May 22, 2019

You Bet Your Life — Rabbi Mordecai Finley’s comments on Shabbat Shekalim

This Shabbat is Torah portion Va-yakhel, with an additional reading called  “Shekalim”, the first of the four special parshiyot (Torah readings) that are read before Passover/Pesach.  Yes, it is already that time! Purim and Passover are around the corner.

Our custom at Ohr HaTorah is to study Jewish holy days from an “archetypal” perspective. “Archetype”, when used in the study of Torah, has come to mean that some aspect of our spiritual lives is presented in the narratives of the Torah.  Whatever you are struggling with now, whatever growth or grief you are dealing with, is echoed somewhere in scripture.

The Four Portions can be seen as describing a process for the inner escape from Egypt. If in each of us there is an Egypt and a Pharaoh, then in each of us there is, or ought to be, a constant emerging from Egypt.  We don’t leave Egypt once.  Our lives are often filled with change and flux, sometimes for better, sometimes – not so much. We find ourselves in new circumstances – interpersonal, at work, psychological, emotional – and the archetype of Egypt constantly holds us back.

What do we mean by Egypt?  Lots of things, but at its core:  habituated living in the ego self. We stay inside of prisons and prisms of familiar thoughts and structures of consciousness. Life does not change because we do not change. We may think we are changing, but sometimes we are just rehearsing old patterns on new sets, in new costumes.

Egypt, in the archetypal study of Torah, means losing touch with the shaping power of the soul over our consciousness.  We give into thoughts, feelings, emotions, speech and behavior that may meet a momentary need, but which are not true to our deepest and most authentic, re-emerging self. In that Egypt of the ego self, there is no source of such overwhelming reverence and awe that we are shaken out of our prisoner mentality.

So we have to come out of Egypt continuously.  One of the ways we engage in the spiritual practice of coming out of Egypt continuously is to study the deeper dimensions of the Four Portions read in the weeks before Passover.  I have been studying these portions for many years, from many different sources and using my own insights, and I am convinced they form the basis of a practice for spiritual liberation – liberation from limited consciousness of the ego self.

For Shabbat, I want to review, for some, or introduce, for others, the study of the Four Portions. For now, I want to say just a few words here on the first of the four portions, Shekalim. We are commanded in Exodus 30 that each of us should give a half shekel to the Tabernacle. The details in the Torah are bit mysterious – it speaks of a census, ransom for the soul, of atonement, and memorial for God.

It is a bit of an irony: In this act of generosity, the giving the half shekel for the Tabernacle, we are now counted in a census and take our place in the ranks of a journey of terrifying beauty. We, the readers, know what happens next. They don’t.

In my downtime, I watch an occasional episode of Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.”  In the ruse of a quiz show, Grouch gets to rib his guests, some of them quite remarkable people. The banter is often hilarious.

One guest from a show in 1955 was a college student named Anthony Herbert. After a bit of questioning, it turns out that Herbert was one of the most decorated soldiers from the Korean War, one of the youngest Master Sergeants, and chosen by General Ridgeway to represented the American Soldier. Groucho kids him a bit, and then asks him how he got one of his Silver Stars. Herbert tells that he and his men had run out of ammunition (“not a good idea,” Grouch interjects) and they were pinned down by machine gun fire. Herbert’s men were getting hit. He tells that he charged the enemy machine gun nest, but to his surprise, found four enemy soldiers, not just the one he expected. “So what did you do?” Marx asks, innocently. “I killed three with a bayonet, and one with a rifle stock,” Herbert responds. Groucho, for a moment, is speechless.

So I looked up Anthony Herbert. He went back into the army in 1956 as 2nd Lieutenant, served later in Vietnam, with an outstanding record as a battalion commander. Herbert witnessed war crimes, tried to report them, but was shut down. Lieutenant Colonel Herbert was relieved of his command, and retired, under pressure, in 1972. He lived a full (and at times complex) life afterwards, and died in 2014. He is buried in Arlington.

I looked at the kind and modest face on “You Bet Your Life”.  Out of the army, not yet decided to go back in. He had not yet bet his life on military service. He does not know what is coming. We do.

Every day we bet our lives, maybe consciously, maybe not, that the way we are living is true and meaningful. We lay down our half shekel and get mustered in, and our identity and destiny get formed around our wager.

The external contours of our lives are often hard to change. Our inner sense of purpose and destiny can be a mindful act of will – to link our inner lives to some purpose, great or small, that provides meaning to our lives. All life is a wager. I guess all we can do is wager as consciously as possible, and face our futures with as much resilience and joy as we can.

Shabbat Shalom!