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TWO SIDES OF A COIN

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Having emerged triumphant over his opponent, the overjoyed game show contestant would now be allowed to enter the climactic obstacle course. From the starting line he viewed the course - a maze of ladders, slides, ropes, and slime pools, with little, red flags dangling throughout.

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Having emerged triumphant over his opponent, the overjoyed game show contestant would now be allowed to enter the climactic obstacle course. From the starting line he viewed the course - a maze of ladders, slides, ropes, and slime pools, with little, red flags dangling throughout. He will be given two minutes to race through the course - jumping, sliding, and climbing his way to as many flags as he can grab. When the two minutes are over, his flags will be counted and his prizes will be determined accordingly. As the starting buzzer sounds, he realizes that he has two choices: Either he can blitz into the course, racing to grab as many flags as possible. Or, he can carelessly wander around, playing on the slides and in the slime pools, essentially paying no attention to the many flags that surround him.

This week's Torah portion opens with a command for Moses to take a census of the Jewish people. This was to be done by having each participant give half of a twenty-geirah shekel coin to represent him in the count, the proceeds of which would benefit the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Rabbeinu Bachya, a classic 14th century commentator, wonders why the Torah refers to the required donation as being half of a twenty-geirah coin. Why didn't the Torah just say to bring a whole, ten-geirah coin? What is the significance of using a half coin?

He explains that in this command, the Torah is hinting to us that we should weigh (the word "shekel" is very similar to the Hebrew word "yishkol" meaning "to weigh") our actions to be sure that both our bodies and our souls are allotted the attention that they need. For just as there are two parts to the shekel - one given to the Mishkan and one kept for us - so are there two parts to each of us, the spiritual and the physical. This necessitates a give and take. We must use our physical side to assist us in our spiritual accomplishments, and sometimes we must also allow our spiritual side to be involved in necessary physical activities. We must therefore balance our time and efforts, stressing the spiritual, but allowing the physical the attention that it needs. By doing this, the entire balancing process is deemed holy, because it enables us to most productively manage ourselves, ultimately providing us with more opportunities to be involved in spiritual activities.

Why is our spirituality so important? In his fundamental treatise of mussar (Jewish ethics), Messilas Yesharim, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains that the ultimate goal of all our strivings is to benefit from the splendor of Hashem's presence. This is the absolute greatest and most meaningful pleasure that anyone can possibly experience. This pleasure is the eternal reward that we will receive in the World to Come for all the mitzvot that we have done in this world. Hashem placed us in this world first, for a single lifetime, to accomplish as many mitzvot as we possibly can. Then, in proportion to our achievements, we will receive our full and everlasting reward in the World to Come.

In this light, the sages in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:21) compared this world to a corridor - a place of preparation - before entering the palace that is the next world. Our entire lifetime is a temporary stopover for us to acquire as many merits as we can, to apply later towards our permanent status in the World to Come. By understanding this fundamental concept, we will see that the main pursuit in our lives must be Torah study and mitzvah observance - our spiritual activities - because they are our ticket to the next world and the only reason we were placed here in the first place. Our physical pursuits are necessary, but they must be kept secondary, utilized to assist us in our spiritual endeavors, and never become our primary focus.

While we see the importance and necessity of our spirituality, there is a strong factor which detracts from it. The Chovos HaLevavos, another classic work of mussar, teaches us that the evil inclination tries to sidetrack us from our true objectives by involving us in physical pursuits. It works to tempt us with a lust for physical acquisitions, because it knows that our involvement in such things will significantly distract us from our Divine service.

So on one hand, we realize that our true objectives lie in our spiritual pursuits, but on the other, the evil inclination strives to pull us towards over-involvement in the physical world. The only way we can effectively proceed is by weighing our actions. By honestly evaluating what we are doing and why we are here, we will be able to determine how much time and effort should be devoted to each pursuit. Then, we can maximize our output - accomplishing the most mitzvot that we can, while simultaneously maintaining our physical side with the exact attention that it needs. But we first need to realize where our priorities must be, and we must always be cognizant that there are forces trying to deter us from those priorities. Only then can we honestly evaluate how to proceed.

Obviously, the game show contestant would be foolish if he did not make the most of his time in the obstacle course. He can use the slides to help him gather the flags. But if he allows himself to be distracted by the childish toys, playing on them instead of using them to help him reach his objectives, he will regret it later when he receives only a fraction of the prizes that he could have otherwise amassed. So must we realize that our purpose in this world is dependent upon our spiritual pursuits, not in its fleeting physical pleasures.

We were given a single lifetime to learn Torah, to pray three times a day, to observe Shabbat - to accomplish as many mitzvot as we possibly can. Of course, we need to involve ourselves in the physical world to a certain extent, but that involvement must be used to aid us in our spiritual pursuits, not to detract from them. The evil inclination strives to preoccupy us in our jobs, houses, cars, and clothing so that we end up putting most of our efforts into enhancing them, while our spiritual side is left on hold. If we take a nonchalant attitude towards our relationship with Hashem, we risk becoming overly focused on money and materialism, which, although we may enjoy now, we will regret later when our ultimate reward is diminished because our materialism prevented us from growing spiritually. Instead, we must apply the lesson of the half-shekel and keep a steady, active watch on our actions.

We know that the evil inclination causes us to lean more towards our physical side, so we must be careful and honest with ourselves to ensure that our spirituality is in no way overlooked. By working on this, may we all maximize our mitzvah performance, earning as many possible merits as we can, so that we will enjoy a spiritual existence in this world and tremendous eternal reward in the World to Come.

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Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Forest Hills, New York.

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