5770 - #21




One of the great challenges faced in the formation of any community is the need to balance individuality. How do we bring together individuals into a collective? Underlying this question is the need to determine the status of and our response to the individual in the context of other individuals. Who is allowed to choose first? be chosen first? How do we distribute communal obligations? Every society must confront these questions and the Torah society is no different.

            The obligation of machtzit hashekel, the half shekel marked originally for the Mishkan but later for the Temple service, is a presentation of one possible model in response. As Shemot 30:15 indicates the rich person is not to add to this amount nor is the poor person to give less. Every individual is to carry the same weight; the community is to be built upon the absolute equality of individuals both in terms of responsibility and benefit. Within this model, as such, there is no possibility of the rich person claiming a greater voice in the communal activity for he contributed just as much as every other individual including the poor person.1 He, thus and inherently, has no right to a greater voice. Everyone is truly equal. To achieve this result, though, the poor person must also accept the responsibility of contributing an amount equal to the rich person, to everyone -- even though, for him, it is personally, unequivocally more difficult. Yet, if it is indeed more demanding for the poor person and easier for the wealthy person to give equal amounts, would this very requirement reflecting equality not be, on some level, inherently unequal?

            The reality is that, while we may strive to develop a society built upon the perfect equality of the divergent individuals who are banding together to form this grouping, people are, in fact, all different. The persons who are the individual components of any social grouping are specifically just that – unique individuals. They, as such, demand distinction. To treat them all the same, thereby ignoring their inherent differences is, essentially, to treat them all unequally, for their distinctions demand variation in how they are to be regarded and considered. It, as such, should not be surprising that Rashi, Shemot 30:15 presents, within his discussion of the three forms of gifts to God to which this verse is referring, one that is based upon a person giving what he desires. The equality is not based upon a similar result emanating from each person but a similarity in response to each individual in that each person is equally entitled to act pursuant to their individuality. The words of the American Constitution may immediately come to mind in that the adage that “all men are created equal” is understood to mean that all individuals should be granted the equal opportunity to follow their specific individual path. The words of Maharsha, Shabbat 31a, however, may be more on point and more significant for our purposes. In explaining the famous verse of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, and you should love your neighbour as yourself,2 Maharsha explains that it cannot possibly mean that one is to treat everyone including oneself the same. This is an impossibility; we are created with an inherent focus on ourselves.3 He thus explains that the directive of this verse demands that just as we are to respect our individual wishes and aspirations, we are to similarly respect the reality of another’s personal wishes and aspirations. We are to treat everyone in an equally distinctive manner.

            Individual distinction, though, may still result in variance in the communal benefit that can flow from the behaviour and efforts of each person. Someone who either has the desire or ability to contribute more to the communal purse or objective inherently does demand, and perhaps even deserves, a greater share or standing. This person has contributed more; should this not be recognized? More importantly, should this not also be a consideration in communal decisions in that the overall good of the community would seem to demand a prioritization for those who can better serve the collective? This concept would seem to be a consideration in the discussion in T.B. Huriyot 13a-14a regarding the prioritization of individuals within the framework of a necessary communal decision. While it may be easier for the wealthy individual to give his larger share to the community chest than another who gives, objectively, a much smaller amount, the community still benefits more from the contribution of the wealthy individual and this has to be recognized. Must we, though, not also distinctively recognize the gift of the one who, while giving much less, overcomes greater challenges in meeting this commitment? And still, is there not a value in the simple equality of everyone contributing in an objectively similar manner?

            A perusal of the Torah literature on this subject yields an intense consideration of all these questions and many others. The call to be objective is challenged by the reality of our subjective differences. A response to simply ignore these subjective differences is, in turn, met by the reality that what may be deemed objectively the same still impacts differently upon individuals who are subjectively distinct. These distinctions may also be intrinsic or extrinsic. Is there a distinction between a disparity based upon wealth and one based upon intellectual abilities? And how are our personal, emotions to be applied within this context? The famous words of Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Matanot Ani’im 7:13 that describe individuals with which one has a personal relationship or connection as having a priority in the realm of tzedakah, charity, are significant. Do we not have a greater responsibility to the ones to whom we are closer? Yet, could this directive not also be applied simply to support and encourage personal feelings for a close individual in the face of, perhaps, greater needs in a stranger? The less chance for a clear black-and-white answer and the greater the need for personal introspection and decision-making, the more challenging the Torah directive – and this is very much so in the realm of communal decisions.

            The call of machtzit hashekel has somewhat of a romantic appeal. The rich man may not add; the poor man may not detract; all are to be recognized as equals and to act as such. The fact is, though, that God has created us distinctly, thus demanding recognition of distinction in our perceptions, analysis and behaviour. Not only is this call active but it is also passive. We must balance equality and distinction not only in how we see but, also, in how we are seen. The answer may not lie in one standard that is to be applied in all cases but in a determination of what standard to apply in different cases. There are times when the rich man and the poor man are to give the same. There are also times when it is to be expected that they will give in vastly different quantities reflecting this distinction.4                                                            

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 See the midrash quoted in Torah Shelaima, Shemot 30:15, note 83.

2 Vayikra 19:18.

3 The words of T.B. Baba Metzia 62a that place the concern for one’s life as a priority over a concern for another’s life must also be considered.

4 For further study of the obligations and justice of these distinctions, and the order and chaos they might produce, see my Beyond Tzedakah: Understanding the Torah Expenditure, Nishma Journal Special Edition at                                                                               

Nishma 2010





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