Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Ki Tisa and the Nation

(A short דבר תורה written for this week. For a more philosophical view on מחצית השקל and the dialectic discussed, see previous posts on the subject.)

In general, the world sees society as a way to find the maximum good for the largest number of individuals. Plato's Republic, Rousseu's Social Contract, all of these see unity and nationhood as means to the end of individual success and happiness. Even Christianity does so, in seeing the salvation of the individual as the greatest good, the highest completion of an individual.

Not so the Jewish Torah. Judaism sees a dialectic -- two interdependent, complementing, and at times, competing values: the individual, and the nation. On the one hand, the individual is seen throughout chassidut (especially Chabad) as a microcosm of the universe. Our personal avodas hashem, service of God, and responsibility for our actions are unquestioned.

However, in Torah thought, the Nation occupies its own unique and important role. Judaism sees the completion of the individual only through his contribution to, and building of, the nation -- the society. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one may keep all the laws, but if he separates himself from the community, for example by not fasting with them, he is incomplete as an individual. The teleological goal of Torah and Mitzvos is to bring about a just, complete society, which will be a light unto the nations, such that the nations will look to it, see utopia, and remark that "רק עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה", and this immediately brings them to a recognition of God -- as the pasuk continues: ומי גוי גדול אשר לו חוקים ומשפטים צדיקים, the Torah God gave us.

The nation occupies a central place in Jewish philosophy, such that it can define halachik reality, for example, קידוש החדש, and setting the calendar, as we bless מקדש ישראל והזמנים, God sanctifies Isarael, who defines the calendar.

However, in our day to day lives, it is easy to forget this crucial element of our existence. We may easily fall into the trap of thinking that our individual lives are the only important thing, that our individual service of God can be complete in and of itself. Partly to counter this mistaken notion, and to remind us of our completion only through the nation, Hashem instituted the commandment of מחצית השקל. We give a half Shekel. Why not a whole one? As the commentators explain, this half is to remind us that without the nation, whithout counting our brothers and sisters as ourselves, without seeing our completion in the nation of Israel, we are only half. We are incomplete.

May we be spurred, by reading of the מחצית השקל,to find our way to synthesize the dialectic of individual and community, and arrive at a greater level of service of God and personal, and national, completion.