Recent reports of rabbis in Israel denigrating women going to the army and women in general have been particularly upsetting. So I’d like to dedicate the following words of Torah to the brave, spiritual young women who devote time to Torah study and serve their country.
This week marks the first of the four special Shabbatot, Shabbat Shekalim. This discussion of philanthropy in the Torah is a good model for women who choose to opt in to their Judaism and Zionism beyond what is required of them.
The maftir reading contains the mitzvah to donate a half-shekel to the mishkan. The Torah provides three insights into the purpose of this mitzvah: (1) It was a way of counting the number of men eligible to be drafted into the army, since only men 20 years and over were commanded in the half shekel, (2) it was called a “kapparah,” an atonement and (3) it was intended to support the service in the ohel moed. These details leave open the questions: What role did women have in donating to the mishkan? Moreover, what was the atonement for?
The Mishna clarifies that women were not required to give a half-shekel (most women did not have financial independence back then), but if they wanted to donate the they could (mishna Shekalim 1:5). In fact, the midrash describes the enthusiasm of the women who wanted to donate to the mishkan. When God commanded the building of the mishkan, the men jumped up to donate all sorts of riches. The women, unsure if they had something valuable to offer, donated the mirrors they used in Egypt to remind their husbands of the importance of having children. Moshe at first refused this gift, thinking it was worthless, but God insisted that the women’s use of the mirrors brought about the “legions” or army of children who left Egypt, therefore their donation was accepted.
While women were not part of the counting through the half shekel, they were able to voluntarily donate to the service in the mishkan and according to the midrash, so they did. But the Torah also calls this donation a kapparah. For what sin did this donation atone? Rashi explains that it atones for the sin of the golden calf. Here again, the midrash highlights the special faith or spirituality of the women of that generation, who refused to take part in the sin of the golden calf.
Shabbat Shekalim reminds us of the unique women who displayed strong faith in God in the desert and who found ways to express their spirituality by going beyond what was expected of them. Young women today who choose to take time to study Torah, and serve the country through army service or sherut le’umi while maintaining their observance of halacha, are following in the footsteps of these ancient women. Their devotion will only strengthen the next generations of the “legions” of Israel. Chizku v’imtzu!