One of my favourite exhibits in the British Museum is a small coin in room 68. This is a permanent exhibition detailing the history of money from the days it replaced barter until today’s cashless society.
Tucked away in the back corner is a half shekel dating back to the year 69CE, a year before the destruction of the Temple.
This silver coin was discovered on the Temple Mount and the exhibition correctly labels it as a half shekel that was collected as part of the annual tax for the Beit Hamikdash.
Our sedra opens with the mitzvah to contribute a half shekel and then proceeds to tell us that each shekel weighs 20 gerah. The symbolism of these two pieces of information is subtle, yet significant.
One idea behind contributing a half shekel is that none of us are complete by ourselves – we live in a world where we need each other.
On the other hand, each half shekel weighs 10 gerah. Ten is always seen as the number of completion, for example we have 10 plagues, 10 commandments, 10 men in a minyan and the list goes on.
The significance behind both these measurements is that they need to coexist within us simultaneously.
We need to achieve our potential, reach our own personal “10 out of 10”. But at the same time, we can never lose sight of the fact that we are not islands unto ourselves.
This sense of individual perfection can take on epic dimensions if we see ourselves as only being half shekels, part of a far greater whole.
Judaism places great emphasis on both aspects, perhaps best summed up by Hillel in Pirkei Avot: “If I am not for myself then who will be for me, but if I am only for myself then who am I?”
He concludes by telling us not to just wait around and expect this to happen by itself, but rather to ask:
“If not now, when?”
- Rabbi Jonny Roodyn is education director of Jewish Futures and serves Finchley Federation Synagogue