Halves make a holy whole for the Divine Presence

Rabbi Tracy Nathan

By Rabbi Tracy Nathan

We have been reading this richly symbolic section of the Torah on the Mishkan, the mobile sacred dwelling place for the Divine Presence. As we complete the reading of the instructions in Parashat Ki Tissa, it is worth thinking about how we create the vessels for God’s Presence to dwell with us.

The Mishkan texts are a powerful commentary on the story at the heart of the Book of Exodus: the journey from slavery and dehumanization to liberation and covenantal community. Pharaoh used enslaved people to make Egypt’s buildings. So when God calls on the people to contribute their possessions, skills and talents to build, God doesn’t command. God asks for voluntary gifts of those whose hearts have been filled up with the spirit of giving. The Mishkan project will be a return to the dignity of labor.

However, there is an exception at the beginning of our Torah portion that calls for a census to count the people. The counting was done through the contribution of a half-shekel from each person, and everyone gave the same amount, expressing the idea that each person counts and is of equal value before God. These half-shekels of silver would not only go to the maintenance of the Mishkan and its communal sacrifices, it also would go into the very structure of that original Mishkan, for they formed the ​adanim​, the sockets that would hold up the planes, posts and screens of the structure. (Exodus 26:19, 21, 25, 32, 37; and 27:10-12, 14-18).

In other words, when building a vessel for God’s presence, each person must know that they count, that they are valuable and that they count equally. 

Unfortunately, this is not true of the rest of life, when we frequently do not value people equally, whether in how much one is paid or how much access one has to various life opportunities. In a place of holiness, however, we aspire to recognize the intrinsic and equal value of all human beings.

Why are the shekels to be given as halves? This communicates that we are equal but we are also each half. We are incomplete, and so we need to join together with others to make a whole. Our contribution is needed and valued, and the other half’s contribution also is needed and valued.

Returning to the narrative of the Exodus, freedom does not mean radical independence.

There is a deep sense here of interdependence and relational freedom. We are halves in relation to each other, in relation to the Divine, and to the entire world.

In describing this half-shekel count, the Torah uses the phrase ​ki tissa et rosh,​ which means “when you elevate heads.” It is not by raising ourselves above others that we are elevated; we are elevated when we join ourselves with corresponding halves and work together in the building of the Mishkan and the world.

This is how we are to build our holy spaces and places: to create cultures and physical spaces where all are valued and where everyone knows their infinite worth. A Mishkan is built without profiting at the expense of some. A Mishkan is centered around the dignified and sacred work of service, the service of the One who calls us to create communities and build spaces of hesed​ (love) and ​tzedek​ (justice), ​which are so holy that they invite in the ​Shekhina,​ the Divine Presence.

The Israelites in the desert were invited to construct pop-up dwelling places for God to live on earth, which they could take apart and carry with them wherever they went. The call to build sacred containers for God and Torah is still ours to receive. It is a task that cannot be accomplished by one person. It requires weavers, carpenters, managers, designers, artists, sculptors, builders, shleppers — all working together. 

One half here and one half there; many halves joining together. It is here in these containers that we have built together of love, connection,and mutual care where God’s Presence lives.

Rabbi Tracy Nathan is the senior educator and director of Melton at the Center for Jewish Learning at Jewish Federation of St. Louis. She is a member of the  St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the weekly d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.