In Parshas Shekalim HaShem
tells Moshe Rabbeinu to instruct the Jews to contribute a half shekel in order to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Our Sages explain that Moshe Rabbeinu had a difficult time understanding what it was that he had to do. So HaShem
showed him a coin of fire and said, "This is what they must give." Why did HaShem
show him a coin of fire rather than a coin of silver or gold? After all, they weren't going to give a coin of fire, were they?
Compare this with the Menorah. Our Sages tell us that Moshe Rabbeinu did not understand exactly how the Menorah should be constructed, either. When he asked HaShem, He showed him a vision of the golden Menorah. He did not show him a Menorah of fire. He showed him a Menorah of gold. And when Moshe saw it, he understood. Seeing is worth a thousand words. When he saw it, he understood. So if we see that in the past HaShem showed him a Menorah of gold why couldn't He show him a coin of silver or gold? Why a coin of fire?
In order to be able to understand this, we must first understand what money is all about. In the Beis HaMikdash there was a vessel known as the kior -- the laver or wash-basin from which the Kohanim washed their hands and feet before beginning their service in the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash. This was the preparation which the Kohanim made before they began HaShem's service. The kior was constructed from the mirrors that the women had used to beautify themselves in Egypt. When the entire Jewish people were asked to donate whatever they could to the building of the Mishkan, the women donated (among other things) their mirrors, which were made out of highly polished copper. Moshe Rabbeinu, however, was very hesitant to accept them, for, after all, the women had used them to beautify themselves and make themselves attractive to their husbands. Can objects which were used to arouse passion have a place in the Mishkan? Moshe Rabbeinu did not see how one could fuse the Mishkan -- which embodies the highest levels of holiness and spirituality -- with something that seemed so connected to physical desire and pleasure.
The Rebbe explains that the Mishkan encompassed everything that has to do with human life, including what may be perceived as the lowest and most animalistic of all passions. He points out that low and high are relative terms, for what seems to be "the lowest of all passions" in truth has the power to bring down the highest of all things -- a holy Jewish soul. It is only the Torah which can define what is truly low and what is truly high.
Intimacy between a man and a woman may be viewed as a concession to man's base impulses. Alternatively, it can be perceived as one of the most spiritual acts that a human being can do, for it can bring about the creation of another Jew.
The same thing, says the Rebbe, can be said about money. There are different ways of relating to money. Money is a very powerful thing. It is something that arouses greed in people, it is something that people can do many unholy and unethical things with. The Flood started when the earth became full of robbery -- stealing another person's possessions. Money can be a vehicle for much evil and selfishness.
Rabbi Twersky (Rabbi-Doctor Avraham Twersky, for those of you who have not yet heard of him, is the head of a prestigious psychiatric hospital, and he deals specifically with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction) once mentioned in a lecture -- that drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have begun to invade Jewish society, where they were almost entirely absent in previous generations. We always used to think that Jews were above alcoholism and drug addiction. This is no longer true. There is no longer any room for complacency in this matter.
Rabbi Twersky explained that drug addiction and alcoholism are diseases of excess where a person cannot force himself to stop. They are the result of a lack of discipline. You just start and you cannot stop. In our society, even though most healthy people who are emotionally stable would admit that drug addiction and alcoholism are still not acceptable and are self-destructive, he pointed out that among many religious Jews money addiction is not viewed in the same light. Why is it that people who earn a million dollars don't say, "Stop. A million dollars is certainly enough to allow me to live comfortably." No. Now they've got to go for that second million. And when they get the second million, perhaps they should stop now? "One minute," says the millionaire, "If I was able to make two million, I could make four million..." And so it becomes an addiction, a disease, which may be even worse than alcoholism. At least the average individual realizes when his drinking has gone too far. When a person tries to amass more wealth than he could ever possibly use, that is a disease.
Nevertheless, money in itself is not evil. On the contrary, it has a very high source. The fact that when we see that money has a become such a powerful focal point for so much sin, for so much greed, and so much evil, that is only a proof that money really originates in a very high place.
Now we can understand the concept of the half shekel. It is one of the ways in which a person purifies and elevates his natural passions and lust for possession. Although money can be a source of evil, you can't live without it. A person cannot exist without earning money. You can't say, let me close my eyes and live on spirituality. You need money to buy things and pay your bills. But the question is, in what framework do you relate to money? What are the proper limitations and proper usage of wealth? How am I supposed to use money in order to live a proper life?
HaShem says, to make your life holy as far as money is concerned, it must be regulated by the Torah. Just as we have many halachos regulating the intimate relationship between man and woman in order to sanctify it, so that the relationship does not become a mere search for pleasure, so too with money. HaShem gives us money and then HaShem teaches us how to deal with it.
One of the first lessons is, that a Jew must realize that the money that he earns, or inherits, or receives as a gift, comes to him from HaShem. It does not come to you because you are smart. It does not come to you because you are talented, it doesn't come to you because you deserved it. It doesn't come to you because you've worked x amount of hours. It came to you for one, and only one reason -- that HaShem in His supernal wisdom felt that at this moment you should be the possessor of x amount of money. Now it's for you to decide how to spend it. To a large extent you have free choice in this matter, but there are some preconditions. HaShem tells you that the first thing you must do with your money is give your half shekel. You are obligated to return a certain amount of what He gave to one of the projects which He supports -- to the Beis HaMikdash, or to a poor person who needs it, or some other form of tzedakah.
One action is worth a thousand words. Your giving to tzedakah says it all. You are making a statement: you realize that the money you received was not because you are the greatest or the smartest, or even because you deserved it. It is an expression of thanks to Him Who gave it to you. When you realize that you may not be deserving of whatever you receive, you will, of course, not be overly cautious about whom you give it to, whether he is really deserving of the money or not.
There is a well-known story about Reb Zushya of Anipoli. A certain wealthy man gave some money to the poverty-stricken Reb Zushya. He noticed that whenever he gave the tzaddik a sum of money, he was blessed with success in his business endeavors. And so he became a regular donor. One day, he went as usual to Reb Zushya's shack to give him a gift, but he was informed that the tzaddik had gone to visit his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch. And so the wealthy man made the following inference, a kal vachomer: When I give tzedakah to Reb Zushya, HaShem blesses me with success. How much more so if I give to Reb Zushya's Rebbe! So he stopped giving to Reb Zushya, and began giving to the Maggid instead. But, lo and behold! His business deals started failing. Thinking that this was a temporary crisis, the man continued giving to the Maggid, but not to Reb Zushya. He soon realized, however, that if he continued this pattern, he would not have anything to give the Maggid either. Things became so bad that he turned to Reb Zushya, his Rebbe, for advice. Reb Zushya told him the following: "When you gave to someone that was really undeserving of your generosity, HaShem did not make an accounting of whom He gave charity to, and so you succeeded in your business endeavors. But when you started making all kinds of calculations as to who was more worthy and who was less worthy of your support, HaShem began doing the same thing. The end result, you are familiar with...."
Does this poor person deserve your money more than another one? Perhaps not. However, he stretched his hand out to you, so you have to give him. Perhaps he does not deserve it, but on the other hand, who said I deserved it from HaShem? The idea that HaShem showed Moshe this half shekel was not only to show him the amount of money that a Jew has to give -- because then He could have showed him a gold or silver coin. Rather, HaShem specifically showed him a coin of fire which He took out from under his Throne of Glory, as the Midrash states, to teach us that even though money is something that can be perceived as very materialistic, very low and coarse, nevertheless, by giving it with fire, i.e., with enthusiasm and vitality, not in an apathetic and uncaring way, it becomes a holy coin.
A Jew ought to give his half shekel with fire, realizing that this money wasn't given to him only to buy himself whatever he needs, but also as the trustee of that portion which he must disburse to others. When you meditate and think about all these things, you will feel totally different when you are giving the money to charity. You don't feel so smug all of a sudden: "Look how noble and generous I am, that I gave some of my money away." Who says it's your money? HaShem gave you one tenth of your salary which was never meant for your use to begin with. There's no reason here for feeling so high and mighty.
The word for coin in Hebrew is matbe'a. Interestingly, the word is related to the word teva, which means "nature." HaShem wants a Jew to imbue his teva with eish -- fire, and that is why He showed Moshe Rabbeinu a coin of fire. This means that a Jew should not be cold, uncaring or apathetic. A Jew should be alive; a Jew should have fervor in his Divine service. When you give your half shekel -- your charity -- to whomever you choose, it should be with fire, with warmth, with enthusiasm. And then if you do it that way, it's a completely different coin. That coin is no longer anything materialistic. It becomes something spiritual. In the words of the Rebbe: "HaShem created the world ex nihilo -- from nothing, and He commanded us to make from the physical world -- nothing, i.e. to transform it from physical into spiritual, through observing Torah and mitzvos." You take money and transform it into a mitzvah -- into spiritual fire -- by giving it to somebody who really needs it to live or to study Torah, or to some other worthy cause. Then it becomes a redemption for your soul. That is the reason that HaShem wanted specifically a coin of fire, and not a coin of silver -- to teach Moshe and the Jewish people how important it is to serve HaShem with simchah and with vitality.
The Rebbe now asks why HaShem
commanded us to give a half
shekel rather than a whole one. Given the symbolism of the shekel mentioned above, wouldn't it have been more logical for HaShem
to command us to give a whole
shekel? A half is a limitation.
Furthermore, we see that regarding the half shekel no one was permitted to give more than a half, even if he wanted to. In other aspects of tzedakah, you could give a million dollars; if you have it, give it. But in this particular case, not. The richest Jew should not give more than a half and the poorest Jew should not give less than a half.
The lesson that the Rebbe derives from this is relevant even now, when we do not give the half shekel: Often a very wealthy Jew can fall into the clutches of arrogance by saying, "Look, it's because of me that such-and-such a Yeshivah manages to exist. I cover 75% of their budget!" Wealthy people who give tremendous amounts of charity could be tempted to reach the conclusion that, "If not for me, the world could not continue!"
On the other hand, you have a poor Jew, who can barely afford to give a few pennies to tzedakah. He might think, "What is my contribution worth? A few miserable pennies. Who needs me?"
Accordingly, through the mitzvah of the half shekel, HaShem tells every Jew that he and his contribution are equally important. What the wealthy man is expected to give is no more important that the poor man's contribution. And what the poor man is expected to give is no less important than a wealthy Jew's contribution.
Moreover, no one can do it alone. Every Jew needs the participation of every other Jew for completeness. There are Jews who would rather not have all these other people around; they just make them nervous. "What do I need all these other people for?" There are people who try to avoid contact with other people because they find that that brings them down from their lofty spiritual quests. They have to deal with other people's problems, and answer their questions and get involved with them. "Oy! I can't stand it, I'd rather just learn and develop myself and become better and better." You see quite a lot of this in the secular world -- that people are very much into themselves and develop themselves, ignoring the rest of the world, i.e., those who don't belong to their particular interest group. They really don't have time in their lives for other people, especially the people that need them. That's the kind that you avoid the most. So HaShem says, "A half shekel is not enough to buy a sacrifice. This costs more than a half shekel. On your own, you cannot even buy one korban tamid, which is an atonement for your soul. You need to get together with all other Jews. Only together can you bring this sacrifice." Every Jew was required to give his half shekel, and from the lump sum, every day, the necessary amount was drawn to buy the korban tamid. The half shekel is therefore an expression, not only of Ahavas Yisrael, the love each Jew must have for his fellow, but of Achdus Yisrael -- the interdependent unity of the Jewish people.
Elsewhere, the Rebbe makes another point about giving a half shekel, rather than a whole one: A Jew is expected to give only that which he is capable of -- the ten powers of his soul (equal to a half shekel which equals ten gera, since a whole shekel equals twenty gera). More than that he cannot give. However, HaShem gives the second half, thus making a whole shekel.
Furthermore, the Rebbe asks why did HaShem have to show Moshe the coin of fire? Why couldn't he just tell Moshe the lesson we have just learned without showing him the coin? HaShem could have told Moshe, "Moshe, tell the Jews, when they give tzedakah with simchah and with enthusiasm, it'll do much more than if they give it without simchah and enthusiasm."
According to our Sages, one of the things that was created just before Shabbos was this coin of fire. HaShem specially created a new thing -- a coin of fire -- just prior to Shabbos. Why?
The Rebbe explains that the fact that HaShem actually created this object actualized it. We know that there are many concepts that sound very abstract, and even though they may sound wonderful, they are unattainable. So HaShem told Moshe: "Look, this is not just one of those abstract concepts that I'm telling the Yidden. This is a real thing." HaShem actually brought into this world a coin which was a fusion of physicality and spirituality. By showing it to Moshe, as an actual three-dimensional tangible object, HaShem brought into this world the potential for a fusion of the spiritual with the physical. Had He not shown Moshe an actual coin of fire, it would have remained on the level of the abstract and theoretical. The actual creation of this object, however, gives us the ability to achieve that fusion through training ourselves to first of all think correctly about tzedakah, and then give it in a completely different mood and frame of mind from the one we are accustomed to when giving charity.
To return to the concept of the half shekel which we give before Purim: The greatness of tzedakah is that it is not only an atonement for the past -- if a Jew sinned in the past and he gives tzedakah with the right intention, it becomes like repentance, as we say on Rosh HaShanah, "Teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (charity) [annul the evil decree]." More than this it is also an insurance policy for the future. How do we see this? Our Sages explain that it was because of the half shekels that the Yidden gave in the desert that Haman's evil decree, many generations later, was annulled. Who knows what our children will have to confront, G-d forbid? Maybe we are not going to be around someday to give to our children. Today we can provide for them. Will we be able to provide tomorrow or next month? Who knows? This is a big worry in the mind of every parent. So we know when we give tzedakah today, we know that HaShem is putting it down in the spiritual computer up there. This person has made a deposit of this and this money in this tzedakah bank and HaShem will remember it for the future as well. So that we ourselves, and our children and our great-great-grandchildren will someday benefit when a moment of difficulty arises.
- (Back to text) A communal sacrifice offered daily in the Beis HaMikdash, in the morning and in the late afternoon.