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The Virus -- Halves Makes Us Whole #618

03/13/2020 05:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashat Ki Tissa

"A captive cannot release himself from prison.
He needs help from someone else."


The Virus: Halves Make Us Whole

About three years ago, a mysterious envelope, with no return address, arrived on my desk.
While it is not unusual for rabbis to receive random tracts and messages from enthusiasts of other religions, this envelope and its contents were particularly fascinating.
Inside — tucked within a blank white greeting card — was half of a $20 bill.
I was intrigued. Was this some kind of slur? Was this the beginning of some quest challenging me to find the second half? Was it a practical joke?
I slipped the note into my desk drawer, and forgot about it until about a month later when I noticed the bill under a cluster of paperclips.
Later that day, I presented it to a bank teller. "What do I do with this?" I asked. "I'd like to find some way to donate it to charity. What is half a $20 bill worth anyway?

She replied: "It is worth nothing without the other half." She then pulled a card from her till, reading, "If a customer presents half a bill and cannot produce the other half, it should be returned to the federal treasury. It is federal property."

"After all," she said, looking up at me. "You need two hands to clap — and the second half of this bill for it to be worth anything."
I was thinking about that ripped bill earlier today as I reread this week's Parashah, Ki Tissa, where God commands Moses to institute a census for every male over 20 — before the days of gender equality.
Each counted male was then mandated to contribute a half shekel to the Temple treasury. (In 2017, one of Israel's chief rabbis — allowing for inflation — set today's value at $6.23.)
Why the Torah decided to choose the half shekel, has always intrigued our Sages. "Why was this the required donation?" "Why a half measure and not a full one?"
The Torah implies this was kofer nefesh — a life ransom — to ward off any plagues.
But many Sages, including Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhansk (1717-1787), took this a step further and reflected upon the meaning of "half."
He noted that money is like a flame or a two-sided coin, which can be used either to warm and comfort or consume and destroy. 
Moreover, the "halfness" of the Biblical coin reminds us of how so much is dependent on how we interact with another half.
The 10 Commandments are divided into two tablets — the first half dealing with our relationship with God, and the second five commandments devoted to how we interact with our fellow human beings.
When we study Torah, we are encouraged to engage with a partner — someone who will challenge how we view the text, and by extension, the world.
Indeed, as the teller noted on that day, you cannot clap without a second hand.
During this Shabbat, when so many are distracted and consumed by the unknowns connected with the coronavirus, there may be a lesson to be learned from the symbolism of the half shekel.
The Talmud tells the story about one of our great healers, Rabbi Yochanan. When he becomes ill, people are so used to his nursing them back to health, that they do not know what to do.
One day, his friend, Rabbi Chanina, pays the ailing rabbi a visit.
"Are these afflictions dear to you?" he poses to Rabbi Yochanan. "Neither they nor their reward," his friend replies.
So, Rabbi Chanina asks Rabbi Yochanan to give him his hand.
The ailing rabbi extends his hand, and as the Talmud recounts, "Rabbi Chanina revived him."
The Talmud is puzzled by this. "Why did Rabbi Yochanan need Rabbi Chanina's help? Couldn't Rabbi Yochanan (the healer) have revived himself?
The Talmud then answers its own question, noting that when we are ill, in many ways, we are imprisoned. Even the most solid and stable of us sometimes needs support. Why?
"A captive cannot release himself from prison. He needs help from someone else." (Berachot 5b)
Today at the pharmacy, I observed three customers eyeing a few remaining packages of toilet tissue on an otherwise empty shelf.
The woman closest to the shelf declared, "I know I could take all of these for myself, but that wouldn't be right would it? Let's divide them up." And each took two or three home.
I was inspired. With so many uncertainties, perhaps what is going to get us through this, is trust and reliance on others. This week's Torah portion reminds us that we cannot go through life alone. We are interdependent.
In many ways, as we edge into this Shabbat surrounded by the illness of apprehension, we may feel incomplete.
But, the Torah inspires us to consider that we cannot always navigate life alone, like the two-sided coin in the desert and the hand of the ailing rabbi, we must rely on each other to turn countless half shekels into one.
We will get through this together by reaching out to help, and accepting help, relying on each other.
Today's health crisis, and the uncertainty many experienced in the desert over a potential plague, are not really that different.
As this week's Torah portion inspires us to consider, during times of uncertainty, when we do not feel whole, each one of us has something to offer the other.
Most importantly — each one of us counts.

Shabbat Shalom, v'ol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, June 2 2020 10 Sivan 5780