Moses was puzzled . . .

This week we read in the Torah about the command to every Jew to contribute half a shekel towards the building of the Mishkan—the Sanctuary in the desert.

Our sages1 tell us that when Moses received the divine command to levy a tax of a half-shekel on each adult male, he was puzzled; the half-shekel was to be an atonement for the sin of worshipping the Golden Calf. “How can the mere giving of a coin be an atonement for a sin?” thought Moses.

A question at once arises: A number of laws concerning sacrifices and offerings to be brought by the individual as atonement for his sins had already been taught by G‑d to Moses. Yet Moses had never previously wondered how a mere offering could provide forgiveness for a sin. Why, then, was Moses suddenly perplexed when told of the half-shekel tax?

The Torah requires every Jew to fulfill 613 commandments. These mitzvot are divided into two main categories—365 “negative commandments” or prohibitions, and 248 positive precepts.

Our sages explain2 that the 613 mitzvot parallel the 613 components of the human body. Some organs of the body have a limited, specific function—the eye to see, the ear to hear, and so on. Other organs, such as the brain and heart, not only perform a specific function, but are so vital that the entire life-force of the body is vested in them.3 Any malfunction or disease that affects these organs strikes at the very core of the body’s vitality.

In a similar way there are, among mitzvot, “specific” commands and “general” precepts. The first two of the Ten Commandments—“I am the L‑rd your G‑d” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”—are precepts that touch the very essence of the Jew’s soul. Hence, a transgression against these two commandments (such as idolatry) affects the entire spiritual personality, the basic link of a Jew with his Maker.

The reason for Moses’ bewilderment at the half-shekel tax can now be understood. That a particular sin could be atoned for by a sacrifice or offering did not puzzle him; but how could a half-shekel atone for worshipping the Golden Calf—a sin that had affected the very essence of the soul? Yet the Torah terms the half-shekel “an atonement for his nefesh (soul).” Even if a man would give his entire wealth to G‑d, would that be adequate for ransoming his soul? Can any sum given by a person be enough of an offering for his very soul’s redemption?

Only Half a Shekel

In the Torah’s command concerning the half-shekel, particular emphasis is laid on the necessity of giving half of a whole shekel. This is difficult to understand. Since one must always try to give the best to G‑d,4 why did the Torah request only half a shekel? Moreover, since this was to atone for the sin of idolatry—the sin of denying G‑d’s unity—a far more appropriate gesture of reparation would surely have been the giving of a whole coin, a whole sum; yet the Torah insists on a half-shekel.

To atone for the sin of the Golden Calf, it was not required of the Jew that he give to the Almighty a whole shekel. Instead, he was to give half a shekel, signifying that the unity of G‑d and His people is not like the union of two separate entities, in which each party remains a separate, distinct individual; rather, the oneness of a Jew with his Maker is such that together they form one whole.

The Jew without G‑d is incomplete and unfulfilled, a mere “half”; only by joining with the Almighty does he become a whole, complete person. As the previous Lubavitcher rebbe, of blessed memory, used to say, “No Jew is either willing or able to be separate from G‑dliness.” As for the Almighty, the Talmud tells us that G‑d says (of the Jews): “They are my children under all circumstances; to exchange them for another nation is unthinkable!”5 The Jew and his Creator are two indivisible halves together forming a complete whole, a perfect unity.

The Covenant

After Moses had pleaded with G‑d to forgive the Jews, G‑d told Moses: “Behold, I make a covenant . . .”6

The underlying concept of a “covenant,” an oath of everlasting friendship that two people swear to each other, is this: When friends are absolutely certain that their friendship is permanent, that nothing will ever affect their mutual affection—there is then no reason for them to take an oath of friendship. The friends fear, however, that time and circumstances may weaken the bond that unites them, or that some external factor may bring about a rift between them. They may therefore decide to commit themselves, through a covenant, to maintain their mutual affection—come what may. The obligation of the covenant is that they should always remain faithful—even if reason decrees otherwise, even if their emotions should be to the contrary.

The outcome of such a pact is that even when one of the friends finds no rational reason for showing affection to the other, he is nevertheless bound to his comrade by the oath of friendship he took. The pact has united them as one person, and just as one’s self-love never ceases, so is their friendship everlasting.

This concept throws some light on a custom mentioned by the Torah7 in connection with the making of a covenant. The parties to the pact would pass between the two halves of a slain animal. This custom is very difficult to understand. Surely, a more appropriate gesture could be found for persons wishing to express their unity and oneness than passing through the disunited halves of a whole object!

The explanation of the custom of “passing through the halves” in making a covenant is the same as the underlying concept of the half-shekel. Each party to the covenant was to regard himself as incomplete, a mere “half.” Hence, when G‑d told Moses that He was about to make a covenant with the Jews, He was emphasizing once again the lesson of the half-shekel—that a Jew and his Creator are two indivisible halves, together forming one whole, a perfect unity.8