Trust is a UK-based Jewish organisation that seeks to build communities and resources that maximalise the inclusivity of differently-abled people. The Judith Trust does fantastic work in the Jewish community on behalf of those with mental health issues (one in four people in the UK struggle with mental health issues), learning disabilities and gender inclusivity. Their website is a great resource for all that they do. Of course, I cannot do the Judith Trust justice in the space of these few words. But the fact that there is a Jewish organisation devoted to this holy work is a testament that ‘na’aseh v’nishmah’ echoes across the generations: the sacred call of a true covenant, where inclusivity and dignity are paramount.

Of course we can do our bit. We don’t need to be perfect but we can surely try to get it right. Whether it’s thinking intelligently in how we use space in the building (accessibility, hearing loops on the PA system, streaming services for those unable to attend) or how we use words in our language. Are we humanising in our encounter with each other? Do we create safe space for people to ‘come out’ as having a mental health challenge or disability? Do we facilitate meaningful discussion and education around these issues? Would you like to get involved? A covenantal community is a volunteering community – ironically, perhaps, out of a sense of sacred obligation.

We need your help to help us build a stronger and more inclusive Sinai. We need your bravery to talk about the challenges you face and we need your respect and compassion in hearing and facilitating those stories. I know I’ve shared my story of my visual impairment in the past (and yes, feel free to ask me about it at Kiddush). We need to model the Torah’s reality of covenant, where everyone stood at Mount Sinai: young and old, born Israelite and escaped Egyptian, rich and poor, male and female. Acknowledging the power of covenant and of giving are really two sides of that same half-shekel.

As Pirke Avot 2:16 says, ‘it is not upon you to complete the task but neither are you free to desist from it.’ Please get involved, there’s an awful lot of work for us to do – and together we can do it.

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