May 18, 2024
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Professor David Weiss was a leading scientist in the field of cancer immunotherapy and was a Professor of Immunology and Bacteriology at the University of California in Berkeley until he moved with his family to Israel in 1966. Following his return from an international conference in Moscow, through contact with the local Chabad shliach in San Francisco, Professor Weiss was invited to meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe to discuss all he had experienced and seen relating to Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain.

At the end of his yechidus, his private audience and conversation with the Rebbe on communal and professional matters, Professor Weiss became emotional, and was moved to ask a personal question:

“I am not as exacting in my Torah observance as some others. I do pray three times a day, but not always with a minyan. And I am not always as careful about observing the commandments as the people who are your emissaries. But I would just like to know, “Who can call himself one of your chasidim?”

The Rebbe responded, “It’s very simple … Somebody who can say at the end of the day that he has advanced a small step higher than he was at the beginning of the day, I would be happy to call that person a chasid of mine.”

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s statement contained a very powerful message,” commented Professor Weiss. “And ever since then, I have tried—though I have not always succeeded—to be the kind of person who is able to look back at the end of the day and say, “I’ve risen today by a small step…”

~

Our sedra presents the system through which Moshe Rabbeinu is instructed to conduct a census of the nation, the “half shekel”:

כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם…זֶה יִתְּנוּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ…מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַה׳…

“When you take the sum of the Children of Israel according to their numbers… This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel… A half shekel as a gift to Hashem…”

Reb Zvi Hirsch Riminover comments on the process through which each person was counted by means of this half shekel:

As Moshe Rabbeinu was counting the Jewish people, he was not only collecting data or raising funds for community projects—for תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ means not only “take the sum,” but literally, “raise the head.” Moshe was directed also to “uplift,” to inspire and strengthen each Jew by demonstrating that even when we can give only a small contribution or a partial achievement, it is “holy” and meaningful to our Creator. When I know that my “half shekel” counts, I recognize that I am connected to a larger whole; I belong to a greater wholeness, “Bnei Yisrael.”

Giving a machatzis ha-shekel, an “incomplete” coin, means filling the lack that we feel in our Divine service. The gematria, numerical value, of the word shekel is 430, which is also the value of the word nefesh, self or soul. When we feel lacking or broken, when we feel like “half a soul,” we are asked to connect to our greater wholeness by giving ourselves in some small way to the collective mission of the “Children of Israel.” Every contribution is counted and appreciated by HaKadosh Baruch Hu.

The Rebbe Reb Zusha of Anipoli adds that the way to raise up another Jew is to connect them to mitzvah observance. The word לפקודיהם, “according to their numbers,” is a hint to פקודה וציווי, “ordinances and commandments.” There is an internal connection between our nefesh and the mitzvos that we achieve. Every small observance matters and lifts up our life. Reb Zusha calls upon us to encourage our sisters and brothers to grow, learn and engage in Torah and mitzvos. Every interaction presents an opportunity to lift one another up and draw each other close to our true selves, with a good word, a meaningful conversation, a mention of something holy—explicitly or implicitly inspiring each other to express our soul and our Yiddishkeit in action, in a mitzvah.

May our reading of the counting of Am Yisrael remind us of how we count, and all of our efforts in holiness count. May we renew our strength to dig into our pockets and into our nefesh to contribute even just a little “gift” to Hashem, so that at the end of the day we can raise our heads and admit with pride: “Yes, I have risen today by a small step!”


Rav Judah Mischel is executive director of Camp HASC, the Hebrew Academy for Special Children. He is the mashpia of OU-NCSY, founder of Tzama Nafshi and the author of “Baderech: Along the Path of Teshuva.” Rav Judah lives in Ramat Beit Shemesh with his wife Ora and their family.

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