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D’var Torah: Parashat Mishpatim

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In this week’s D’var Torah, the Chief Rabbi explains how Jewish tradition teaches, “I give, therefore I am.”

An entire Shabbat devoted to the mitzvah of tzedakah; that’s Shabbat Shakalim, which will take place this coming Shabbat.

Following the conclusion of Parashat Mishpatim, we will read a special Maftir recalling a time when our nation were commanded to give a half-shekel piece towards the upkeep of the sanctuary, and later the temple.

For us, Shabbat Shekalim highlights the centrality and importance of giving within our tradition. Indeed, the concept of giving is so central to Judaism, that over the years, many great dilemmas have been debated.

For example, the Rambam asks: if one has a hundred silver pieces available to give, is it better to give them all to one single cause, or to give to a hundred different worthy causes, one piece each? In terms of what would most benefit those at the receiving end, the debate is endless. But in terms of the impact on the giver, the Rambam explains that it is better to give one piece each to a hundred different causes, as the more times the giver is engaged in the act of giving charity, the more they cultivate within themselves a very important attribute: a nature of giving.

For the five Shabbatot following Shabbat Shekalim we will read Parshiot from the end of the book of Shemot which address the concept of giving. We learn from the construction, furnishing and running of the sanctuary, and the role of the people in supporting this important communal cause, and how they rose to that challenge.

The first of these Parshiot is called Terumah, which comes from the root ‘rum’, which means ‘elevated’. This is because when one gives, one is elevated. The Hebrew term for giving, ‘natan’, is a palindrome, indicating that when you give, you receive in turn.

It is in this spirit that when Yaakov met with his twin brother Esau in Sefer Bereshit, and gave him a present to appease him, he said, kach-nah et birchati” – “please take my blessing”. Yaakov realised that not only are gifts blessings to those receiving them, but also to those giving them, which is why instead of calling his gift a gift, he called it a blessing.

Parashat Shekalim highlights how crucial giving is, not just for those on the receiving end, but indeed, for the givers as well.

Where Descartes taught, “I think, therefore I am”, Jewish tradition teaches, “I give, therefore I am.”

Shabbat shalom.