Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Other Half Shekel

Did you see the story recently about Rob Leibowitz, the 60-year-old single father of 5, whose kidneys were failing?  After enduring dialysis treatments that were four hours each, three days a week, and learning that he was on an organ transplant waitlist that was 7 to 10 years long, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

You see, his search for a donor was complicated by his blood type, O Positive, which makes him a universal kidney donor, but only able to receive a kidney from a person with the O blood type. His children could not donate to him for medical reasons. It looked like he might not get a kidney in time.

So he had a t-shirt made – simple white with black lettering that read: “In Need Of Kidney - O Positive - Call” and it listed a phone number. Then he took his shirt and his kids to Disney world.

As they walked around the park, people snapped pictures of the shirt. They shared them on Facebook. The post went viral. Soon after, at least 100 phone calls came in – 50 with serious offers.

According to the Washington Post: “Donating a kidney requires a long screening process, including extensive medical tests and a psychological evaluation…After initial testing, three potential donors went to New York for additional testing, which included meetings with psychiatrists, social workers and a surgeon. Then there were blood tests, X-rays and tissue tests. None of the three were a match.”

Then he heard from Richie Sully, another single dad, who took at 16hr bus ride to New York for testing. Every hour was worth it, because they were a match.

The surgery was completed on Jan 18. I saw the two men post-op on the Today Show. They’re now best friends. When asked why he did it, Richie Sully said, “Because I could.”

Who or what do you think of when I ask you to think of your “other half?” A spouse, a dog, a friend, a sibling? So often we limit our “other half” to something romantic – but the concept of the invisible missing piece of you can be even more transformative than that.

It’s Shabbat Shekalim, a special Shabbat in the Hebrew calendar. The day reminds us of a specific mitzvah that was required of the Israelites when they were wandering in the desert – each person had to donate half a shekel to the upkeep of the desert tabernacle.

The half shekel was mandated as part of the census – meaning it would do two things: account for a person in the general population, and it would sustain the portable sanctuary until it came to its permanent residence in Jerusalem.

But why count the half-shekels and not the people themselves if a census was what we were really after?

The Torah says that the half-shekel was to “atone” for each person, that is, some interpret, for the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. The Israelites atoned for their descent into idolatry by building up God’s sanctuary. Instead of giving their gold for an idol, they handed over their precious metal toward a positive, selfless, communal endeavor and to a God that, most importantly, they could not see.

It’s as if the Torah is telling us that a person doesn’t count until they contribute something constructive to the community. Being a body in a crowd isn’t enough. That body must give something – physically, financially – to a communal, holy endeavor.

But why only half a shekel? One, to keep it fair. Everyone from the poor to the rich was expected to participate and it was important to stress that each person was worth the same amount.

And then there’s a more symbolic explanation. Half a shekel implies tha…there is another half somewhere. An invisible half. A Godly half of the human shekel.

Which makes me think about value and the things we’re willing to pay for these days.

The internet has opened us up to the incredible value of sharing. Think of how often you offer to “share” something – either a picture on Facebook or a file on dropbox. Nowadays, we transmit knowledge widely and without cost. What an incredible re-introduction of such a compassionate social gesture – sharing!

But what’s come with this great invention is an antipathy toward paying for things. For example, most synagogues around the country collect dues. Same with many gyms, professional associations and other “member-driven” organizations. Post-2008, Americans, on a whole, have been understandably more anxious about their disposable income. We pay for things that we deem necessary to our everyday lives, things that we pay for and then immediately use.

So what about something we might not use every day? Why still contribute for its upkeep and not just for the service we draw from it?

The answer begins with the other-half a shekel. It’s the holy value we don’t readily see in some of the places where we spend our shekels – synagogue being one of them.

For example, the other day I was on my way to write this very drash at my top-secret sermon-writing location. Don’t ask where, it’s top secret!

I was driving through my neighborhood, thinking through my half-baked ideas on this subject. As I came to a small intersection, I saw a cab dropping off an older woman at a home. She started to scale a steep, icy driveway. She was not very steady on her feet. Almost without thinking, I pulled over, put on my flashers, got out and offered to help her up the driveway. She put her hand out. Holding hands, I guided her to the steps then up to the door. “Thank you, baby!” she offered. I told her to have a good day and headed back to my car.

I’m not telling you this story to make you think I’m a good person. Sometimes I question just how good I am. Instead, I tell you this story to illustrate the invisible other-half of the shekel. Because I was writing this sermon, because my identity as a Jew and as a rabbi was fresh in my mind, because I was psychically connected to this very special community of people, I was moved to righteous action in that moment.

We don’t always think of the long-term, indescribable, invisible benefit we derive from our connection to a particular community. But my connection to you all pushes for me, demands for me to be a better person. You make me seek out my other half a shekel and I find it in you and in what I understand to be God. That’s a value that you don’t reap the immediate rewards from, but should be counted nonetheless.

Hm, when you look at it this way, it turns out to be a pretty good deal: a whole shekel for the price of a half. Not bad.

Shabbat Shalom!

“It’s exciting when you find parts of yourself in someone else.”
The internet attributes this quote to someone named Annaka Silvia.
The internet offers no other insight into who this person is.

Isn’t it fitting that the source of this inspirational quote – so perfect for our theme tonight – is invisible. Does the author even exist?

God of our ancestors, unseen creator of connections and righteous action, may we never stop searching for our other half-a-shekel, that divine part of ourselves or another person or a community that holds us accountable. May we be counted among blessings, manufacturers of holiness, and keep reaching for the wholeness of shalom.