Upon receiving change recently I noticed one of the coins I was handed was the bicentennial quarter — the quarter issued in 1976 to celebrate America’s bicentennial. A drum-playing patriot and a flame surrounded by 13 stars had replaced the bald eagle on the reverse side of George Washington’s profile. I hadn’t seen one in a while so I took it out and put it aside.
The U.S. Mint has been producing an entire series of new quarters to celebrate the 50 states, issued in the order of the attainment of statehood. The program began in 1999 with Delaware. I’m not a serious coin collector, but I do enjoy checking out the different designs, noticing when new ones come into circulation and celebrating the uniqueness of each coin.
Each new quarter highlights an aspect of the state represented — whether it is a historic monument, natural feature or essential quality — which points to the overall diversity of our country. After Montana was released earlier this year, the Washington State quarter is the next to be released, featuring the design of Mount Rainier and a leaping salmon. (Montana achieved statehood three days before Washington did — on November 11, 1889, in case you were wondering.)
Additionally, the Mint will soon issue new dollar coins with images of the presidents, in order, opposite the Statue of Liberty.
With these new programs, and with the designs on the other coins and bills which make up our U. S. currency, we are reminded that our money — aside from being a practical economic tool — is meant to reflect the images and phrases we as Americans hold important and reflect who we are as a people.
Coins and money play a role in the holiday of Purim, which we welcome in this weekend. Purim celebrates the events as described in the Biblical Book of Esther, in which an annihilation plot in Persia agreed to by King Ahasuerus at the urging of his counselor Haman, was foiled by the Jewish Queen Esther and her cousin Mordecai.
It is a day set aside specifically for “merrymaking,” giving us the opportunity to be irreverent, to dress up, to eat and drink and to have fun for its own sake.
Purim falls in the month of Adar, and the Shabbat near Rosh Hodesh (New Moon) of Adar is called Shabbat Shekalim, one of four special parashiyot preceding Passover.
This notes the census as described in Exodus 30:11-16 — every Israelite would contribute a half-shekel both as a means of counting the population, making expiation to God and raising funds for the community. Everyone contributes the same amount in order to demonstrate the equality of all. Shabbat Shekalim is related to Adar because the census was due on the first of Nisan, so the reminder at the beginning of Adar gave the community a month to fulfill it.
Reading this parashah before Purim also serves as a foreshadowing to the 10,000 talents of silver Haman paid to the state treasury to carry out his nefarious plot (Esther 3:9).
Coins also make an appearance in the Midrash regarding the Purim story. In Esther 9:4, after the plot was averted, we read, “For Mordecai was now powerful in the royal palace, and his fame was spreading through all the provinces…” How was his fame spread?
The ancient rabbis in Genesis Rabbah 39:11 say that coins were minted bearing Mordecai’s name and circulated throughout the land. And what images, they ask, were minted on the coins? On one side sackcloth and ashes, and on the other a golden crown.
Coins are units of currency and a conveyor of national symbols. And coins in our popular parlance are also metaphors for randomness (“flip a coin” to make a decision), and duality (“there are two sides to every coin”). With this understanding these “Mordecai coins” carry a powerful statement.
Aside from its physical two-sidedness, currency carries its own duality — we can use our financial resources for good or ill. The half-shekel of expiation is contrasted with the talents of Haman’s destruction.
In recognition of this, giving tzedakah is one of the main mitzvot of Purim along with hearing the Megillah, giving gifts and sharing a festive meal. We are mindful that we must use our financial resources wisely and ensure a distribution from those of means to those in need.
Beyond this, the images envisioned by the rabbis for the Mordecai coins are compelling, for they suggest that the Jewish “national” symbols are sackcloth and ashes and a golden crown.
There is a stark divide between the two — between mourning and celebration, destruction and redemption. The Jews in the Purim story waver between them (as perhaps one can say we Jews have throughout all of our history). The dichotomy of the symbols suggest life in the balance and a fate and future which can lead to either path.
Randomness also makes an appearance in the Purim story. The date of destruction is chosen at random (the name Purim stands for pur, or lots), and the saving of the Jews seems to come from a fortuitous series of events — God’s hand does not make an appearance in the Megillah.
Thus Purim presents for us in very real terms the fragility of life and existence, both as humans and as Jews. Things and events are often beyond our control, but we do have choices as to how to behave and react in the face of this fact.
Purim is likened to Yom Kippur — Yom HaKippurim, or “Day of Atonement” can also be rendered as “A Day like Purim” — because these are two days in which this fragility is put before us.
On Yom Kippur we pledge that because of this fragility we are going to work hard to ensure that this life is meaningful and uplifting for all. On Purim we pledge that despite this fragility we are going to be joyful, and not despair.
Hag Purim sameach!