Moses’ self-isolation made all the difference!

Judaism urges us to find meaning within our sacred texts. Now, as we face intense uncertainty, our tradition offers meaning and inspiration. In our weekly Parsha, Kee Teesah, I find three pertinent lessons, as family, global health, and the economy weigh upon our minds.

The Parsha details the mitzvah of Machtzeet HaShekel – the half silver coin that Israelites were required to donate to pay for the upkeep of communal ritual activity. It also served as a census. In Exodus 30:15 we read: הֶֽעָשִׁ֣יר לֹֽא־יַרְבֶּ֗ה וְהַדַּל֙ לֹ֣א יַמְעִ֔יט מִֽמַּחֲצִ֖ית הַשָּׁ֑קֶל לָתֵת֙ אֶת־תְּרוּמַ֣ת יְהוָ֔ה לְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶֽם – the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel. Machtzeet HaShekel was incumbent on everyone in equal measure. Each person matters! Most striking is that the commandment is to give HALF a shekel. We are incomplete in isolation or a vacuum. We are “half” until another human being makes us whole.

As we confront rising mortality numbers and tallies of those who are ill, we dare not forget that these numbers represent individuals. We are all created (Genesis 1:27) בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים – in the image of the same Gd who created us all. Each victim of this pandemic has a unique element of the divine to contribute to our world, and their loss is a contraction of divine presence. Though it is harder and must occur virtually, we dare not cease our efforts to create the wholeness that comes from a personal connection. Buber spoke of the power of the I-thou connection. While we physically distance, we must strive to coalesce spiritually.

The second lesson stems from the Golden Calf (Exodus 32). When Moses ascends Mount Sinai, there is a leadership void in the camp. There is a vacuum of systems, loss of direction, and meaning. Most people want to be assured of their health, putting food on the table and knowing that everything in the end will be okay. When our most fundamental needs are jeopardized and questioned, fear ensues, and the result is the pursuit of frivolous idol worship. But frivolity gives reprieve but ultimately exacerbates the problem. We are at a moment of punctuated chaos. But as global citizens, we ought to trust and put our faith in Gd and Gd’s medical and scientific partners. We must not build another Golden Calf that can tear us asunder.

Finally, Moses does something atypical of a leader. He leaves the camp and the people for 40 days and nights. He removes his voice at the very moment it seems to be needed most. He isolates himself at the divine behest to delve into the wisdom of our Jewish narrative. His intention was not to remain on a mountaintop forever, but rather to fortify himself with the ultimate goal of returning to the communal and together march to the Promised Land.

Almost every University, Hillel community, synagogue, social gathering, sporting event, celebration, and even funeral is being curtailed or closed. Let us use our time of isolation to emulate Moses and refocus our energies, re-channel our strengths for good, re-acquaint ourselves with Gd, family, and Torah. We must ready ourselves to reengage the world vigorously, though our Jewish values, once we have the green light to emerge. Let us be ready to contribute our half-shekel once a sense of normalcy returns.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Israel is in his twenty-third year as a Hillel Executive Director. Since 2003, he has been at the University of Maryland after spending seven years at the Rochester, NY area Hillels. In addition to Rabbinic ordination, Ari has Masters Degrees in Medieval Jewish History as well as Secondary Education. Ari is an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, teaching a Jewish Leadership Class, taught for the Melton mini-school for ten years and is currently the Judaics faculty member for the ACHARAI Leadership Institute in Baltimore, MD. He is married to Suzy and they have six children residing in Silver Spring, MD.
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