Parashat Mishpatim: The Special Joy of Anticipating Redemption
The Shabbat preceding Rosh Hodesh Adar – or the Shabbat on which Rosh Hodesh Adar falls – is called "Shabbat Shekalim," because after reading the weekly Torah portion, we read a special section, Parashat Shekalim, which speaks of the Misva of "Mahasit Ha’shekel." This was a tax which each adult male was required to pay to the Bet Ha’mikdash each year, in order to cover the various expenses involved in the Bet Ha’mikdash’s operations. It was on Rosh Hodesh Adar when the officials would begin collecting this money from the people, and so in commemoration, we read Parashat Shekalim each year just before or on Rosh Hodesh Adar.
The Gemara in Masechet Megilla (13) points to the special significance of the Misva of "Mahasit Ha’shekel" in regard to the celebration of Purim. When Haman brought to Ahashverosh his plan to exterminate the Jews, he offered, "Aseret Alafim Kikar Kesef Eshkol" – he would pay, out of his own pocket, the astronomical sum of 10,000 silver talents. The Gemara teaches that when G-d heard Haman’s offer to Ahashverosh, He responded, "Their Shekalim already preceded yours" – meaning, the merit of the Jews’ donation of a half-shekel of silver preceded Haman’s willingness to pay 10,000 silver talents, and in that merit, they would be saved. The simple meaning of the Gemara’s remark is that the Jews paid the "Mahasit Ha’shekel" during the month of Adar, before Haman devised his plan during the month of Nissan, and in this merit, Haman’s plot was foiled and the Jews were saved.
We must ask, however, why would specifically this Misva give the Jews the merit to be saved from Haman, more than any other Misva?
In truth, an even more difficult question arises from the Gemara’s discussion. Why were the Jews donating the "Mahasit Ha’shekel" at that time? This donation is made only when the Bet Ha’mikdash stands. During the time of the Purim story, the second Bet Ha’mikdash was in the process of being built. In fact, Ahashverosh had ordered the halting of the construction. Seemingly, then, the Misva of "Mahasit Ha’shekel" did not apply. How can the Gemara say that the merit of this Misva saved the Jews from Haman’s plan to eradicate them, if this Misva was not even relevant at this time?
Rav Yehonatan Eibshutz (1690-1764), in his Ye’arot Debash, offers a fascinating explanation. Elsewhere in Masechet Megilla (12a), the Gemara comments that the Jews of that time were deemed worthy of annihilation because they participated in Ahashverosh’s lavish feast. Rav Eibshutz writes that, as the Gemara describes, Ahashverosh made this feast to celebrate what he mistakenly thought was the indication of the permanence of the Jews’ exile. He knew of the tradition that the Jews would remain in exile for seventy years, but he miscalculated, and wrongly concluded that this period had ended with the Jews still in exile. He therefore held a special feast, and he even wore the clothing of the Kohen Gadol and used the utensils of the Bet Ha’mikdash, celebrating the fact that the Jews would never rebuild their Temple again. The Jews, Rav Eibshutz explains, fully participated in this celebration. They, too, despaired of returning to Israel and rebuilding the Bet Ha’mikdash, and resolved that they would forever live in exile, among gentile nations. For this they were threatened with annihilation.
They were saved, however, because they repented and rectified this mistake. Rav Eibshutz writes that Mordechai, the leading Rabbi at the time, urged the Jews to repent by making the "Mahasit Ha’shekel" donation. Although there was no Bet Ha’mikdash to which to donate this money, Mordechai instructed the people to donate to a special fund in anticipation of the Bet Ha’mikdash’s restoration. This anticipation rectified the despair into which they had fallen years earlier, when they enthusiastically participated in Ahashverosh’s feast. Therefore, it was through the "Mahasit Ha’shekel" donation that they earned their salvation – as it reversed the mistake on account of which the decree was issued in the first place.
As we all sing this time of year, "Mi’she’nichas Adar Marbim Be’simha" – we are required to increase our joy when Adar begins. With the onset of the month of the "Mahasit Ha’shekel," we joyously celebrate our eager anticipation of the rebuilding of the Bet Ha’mikdash. We move from the negativity of despair to the festivity of hope and optimism. The special joy of Adar is the joy of overcoming despair, of firmly believing that our current troubles and our current state of exile are not permanent. It is the joy of confidently anticipating our redemption, and looking forward to the time when we will exuberantly serve G-d in the rebuilt Bet Ha’mikdash, speedily and in our times, Amen.