The Midrash1 says that when G‑d told Moshe2 that the Jews were each to give a half-shekel as an “atonement offering for their souls,” Moshe was so stunned that “he became flustered and recoiled,” wondering3 how a mere half-shekel could serve as atonement4 for the sin of the Golden Calf.

The Midrash continues that this was one of the three times that Moshe heard something from G‑d that “flustered him and caused him to recoil”: “When G‑d told Moshe that He be brought sacrificial offerings, Moshe said: ‘If all the animals in the world were offered Him, it would not suffice!’ When G‑d told him: ‘You shall make for Me a Sanctuary,’ Moshe said: ‘How can one possibly make a dwelling place for G‑d?’

“G‑d responded: ‘I do not ask that you perform according to My capacity and might, I only ask that you perform according to yours.’”

As Moshe had already been informed that G‑d only asks that we perform according to our own individual capacity, why was he so flustered when he heard that the Jewishpeople were each to give a half-shekel as an “atonement offering for their souls”?

We may think that Moshe’s consternation resulted from the fact that this offering served as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf — something so severe that its worshippers were subject to the death penalty.5

This, however, is not so, as we find6 that during the Days of Consecration a calf was to be offered “to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.7 “ Moshe was thus already aware that a physical object could atone for the sin of the Golden Calf, since G‑d only demands that people perform to the best of their ability and might. Why then was he so taken aback by the commandment of the half-shekel?

The Jewishpeople offered gifts of the materials for the building of the Mishkan because “their hearts motivated them to give”8 — it was done according to their capacity and might. So, too, with regard to the consecration offering of the calf — it was of their own free will, as all offerings are to be of one’s “own free will.”9 Thus, the consecration offering as well was brought according to the people’s capacity and might.

The half-shekel gift, however, had to be given, whether the people wanted to or not.10 Moshe therefore could not fathom how a Jew, by being forced to give a half-shekel — something clearly not according to his “capacity and might” — could thereby atone for his very soul.

The Midrash goes on to say11 that in order to explain this to Moshe, “G‑d showed Moshe a ‘coin of fire’ that He had taken from under His Throne of Glory, and said: ‘Such as this they shall give.’”

If the half-shekel were to be given only from a limited level of the soul, then the gift — given under compulsion as it was — could not be offered with all one’s might. But this would change if the gift were taken from the soul’s essence. G‑d therefore showed Moshe a “coin of fire,” i.e., the essence of the Jewish soul, which springs “from under G‑d’s Throne of Glory,”12 and which therefore can descend to and permeate all aspects of a Jew’s being.

Thus, even when a Jew gives his half-shekel in a coarsened (i.e., compulsory) manner, the gift is truly bound up with the essence of his soul, from where it is given in a totally free manner — according to the individual’s greatest ability and might.

Herein lies a vital lesson: Should there be a Jew who does not conduct himself properly, it is incumbent upon all other Jews to draw him closer to Torah and mitzvos.

But there are those who say: “What possible benefit is there in getting an individual to don tefillin or recite the Shema and the like, when the person is not at that level; he does not understand what these mitzvos mean, nor does he desire to perform them. So what is to be gained by ‘forcing’ him to put on tefillin, when he only does so because he can’t say ‘no’?”

“The proper manner,” these people go on to say, “is to teach him in an orderly fashion, step by step and day by day, until he comes to understand the importance of performing mitzvos. Then that person will begin to perform mitzvos on his own.”

Herein comes the lesson of the half-shekel: Even when a Jew performs a mitzvah without delight or desire, even if he is actually forced into performing it, in truth the mitzvah is being performed with the fire of his soul’s essence. As such, the act is indeed permeated with desire and delight.

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVI, pp. 381-392.