This Shabbat is one of beginnings and endings. It is a Shabbat of beginnings because it is the first of the four special Shabbatot preceding Pesah, and it is called Shabbat Shekalim. Shabbat Shekalim is the harbinger of spring, since it always comes directly before the month of Adar or Adar II, which commences this Sunday. In the special maftir portion that we read for this Shabbat, we learn that the Israelites were enjoined to donate a half-shekel (a silver coin) as a one-time tax to provide for the maintenance of the Mishkan, the ancient sanctuary. The rich could not contribute more, nor could the poor contribute less. The entire community then had to contribute equally to the upkeep of the Mishkan. In later times, particularly after the destruction of the Temple, Jews throughout history, as a remembrance of the half-shekel Mishkan tax, voluntarily taxed themselves half the value of a current silver coin to support Jewish religious and charitable institutions. The public reading of this portion on Shabbat Shekalim thus served as a notice to the community that this tax was due in the coming month of Adar.
But this Shabbat is also a Shabbat of endings. The parashah for the week, Parashat Pekudei, describes the concluding stages of the construction of the Mishkan by the craftsman Bezalel and the entire band of Israelite workers. When the work of the Mishkan was completed and the Children of Israel had done what God had commanded Moses for them to do, Moses congratulated the Israelites with the phrase wayyevarech otam (He blessed them). Our Sages derived two important lessons from this phrase. The first has to do with the actual blessing that Moses gave the Israelites, which is not specified in the text. The Sages noted that everywhere else in the Torah where this phrase wayyevarech otam occurs, the blessing is always specifically indicated. For example, after God had created human beings at Creation, He blessed them (wayyevarech otam) by enjoining them to peru u revu (be fruitful and multiply). Since in these other cases a specific blessing accompanies the phrase wayyevarech otam, our Sages speculated how exactly Moses blessed the people. They assumed that the blessing was to be found in the only psalm that is attributed to Moses, namely Psalm 90, a psalm that we recite every Shabbat in our morning service. The blessing occurs at the end of the psalm and reads: "May the favor of the Lord, our God be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper." The Sages thereby deduced that just as the Israelites had successfully completed the construction of the Mishkan (the work of their hands), so Moses invoked the blessing on them that they would be granted the merit to complete other works in the future.
The second lesson that our Sages derived from the statement that Moses blessed the people is that they noted that this blessing comes at the end of the process, when the Mishkan has been completed. Only then and not at the beginning, when the Mishkan was being constructed, does Moses offer his congratulatory blessing. As the late Rabbi Hertz observed in his commentary on the Torah: "Beginnings are easy; completions are as hard as they are rare." So it is fitting that we celebrate when we finish our projects and not engage in celebration when just embarking on them.
This Shabbat, we ourselves have reason to celebrate a completion because, with Parashat Pekudei, we will complete the reading of the book of Exodus. To celebrate the conclusion of reading this book, it is our custom to stand as the reader chants the last lines, and we exclaim the words chazaq chazaq wenitchazeq (be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen ourselves). As Jeffrey Tigay, in his article on the history of this phrase in the Etz Chayim Commentary notes, the words themselves are an echo of ancient warriors encouraging each other in battle, but in our synagogues the military exhortation has been transformed into a wish for spiritual strength. The words will have a special resonance for those of us who have just heard the last few verses of the book of Exodus being recited.
The first chazaq (be strong) will be directed to the person who receives the honor of the last aliyah. We will congratulate him on this mark of distinction and wish him a yishar koah (literally, firmness of strength). The second chazaq (be strong) will be directed to the Torah reader for devoting much time and effort in preparing this passage to ensure that his reading is accurate and melodious. We will congratulate him also, and wish him strength to persevere in preparing the next book of the Torah. The third word, wenitchazeq (and let us strengthen ourselves), will be directed at ourselves. We will congratulate ourselves at having had the honor of witnessing the completion of the reading of this book, and we will encourage ourselves to be present at the completion of the reading of the other books of the Torah. Chazaq chazaq wenitchazeq—be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen ourselves! Shabbat shalom umevorach.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.