Parshas Mishpatim - Shekalim
Is Life like an Onion?
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
If he came by himself, he will go out by himself. If he was married,
then his wife will go out with him. (Shemos 21:3)
Life is like an onion. I happen to like onions. They are a
remarkable food that is not only healthy, but tastes good as well.
Not only that, but they make other foods taste even better, which is
pretty good considering they grow completely below the ground.
However, that is not why Kabbalah likes onions (though I can't speak
for Kabbalists themselves). To Kabbalah, onions represent what the
spiritual universe became after the holy and sublime light of Ain Sof
entered the "Hollow" and produced a basically unlimited series of
concentric spiritual emanations called "Sefiros." It is through the
Sefiros that the will of G-d is translated into what we call Reality,
on ALL levels.
Thus, even the simplest idea is merely an external layer for
something far more profound within it. Like layers of onion, ideas
are multi-leveled and to assume otherwise is to stop short of the
most profound and beautiful aspect of life. At the end of such a
pursuit for the deeper, inner meaning, is nothing less than the
In terms of this week's parshah, the above posuk is discussing a law
related to a Jewish manservant, who either hired himself out due to
poverty, or stole something and was unable to pay it back. The posuk
is discussing what happens when his six-year period, the minimal
amount of time he works, ends and he is ready to go free once again.
The posuk is telling us that it makes a difference whether he was
single when he was "purchased" by his temporary owner.
Thus, the parshah begins with a law that neither applies to all men
nor to all time. That, of course, is only true on the simplest level
of understanding. Deeper down, just the opposite is true:
There are other reasons as well, such as in order for a man to marry
his soul-mate, but not having merited to do so the first time.
Sometimes he may have already married his soul-mate, but he sinned in
that lifetime and must return to rectify it; he will come back alone,
as Sabba of Mishpatim has written (Zohar 105b) on the posuk, "If he
came by himself" (Shemos 21:3). If he has merit, then even though
she does not need to reincarnate, his wife will come back with him,
b'sod, "then his wife will go out with him" (ibid.). (Sha'ar
HaGilgulim, p. 33)
In other words, this posuk about the Jewish manservant is actually
about all Jewish men throughout history. Furthermore, it is not
talking about slavery, at least on the level of Sod, but about what
causes a man to reincarnate and sometimes with his soul-mate. In
fact, the whole topic of reincarnation is found in the Zohar on this
As the Arizal explains in a later chapter, when a man comes into the
world for the first time, it is made easy for him to meet up with his
soul-mate. However, if he sins in such a way as to necessitate a
reincarnation, then the next time around Heaven isn't so favorable to
him, and he may live a lifetime without his soul-mate, though try as
he might to find her.
Unless, that is, he has certain merits. If he has certain merits,
and Heaven only knows which ones he has to have for this, his
soul-mate will also return on his behalf. Nevertheless, he won't
find his soul-mate as easily as he did the first time around.
As the Talmud points out in many places, we never really abandon the
simple meaning of a posuk. This posuk IS talking about the laws of
Jewish manservants, laws that without a Temple cannot apply today.
However, we certainly don't abandon the Kabbalistic meaning as well,
and on that level we are talking about something far deeper, far more
profound, and something as relevant today as ever before.
They saw (a vision of) the G-d of Israel, and under His feet there
was something like sapphire brick, like the essence of Heaven in
purity. (Shemos 24:10)
Right - whatever that is supposed to mean. However, by now we know
that when the Torah or the rabbis speak this way about Heaven and
related things, it is by way of analogy. Heaven is spiritual and not
physical, and therefore the physical eyes cannot see it. Sapphire
and bricks are physical things, and not the material of which Heaven
If so, then why even bother mention such a concept which is, at best,
misleading? The answer is because it helps us to understand other
more material concepts, such as the mitzvah to wear tzitzis - tassels
on the corners of a four-cornered garment.
Says the Talmud:
Rebi Meir used to say: What difference does it make to use techeles
as opposed to another color? The difference is that techeles is like
the color of the sea, which is similar to the color of the sky, which
is like the Throne of Glory, as it says, "They saw (a vision of) the
G-d of Israel, and under His feet there was something like sapphire
brick, like the essence of Heaven in purity." (Sotah 17a)
Well, that is certainly interesting! Just a couple of questions
though, that is, why did we have to go through all of that? Why
didn't Rebi Meir just say that the color techeles is like the color
of the Throne of Glory, about which we should not forget? Secondly,
what about now when we don't seem to be able to agree on the true
source of techeles and therefore when tzitzis that are techeles-less?
What you may not have noticed is that we made a serious transition
from the physical to the spiritual. We began with the sea but we
ended up talking about the Throne of Glory, which is not so physical
at all, at least not what we're used to relating to.
This week's parshah worked very much the same way. Most of the
parshah speaks of everyday laws that apply to the everyday physical
world. However, at the end of the parshah, it speaks about
completely spiritual things, such as Heaven for example. What a
Everyone knows that the goal of Torah and mitzvos is the latter: the
ultimate sublime reality of being one with G-d to the greatest extent
possible. However, anyone who knows Torah also knows that it is a
spiritual path through the everyday physical world.
There are those who would like to forget the latter and live only
with the former, living a spiritual existence while ignoring the
physical one and the mitzvos that go along with it. There are those,
as well, who would like to forget the former and live only with the
latter, forgetting the lofty goals of Torah-living.
Neither path is correct, and techeles is our reminder. We may start
on earth with "mishpatim," but our goal must be to climb towards
Heaven and to rise above the everyday limited physical reality. The
fact that we don't have techeles today, at least a version of it that
all can agree to, is symbolic of the fact that we are not lifting our
eyes towards the Throne of Glory. As Rashi teaches at the end of
Parashas Beshallach, that is exactly what Amalek wants from us.
Since Rosh Chodesh Adar comes up this week, we read Parashas Shekalim
this Shabbos. In Temple times we gave a half-shekel per person to
the Temple coffers at this time of year to help pay for the public
sacrifices in the upcoming year, a mitzvah whose origin is in
Parashas Ki Sisa.
It is a mitzvah that is also connected to Purim, for as the Talmud
relates Haman wanted to purchase the right from Achashveros to
destroy the Jewish people. As Tosefos points out, the amount of money
he volunteered was exactly equal to the sum total of all the
half-shekels collected from the Jewish people in the desert (Megillah
What does one have to do with the other? Surely there were other
mitzvos that we performed in the desert that could have pre-empted
Haman's diabolical plan to implement his own version of the "Final
Solution." What strength did the mitzvah of "chetz-shekel" imbue the
Jewish people with to fortify them against the likes of Haman?
There are basically two forces in creation, one that pulls apart and
one that pulls together. For the most part, the one that pulls apart
is destructive and the one that pulls together is constructive. For
the most part, the one that pulls apart seems to be the more
"natural" force in creation, as entropy seems to make clear.
It takes a real act of will to hold things together when forces are
working to pull them apart. The ultimate expression of this natural
phenomenon is what Rashi describes at the end of Parashas Beshallach
regarding the effect of Amalek on the Four-Letter Name of G-d. In a
sense, Amalek is a natural and chaotic force within creation that
results when left unchecked by the unifying will of the Jewish people.
The power of the half-shekel was its need for another half to achieve
completion, and it was only logical that it should be used to
purchase communal sacrifices. Everything we do down here results in
spiritual reactions above, and in contributing the chetzi-shekel the
Jewish people built into themselves an ability to bond together when
the forces of creation work hard to tear them apart. Unified we can
draw down unimaginable spiritual forces that even the worst of our
enemies cannot stand up to.
Thus, by contributing the half-shekel we did not only buy community
sacrifices, we bought community as well. It is in the collective
will of the Jewish community rallying around the flag of Torah that
we gain the strength to be able to conquer the destructive forces of
Chanukah & The Wonderful World of Thirty-Six Installment #10, Chapter Seven, Part Two: Moshe & The Nation
The Menorah was not the only implement of the priestly service that
contained the message of thirty-six. For example, the robe worn by
the high priest while serving in the Tabernacle (Shemos 28:31)
contained thirty-six bells sewn onto its hem (Zevachim 88b). These
bells, says the Talmud, atoned for loshon hara, derogatory speech
about others, a sin of very serious proportions and one for which a
person can lose his portion in the World-to-Come.
Considering that it is speech that distinguishes man from animals, it
is not surprising to find such a strong connection between speech and
the light of creation. Speech is the measurement of godliness of an
individual (Onkeles, Bereishis 2:7). This is especially understood
when one learns that speech specifically distinguishes the Jew from
the nations of the world:
Moav said to the Elders of Midian . . . (Bamidbar 22:4)
What did Moav see that made them seek the advice of Midian? When
they saw that Israel was victorious in a supernatural way, they said,
"Their leader (Moshe) came from Midian. Let us ask them what is his
trait." They (Midian) told them, "His strength is only in his
mouth." They (Moav) said, "We will attack them with someone whose
strength is in his mouth too." (Rashi)
The account of Moshe, Balak and Bilaam is told in the fourth book of
the Torah, Bamidbar. The word midbar means "desert," but with a
slight vowel change it is transformed into the word medabehr, which
means "speak." Perhaps when the Talmud teaches that one, in order to
receive Torah should make himself into a midbar (Eiruvin 54a; Nedarim
55a), it alludes also to the concept of medabehr.
This is why the holiday that celebrates our freedom from Egyptian
slavery is called Pesach, which can be divided into two words, peh
sach, the "mouth that spoke" (Maharal). Our redemption from Egyptian
bondage had to do with our level of spirituality regarding speech
that was refined through the Pesach Seder.
Perhaps this is why the book that deals with Jewish preparation to
live in the land of Israel, Sefer Bamidbar, is focused on incidents
that deal with speech. For example, Parashas Bamidbar involves the
counting of the Jewish people, a concept that is associated with
speech. (The also parshah discusses the seder (order) of the camp,
regarding the location of each of the tribes.)
Then there is Parashas Naso. Naso, among other matters, deals with
the suspected adulteress, the Nazir, and the Priestly Blessing.
Shlomo HaMelech, when describing the adulteress remarked:
Thus it is the way of the adulteress to eat and wipe her mouth and
say, "I have done nothing." (Mishlei 30:20)
The cleverness of the above metaphor becomes clear through Sefer
Bamidbar. As we will see, the difference between one who succeeds in
achieving Elokus with the wisdom of thirty-six and one who does not,
depends upon how one uses the mouth. A medabehr - a speaker in the
ultimate sense, is one who strives for Elokus; an "ingestor" is one
who flees from it.
Speech emanates from within a person and impacts the world outside of
him; ingesting is the result of taking and consuming from the outside
world. The former act is one of chesed, while the latter one is an
act of selfishness. Whenever one acts or speaks for selfish reasons,
it is called "ingestion." Whenever one eats for selfless reasons, it
is compared to pure speech.
The Sotah, the suspected adulteress, we learn, is ensnared through her mouth:
The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man went out among the
Israelites and the Israelite woman's son had a quarrel with an
Israelite in the camp. The Israelite woman's son then blasphemed
G-d's Name . . . His mother's name was Shelomit, the daughter of
Divri, from the tribe of Dan. (Vayikra 24:10)
The verse publicly mentions her name to tell you how properly Israel
acted, telling us implicitly that of all the Jewish women, she alone
was a harlot; SHELOMIT: She was called this because she was always
babbling: "Peace (shalom) be upon you. Peace be upon you." She used
to continually babble with many words. (Rashi)
Perhaps this is why the Sotah is made to swallow the bitter waters to
determine her innocence or guilt. For having improperly used her
mouth and for lowering herself to the level of an animal, (which is
why her sin-offering is only barley, the food of a donkey,) she is as
From a man's mouth you can tell what he is. (Zohar Bamidbar 193)
The Nazir, the Talmud in Tractate Sotah points out, is the response
to the Sotah. By verbally proclaiming to be a nazir, one avoids that
which caused the Sotah to stumble. As wine (which is consumed) also
caused her lewdness, the Nazir abstains from wine.
The priestly blessing is one of the best examples of the ultimate use
of the power of speech. Through it the priests invoke the name of
G-d, something that can only be done in an ultimate state of purity,
to bless the nation. This is mankind exhibiting the highest form of
After Parashas Naso comes Parashas BeHa'alosecha. BeHa'alosecha,
says the Ramban, contains an allusion to the future rekindling of the
Menorah in the time of the Chanukah victory. It happens to be the
eighth parshah in Sefer Bamidbar, and the thirty-sixth parshah in the
entire Torah. At the end of the parshah, Miriam is punished for
speaking loshon hara about her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.
Parashas Sh'lach recounts how the spies spoke loshon hara about the
Land of Israel, which led to the additional 38 years of wandering in
Parashas Korach details the rebellion Korach led against Moshe.
Korach himself was incited through loshon hara about Moshe, and he
incited others through subtle coaxing. Korach was punished
measure-for-measure: for improper use of speech, the mouth of the
earth swallowed him and his followers.
Chukas contains the episode that cost Moshe the chance to enter
Israel. Instead of bringing forth water by speaking to the rock, he
hit the rock instead. Living in Eretz Yisroel successfully is
measured by how well the Jewish people maintain their level of
Elokus, which is measured by how dependent they are on nature to
In a land that is also above nature (Devarim 11:10), a descendant of
Avraham should strive to live above nature. Israel is a place where
the rains fall because G-d decrees it, regardless of seasons and
cloud formations. A Jew's mouth is where the "key" lies to unlock
the door to physical and spiritual survival. The Jew must integrate
this most important message into his life.
It is not by bread alone that man lives, but by all that comes of
G-d's mouth. (Devarim 8:3)
This point was clearly made when Moshe was denied access to Israel
for physically bringing forth the water, as opposed to doing it
spiritually, through speech.
Parashas Balak clearly illustrates the importance of speech. Bilaam,
the non-Jewish prophet and sorcerer whose "strength was in his mouth"
and who kept claiming that he could only say that which G-d placed in
his mouth, insisted on using his mouth for unholy purposes.
The result was self-destruction, but only after a humiliating
episode. While on his way to meet with Balak, the king of Moav,
Bilaam's donkey spoke, leaving Bilaam quite speechless. The message:
Use your mouth improperly and you are no better than a donkey,
perhaps even worse. Is it a coincidence that Bilaam's name comes
from the root which means "swallow?"
The truth is, this message was not a new one, just a forgotten one.
After Adam ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil,
he was also reduced to the level of a donkey:
When The Holy One, Blessed is He, told Adam, "Thorns and thistles you
will plant" (Bereishis 3:18) tears formed in his eyes. He said to
G-d, "Master of the Universe! Shall I and my donkey eat from the
same trough?!" (Pesachim 118a)
Towards the end of Parashas Balak, the Jewish people, through the
advice of Bilaam, are drawn into sin. Divine retribution was swift
and harsh. Someone named Pinchas acted zealously on behalf of G-d,
killing the conspirators. Among the many rewards Pinchas received,
there was an additional letter added to his name: a yud. This
addition transformed his name, which now meant, "my mouth urged me to
do it" (Hirsch, Pinchas).
Pinchas, through his act of zealousness, became the very embodiment
of all the Jewish nation stands for, "saying little and doing a lot,"
and using the mouth as a vehicle to understand and interpret the will
of G-d. For behaving in this fashion he returned back to the state
of mankind prior to the consumption of the forbidden fruit: He
became immortal, becoming Eliyahu HaNavi who ascended to Heaven in a
fiery chariot and never died. (Ba'al HaTurim, Bamidbar 25:11)
A fitting end to Sefer Bamidbar is the list of laws of oaths and
conditional statements, both of which are used to gain control over
physical desire. These are the final laws before beginning Sefer
Devarim, which also means "Book of Words." Thus, having completed
the book of "speaking," the Jewish people were ready to enter Eretz