In the Torah reading of Shekalim, G‑d tells Moses to instruct the Jews to contribute a half-shekel in order to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Our Sages explain that Moses had a difficult time understanding what it was that he had to do. So G‑d showed him a coin of fire and said, "This is what they must give." Why did G‑d 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 Moses did not understand exactly how the Menorah should be constructed, either. When he asked G‑d, 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 Moses saw it, he understood. Seeing is worth a thousand words. When he saw it, he understood. So if we see that in the past G‑d 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 Holy Temple there was a vessel known as the kior — the laver or wash-basin from which the kohanim – the priests – washed their hands and feet before beginning their service in the Tabernacle or Holy Temple. This was the preparation which the kohanim made before they began G‑d '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 Tabernacle, the women donated (among other things) their mirrors, which were made out of highly polished copper. Moses, 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 Tabernacle? Moses did not see how one could fuse the Tabernacle — which embodies the highest levels of holiness and spirituality — with something that seemed so connected to physical desire and pleasure.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains that the Tabernacle 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 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 human being.

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.

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 become such a powerful focal point for so much sin, for so much greed, and so much evil, is only 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?

G‑d says to make your life holy as far as money is concerned, it must be regulated by the Torah. Just as we have laws regulating the intimate relationship between man and woman in order to sanctify it so the relationship does not become a mere search for pleasure, so too with money. G‑d gives us money and then G‑d teaches us how to deal with it.

One of the first lessons is that an individual must realize that the money that he earns, or inherits, or receives as a gift, comes to him from G‑d. 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 G‑d in His supernal wisdom felt that at this moment you should be the possessor of "x" amount of money. Now it's up to you to decide how to spend it. To a large extent you have free choice in this matter, but there are some preconditions. G‑d 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 Holy Temple, or to a poor person who needs it, or some other form of charity.

One action is worth a thousand words. Your giving to charity 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 the One 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 Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli. A certain wealthy man gave some money to the poverty-stricken Rabbi Zusha. He noticed that whenever he gave the righteous Zusha 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 Rabbi Zusha's shack to give him a gift, but he was informed that Rabbi Zusha had gone to visit his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch. And so the wealthy man made the following inference: When I give charity to Rabbi Zusha, G‑d blesses me with success. How much more so if I give to Rabbi Zusha's Rebbe! So he stopped giving to Rabbi Zusha, 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 Rabbi Zusha. 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 Rabbi Zusha, his rabbi, for advice. Rabbi Zusha told him the following: "When you gave to someone that was really undeserving of your generosity, G‑d 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, G‑d began doing the same thing. The end result, you are familiar with…."

Does one 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 G‑d? The idea that G‑d showed Moses this half-shekel was not only to show him the amount of money that one has to give — because then He could have showed him a gold or silver coin. Rather, G‑d specifically showed him a coin of fire which He took out from under his Throne of Glory, as the Midrash commentary 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.

One 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? G‑d 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." G‑d wants us to imbue his teva, his nature, with eish — fire, and that is why He showed Moses a coin of fire. This means that an individual should not be cold, uncaring or apathetic. One should be alive; one 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: "G‑d created the world ex nihilo — from nothing, and He commanded us to transform it from physical into spiritual, through observing Torah and mitzvot." 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 G‑d wanted specifically a coin of fire, and not a coin of silver — to teach Moses and everyone how important it is to serve G‑d with joy and vitality.

Half of the Whole

The Rebbe now asks why G‑d 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 G‑d 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 charity, you could give a million dollars; if you have it, give it. But in this particular case, not. The richest person should not give more than a half and the poorest person 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 person can fall into the clutches of arrogance by saying, "Look, it's because of me that such-and-such an institution manages to exist. I cover seventy-five percent 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 person who can barely afford to give a few pennies to charity. He might think, "What is my contribution worth? A few miserable pennies. Who needs me?"

Accordingly, through the mitzvah of the half-shekel, G‑d tells every individual 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 person's contribution.

Moreover, no one can do it alone. Everyone needs the participation of every other individual for completeness. There are those 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 G‑d 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 sacrifice,1 which is an atonement for your soul. You need to join together with others. Only together can you bring this sacrifice." Every individual 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 Ahavat Yisrael, the love each person must have for his fellow, but of Achdus Yisrael — the interdependent unity of the community in its entirety.

Elsewhere, the Rebbe makes another point about giving a half-shekel, rather than a whole one. One 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 – a smaller coin – since a whole shekel equals twenty gera). More than that, he cannot give. However, G‑d gives the second half, thus making a whole shekel.

Furthermore, the Rebbe asks: why did G‑d have to show Moses the coin of fire? Why couldn't he just tell Moses the lesson we have just learned without showing him the coin? G‑d could have told Moses, "Moses, tell the Jews that when they give charity with joy and with enthusiasm, it'll do much more than if they give it without joy and enthusiasm."

According to our Sages, one of the things that was created just before Shabbat was this coin of fire. G‑d specially created a new thing — a coin of fire — just prior to Shabbat. Why?

The Rebbe explains that the fact that G‑d actually created this object, actualized it. We know that many concepts sound very abstract, and even though they may sound wonderful, they are unattainable. So G‑d told Moses: "Look, this is not just one of those abstract concepts that I'm telling them. This is a real thing." G‑d actually brought into this world a coin which was a fusion of physicality and spirituality. By showing it to Moses, as an actual three-dimensional tangible object, G‑d brought into this world the potential for a fusion of the spiritual with the physical. Had He not shown Moses 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 charity, 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 charity is that it is not only an atonement for the past; if one sinned in the past and he gives charity with the right intention, it becomes like repentance, like we say on Rosh Hashanah, "Teshuvah (repentance), tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (charity) [annul the evil decree]." But 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 everyone 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 when we give charity today, we know that G‑d is putting it down in the spiritual computer up there. This person has made a deposit of money - charity - and G‑d will remember it for the future as well. So that we, and our children and our great-great-grandchildren will someday benefit when a moment of difficulty arises.