The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
By Jason Flatt
A couple of weeks ago, we read one of my favorite Torah portions, Parashat Ki Tissa. In this parsha, all of the Israelites are told to give a half-shekel to the building of the Tabernacle.
One of the ways Torah scholars try to understand the text is through Gematria where each letter of the aleph-bet holds a specific numeric value. It is said that there is a great symbolism every time two words hold the same numeric value in Gematria.
The Hebrew word for soul is nefesh, and it happens to hold the exact same numeric value as the word shekel. Thus, it can be said that when each of the Israelites gave their half-shekel to the census in Ki Tisa, symbolically, they were giving much more than a piece of metal.
But why only half of their souls? Why not be asked to give their entire selves? There are many ways I have interpreted this story over the years; I have studied it and written programs on it while in NFTY. This time around, my interpretation has been shaped largely by my work with Nothing But Nets. For a little more than a year now, I have been working as a fellow with the RAC and the United Nations Foundation for Nothing But Nets. I, and nine other fellows, have been tasked with bringing Nothing But Nets' work of raising awareness, funds and voices in the fight against malaria to our college campuses. It has been an enormous personal and professional challenge that I am very grateful to be a part of.
By giving half of our souls to important components of Judaism and Jewish life, like the Tabernacle, we are keeping the other half open to be merged with another great passion we find in our lives. This way, no matter what we do, we do it with Jewish values and secular (or other) values in complement. Over the last 15 months, I have been able to integrate my study of Judaism, particularly Maimonides’ philosophy on the highest form of tzedakah, and the verse in Deuteronomy demanding "Justice, Justice Shall You Pursue," with my passion for political advocacy and engaging my fellow students in this often unfamiliar type of work. The work I do is not Jewish in the sense that I am a clergy member, or that I am teaching it in a religious school. Rather, it is Jewish in the sense that the Jewish half of my soul, encoded with Jewish teachings and values, is working concurrently with the secular part of my soul, focused on worldly, current, and personal endeavors. Thus, everything I do, I am doing with all my soul.
As World Malaria Day approaches (April 25), so does Passover. We are commanded each year to retell the story of the Exodus, and to be reminded that we were once strangers in the Land of Egypt. As it is written in Pirkei Avot, it is not our responsibility to finish the task at hand, but neither are we permitted to ignore it. Malaria rarely has a direct effect on us in the U.S., but because I give half my soul to Judaism and half my soul to advocacy, I know that I must do my part in helping those in need of protection from malaria. I know by which means I might accomplish it, and I hope that you will not only join me in this fight, but join me in finding a place to give each half of our souls.
Jason is a sophomore at Binghamton University studying Political Science. He is a Nothing But Nets Fellow, co-chair of the Reform Jews of Hillel at Binghamton, a songleader, and will be participating in the RAC's Machon Kaplan program this summer.