These days, we hear dire warnings from around the world of an impending rift in the vaunted unity of the Jewish people. Israel is lurching dangerously rightward, they say, while much of American Jewry embraces liberal thinking and considers Israel’s new government far too extreme for their liking. Well-known pundits are even publicly questioning the limits of their support for our homeland under its current rule.
This Shabbat, we will take a second Sefer Torah from the Holy Ark and read a special maftir called “Shekalim.” It is about the half-shekel tax levied on everyone, rich or poor, beginning in the days of Moses. The tax was then used as a census since we Jews don’t do head counts. It would also serve as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. Later, the money collected would go towards the purchase of offerings on the Altar in the Holy Temple.
The commentaries ask why the levy was only for a half-shekel. Why not a whole shekel? Surely a whole shekel is better than a half? While there are a variety of answers, the one that most appeals to me holds that at the end of the day, each of us is only half. We need another Jew to make us whole. On our own, we are incomplete. Together, we make each other whole. The unity and interdependence of the family of Israel were ingrained in us since we were children learning these Torah passages.
Challenges to the unity of Am Yisrael are not new. Over the years, there have been many such challenges.
A few years ago, our shul in Johannesburg brought a guest speaker from Israel to launch our adult education program. His name is Rami Sherman and he is one of the heroic commandos who took part in the famous July 1976 Entebbe hostage rescue mission in Uganda.
In recent years, Rami has been speaking to audiences around the world, sharing the behind-the-scenes stories of what was arguably the most daring hostage rescue in history. He was a 23-year-old operations officer under commander Yoni Netanyahu—elder brother of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—who tragically lost his life in the raid.
I have read a lot about the Entebbe rescue mission. I even produced a short film about it called “Miracle at Entebbe,” which has reached some 850,000 viewers on YouTube. But Rami shared many secrets known only to those personally involved in the events.
Rami described himself as growing up as an Israeli, rather than a Jew. He was raised in a very secular kibbutz, where he says they ate pork on Yom Kippur out of spite, just to be davka!
Rami explained how a million different things could have gone wrong during the raid on Entebbe. He said that as skilled and courageous as the Israeli commandos were, only God Himself could have ensured Israel’s miraculous success in this outrageously ambitious operation.
When Israel sent its best team of young fighters to save over a hundred Jews from Israel and all over the world, Rami came to understand the interdependence of world Jewry. He came to appreciate what Jewish peoplehood was all about.
Rami Sherman said, “I flew to Entebbe as an Israeli. I flew back as a Jew.”
He realized that all of us, in Israel and the Diaspora, are part of Am Yisrael. We are one nation, one people, with one faith and one God.
When I was preparing “Miracle at Entebbe,” I remember reading how then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and his security cabinet agonized over allowing the military option to proceed. The cabinet was split. It could have backfired terribly. Rabin spoke of it being more than a military decision. It was a moral decision.
That moral decision was surely based on the well-known Talmudic dictum that “All of Israel are responsible for one another.” Whether in Israel or the Diaspora, we are one community and one people. If we don’t look after each other, who will?
Yes, we are all like the half-shekel—only half and incomplete. When we come together, we become one whole shekel, one whole nation.
Yitzhak Rabin got it in 1976. May we all get it today.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association.