Parshat Vayakhel Shekalim 2019
As we read about the actual construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle, we welcome the second month of Adar, the last month of the Hebrew year. One of the traditions marking this event is the reading of parshat Shekalim, the first of the four special haftaroth before Pesach (yes, we are getting into Pesach mode!).
Originally, a half shekel was collected as a means of counting the people, and the money was allocated for upkeep of the holy tent. Later this same half shekel was collected from each person to be used to maintain the Beit Mikdash, the Temple. And that’s the subject of our haftarah.
The time is somewhere between 850 and 800 BCE. Yoash is the youngest and only surviving son of the late King Ahazia after Ahazia’s mother, Queen Athalia, has massacred the rest of the family and ascended the throne. The one-year-old Yoash, who is spirited away by the wife of the High Priest, Yehoyada, who hides the young boy in the Temple for six years.
When Yoash is seven years old, Yehoyada sparks a coup d’état, overthrows Athalia and installs Yoash as the monarch, one of the youngest on record. All this is in the book of Kings II.
For the first 23 years of his 40-year reign, Joash is more or less a puppet, under the control of his protector the High Priest Yehoyada and we can assume that the priest basically ran the country.
But then, at age 30, Yoash finally begins to step out on his own. The first step he takes, or at least the first step we read about in today’s haftarah, is an act against his protector. He sees that the Temple is in disrepair, which shows disrespect for God, and asks Yehoyada why things are so bad.
The story that emerges is upsetting. The people are doing what they are supposed to, bringing sacrifices and paying their debts to the Temple – but each person more or less has his own favorite cohen. Something like a family doctor to go to when you need a sacrifice or some service. And each cohen pockets the money he receives, as in a private clinic, without the Temple getting anything.
This means that no money is going for the upkeep of the Temple. Much to the chagrin of Yehoyada the High Priest, King Yoash orders that a special box be emplaced into which almost all monies coming into the Temple, are to be deposited. This money will be used for making repairs, paying the laborers – carpenters, masons, stonecutters, gardeners – and the suppliers of wood and stone and other necessities. The cohanim are allowed to keep one type of payment, so that they are not cut off completely from their sources of income.
While the actions of Yoash are generally considered to be positive – as evidenced by our reading about his actions on Shabbat Shekalim – some questions do arise.
Yaara Inbar, for example, questions the value of treating the Temple as a showcase. Isn’t it possible that all its attendant beauty and order is actually misleading? The question is – which counts more, appearance or content?
We mentioned the duality of “appearance” a few weeks ago, and here it takes on even greater urgency. There is no question that the Temple should be kept in good repair, that its paving stones should not be out of place, or its walls peeling or its doors hanging askew. These are basic cosmetic elements that have to be attended to in almost any setting.
But if the Temple is only show, and its core, its inner workings, its main personnel are not properly attuned to the work (or even worse – corrupt), then the appearance is a sham, covering up seriously ills.
The picture we get in this haftarah is somewhat ironic. At the beginning of the story, Yehoyada the cohen has taken over the monarchy and rules through Yoash. At the end of the story, after Yoash comes into his own, he takes over the priesthood – not in terms of service but in terms of administering the conditions in the Temple.
What we don’t see in our haftarah is what happens afterwards. Despite the seeming affront to his protector, Yoash follows the ways of Yehoyada the Priest – serving God and not the idols – until Yehoyada dies. Afterwards, we learn from Chronicles, Yoash abandons the ways of Yehoyada and is led by the princes of Judah, back to the same type of idol worship that Yehoyada had fought against while alive.
Confusing? Yes. But in truth, the books of Judges, Samuel and Kings record a constant battle between the forces of evil – idols and idolatry – and the forces of good – serving God – with neither side holding the upper hand for very long.
Can we learn anything about today from this story? Perhaps that what goes around comes around? That no one rules forever and that change will eventually come? And that that change is also only temporary?
These are cynical albeit practical lessons to be learned. Perhaps we should go back to the show-window idea. Keeping up appearances is important, but not as important as keeping the underpinnings strong and fresh and true, so that appearances effectively reflect what lies underneath.