Why Moshe was Astonished

On the verse:1 “This is what all… should give: a half-shekel, ” the Jerusalem Talmud2 and the Midrash3 comment: “The Holy One, blessed be He, took out a coin of fire from beneath His throne of glory and showed it to Moshe, telling him: ‘This is what [all] should give.’ ”

Tosafos4 explains that the reason G‑d showed Moshe the coin of fire was not because Moshe found it difficult to visualize the coin. Instead, Moshe’s difficulty was: How is it possible that by merely giving such a coin a person could attain “atonement for his soul”?5 The Midrash quotes the verse:6 “A person will give his flesh [to save] his flesh, and everything he owns will he give for the sake of his soul.” And, concludes the Midrash, even this is not sufficient. To satisfy Moshe’s question, G‑d showed him a “coin of fire,” explaining that the coins the Jews would give possess a unique spiritual nature.

On the surface, the concept should not have been so difficult to comprehend, for it had already been established that sacrifices could serve as atonement for sins. Indeed, this concept was communicated directly after the giving of the Torah, before the command to give a half-shekel, as it is written:7 “And upon [this altar], you will sacrifice your burnt offerings and your peace offerings.” At that time, Moshe did not raise any questions.

There was, however, a difference. The half-shekel was to serve as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf,8 a sin of idol worship. And this caused Moshe to wonder: How can giving a half-shekel atone for so severe a sin?

To explain: The mitzvos can be compared to the limbs and organs of the human body.9 Within the body, there are limbs and organs which are particular in nature, each one receiving its individual life-energy from the soul. Within this grouping, there are two sub-categories, limbs and organs on which one’s life depends, and those on which one’s life does not depend. And then there are organs like the brain and heart, which are general in nature; within them rests our essential vitality, the life-energy for the entire body.10

Similarly, there are mitzvos which are particular in nature, and others which are of general import. For example, the mitzvos “I am G‑d” and “You shall have no other gods” include the entire Torah.11 They are of fundamental importance to the soul, for the Jews’ connection with G‑d depends on them.

Therefore, when G‑d told Moshe that the half-shekel would serve as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe was astonished. He wondered how a half-shekel could become atonement for a soul tainted by idol worship.

A Descent for Comprehensive Souls

The above also gives us insight into the interpretation of the verse: “When you take the census of the heads of the children of Israel, according to their number,” offered by the Or HaChayim. The Or HaChayim explains that the verse refers to the premature passing of the righteous “the heads of the children of Israel.” They may pass away before their appointed time because of pikudeihem literally, “their number,” but in an extended sense meaning “your lack,” as in the verse:12 lo nifkad mimeno ish, “Not one man was lacking.”

All the different interpretations of a verse share a connection.13 What then is the connection between the interpretation offered by the Or HaChayim and the simple meaning of the verse?

The connection revolves around the fact that, according to its simple interpretation, the verse is speaking about the sin of idol worship, a sin which causes a blemish of a general nature. As such, there is a connection to the interpretation of the Or HaChayim. For a sin of a general nature affects the overall connection of Jewish souls to G‑d, as expressed within the comprehensive soul of that generation, the “head of the children of Israel.”

Indeed, we see such a pattern with regard to the sin of the Golden Calf, for it caused a spiritual descent within Moshe, the head of the children of Israel. Even though Moshe was not involved with the sin at that time he was in the spiritual realms G‑d told him:14 “Go down,” interpreted by our Sages15 to mean: “Descend from your greatness.”

We find that the Sin of the Golden Calf also brought about the possibility of death. For the Tablets of the Ten Commandments are associated with freedom,16 and in particular, “freedom from the angel of death.”17 Worshipping the Golden Calf reawakened the influence of the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge, which brought death to the world.

Similarly, sins of a general nature affect the individuals who serve as the “soul” of an entire generation. This relates to the Or HaChayim’ s insights regarding the premature passing of righteous men.

Giving With Inner Fire

To return to the coin of fire, a question arises: Moshe did not have difficulty conceiving of a half-shekel; his difficulty consisted of understanding how the gift of the half-shekel could bring about atonement. How was this difficulty resolved by showing him a “coin of fire”?18

In resolution, it may help to consider the following analogy, attributed by some to the Baal Shem Tov: A man was trained in the art of crafting gold and silver. The master to whom he was apprenticed taught him almost everything, but neglected to mention that before shaping gold or silver, the metal must be heated to make it pliable. The master thought this point was so obvious that it needn’t be taught. The apprentice, however, never grasped it, and consequently was never able to become a successful craftsman.

In the analog applying to our Divine service: Our deeds and observance must be fired with the “warmth” of the G‑dly soul.

On this basis, we can understand how showing Moshe a coin of fire resolved his difficulties. The mere physical act of giving a coin cannot in itself provide atonement for the soul. When, however, the giving is fired by the warmth of the soul’s essence, keeping in mind that “the lamp of G‑d is the soul of man,”19 the half-shekel can serve as atonement for the soul.

At the Essence of the Soul

The deed through which a mitzvah is performed reflects the intent of the mitzvah, and its inner dynamic. Accordingly, it must be said that the giving of a half-shekel reflects the spiritual intent of the mitzvah, showing how it is connected with the fire of the soul’s essence. This, however, does not seem to be true. G‑d showed Moshe a coin of fire, but the half-shekel which a Jew gives is a simple coin.

It is not sufficient to attempt to resolve this difficulty by explaining the advantage of tzedakah: that a person gives away money for which he worked with all the powers of his soul and/or with which he could purchase his own life’s necessities,20 and thus show that tzedakah affects the essence of the soul. This is not an adequate explanation of the matter at hand, for it does not differentiate between the giving of the half-shekel and other gifts to charity.

Similarly, it is insufficient to explain that the half-shekalim were significant, because they were used for the adonim, the sockets which formed the base of the Sanctuary. In our Divine service, this refers to the initiative of kabbalas ol, making a commitment to fulfill G‑d’s will that transcends intellect. This initiative stems from the essence of the soul, a level which joins all Jews together. Moreover, in subsequent years, the half-shekel was used to purchase communal offerings, which also express the unity of the Jewish people.

This explanation is inadequate because although it explains the fundamental importance of the utilization of the half-shekalim , it does not explain how giving the coins expresses the essence of the soul.

Similarly, we cannot argue that the connection between the giving of the half-shekel and the essence of the soul is expressed by the fact that in contrast to the other donations to the Sanctuary, a specific amount had to be given. With the other donations, every person gave according to the generosity of his heart, some giving more than others. With regard to the half-shekel, however, there was a specific command that21 “The rich should not give more, nor should the poor give less.” This points to that level of the soul which is the same in all Jews. When it comes to the revealed powers of intellect and emotion, there are differences between individuals, but all Jews share the same essence.

This concept is not specifically alluded to by the command to give a half-shekel. On the contrary, the same concept is alluded to by all those commandments which require that a single sum be given by all. Accordingly, we are forced to say that it is the half-shekel itself which alludes to the fire of the soul’s essence.

Why a Half and not a Whole?

To explain the above concept: The command to give a half-shekel states: “This is what all… should give, a half-shekel …. A shekel is twenty gerah; a half-shekel [should be given as] an offering to G‑d.”

The verse informs us that we should give a half-shekel, and then, so that we know the amount to be given, the Torah informs us that an entire shekel is twenty gerah, leading to the understanding that the donation to be given by every individual is ten gerah.

An obvious question arises: Why is the elaboration necessary? Why didn’t the Torah merely say to give ten gerah? If for some reason it was necessary to mention that the gift was a half-shekel, the Torah could have said that we should give “a half-shekel, ten gerah. ” Why was it necessary to mention that an entire shekel is worth twenty gerah?

This indicates that both factors are important. A person must give half of an entire shekel. When a person gives ten gerah, he must realize that he is giving half of an entity worth twenty gerah.

This concept, however, requires explanation. In general, the Torah requires that our gifts to G‑d be made from the best and most perfect articles we possess, as intimated by the phrase: “All the choice parts [should be given] to G‑d.”22 Why then does this mitzvah involve only half an entity?

The fact that the sum could have been larger is irrelevant, for every mitzvah has its purposes and limits. The question is, why a half only? Why not a complete shekel ?

This is particularly true in light of the statements made previously, that the half-shekel serves as atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf. That sin involved the denial of G‑d’s oneness, and the conception of division between the world and a G‑dliness which is all-encompassing. Accordingly, it would seem appropriate that the atonement follow the pattern of “measure for measure,” and involve giving everything to G‑d. This, however, was not the case. Indeed, the mitzvah of giving half a shekel implies that one must retain a portion for oneself; it is forbidden to give an entire shekel.23

The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that the Torah mentions the weight of a half-shekel with regard to another subject, but there uses a term that implies an entire entity. Eliezer gave Rivkah a golden nose-ring weighing a beka,24 a term which Rashi identifies with a half-shekel. Why then doesn’t the Torah use the term beka, which connotes an entire entity, rather than referring to a half-shekel, an incomplete entity?

Making a Half, Whole

These questions can be resolved as follows: As mentioned previously, the worship of false divinities involves separation from G‑dliness. Accordingly, the half-shekel which atones for this sin must express G‑d’s oneness and demonstrate the united approach demanded of a Jew. This does not mean giving away everything for G‑dliness. That would imply that a person is an entity which exists and which gives away things which rightfully belong to it for G‑d. The mitzvah of giving a half-shekel teaches a deeper commitment.

Alone, a person is a non-entity; he is only half. How does he become complete? By uniting with G‑d.

This approach to Divine service evokes a similar initiative from above. G‑d’s perfection is dependent on the Jewish people, as it were. For that reason, G‑d refers to the Jewish people as Tamasi , “the one who completes Me.”25

The Jews’ connection with G‑d is not a bond between two separate entities; they are one whole. Each alone is merely a half-entity.26 It is only when they come together that they attain perfection.

This is alluded to by the half-shekel. It too is not a complete entity, containing twenty gerah. Instead, it has merely ten gerah, alluding to the ten powers of the soul which a Jew must dedicate to G‑d. When he does, he draws down the second ten gerah, the ten sublime Sefiros which are emanations of G‑dliness.

G‑d Himself is not limited at all, and cannot be defined in any manner. Nevertheless, because of His great love for the Jewish people, He confines Himself in the structure of Ten Sefiros. And from these Ten Sefiros are derived the ten powers of soul that exist within man.27 In this vein, man is call Adam , referring to the phrase Adamah L’Elyon, “I resemble the One Above.”28

Thus the two man’s ten spiritual powers and the ten sublime Sefiros together make up one complete entity. Alone, without the other, each one is incomplete.

This is how the intent of the mitzvah that the coin a Jew contributes must be a “coin of fire,” shining with the fire of the soul’s essence is reflected in the actual giving of the half-shekel. For a half-shekel demonstrates that, together, a Jew and G‑d are a single entity, the essence of a Jew’s soul being connected with G‑d’s essence. At times, there can be blemishes and inconsistencies with regard to the relationship our revealed powers of intellect and emotion share with G‑d. The essence of our souls, however, is unified with G‑d in an essential bond, clinging essence to essence.

This explains how giving a half-shekel can atone for the Sin of the Golden Calf. For all sins, even worshipping false divinities, do not disrupt a Jew’s essential connection with G‑d. This connection remains intact at all times, and when it is revealed (through giving the half-shekel), it revitalizes the connection shared by the revealed powers, uniting them with G‑dliness.29

Establishing a Covenant

This concept is also related to another element of Parshas Ki Sissa, the covenant established between G‑d and the Jewish people. After Moshe begged G‑d to forgive the nation, G‑d agreed to pardon them and promised:30 “I will establish a covenant before all your people.”

Making a covenant establishes unity between the principals. A covenant was made by dividing a single entity and having the two principals pass between the halves.31 As we see in Bris Beyn HaBetarim, the covenant established between G‑d and Avraham,32 Avraham and Heavenly fire passed between the halves of slaughtered animals.

This practice raises a difficulty, for the division of an entity seems to reflect separation rather than unity. Nevertheless, the intent of a covenant is to communicate consummate unity. The practice intimates that just as the two halves of the animal are parts of a single whole, so too the two principals of the covenant are half-entities, each complemented by the other.

This was the concept G‑d wished to share with Moshe in connection with the atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf. By establishing a covenant, He sought to reveal the ultimate oneness between G‑d and the Jewish people, showing the bond between the essence of the soul and G‑d’s essence. Nothing can affect that connection. As G‑d states:33 “Regardless, they are My children; to exchange them for another nation [heaven forbid] is impossible.”

“The deeds of the Patriarchsare a Sign for their descendants”

The covenant between G‑d and the Jewish people began with Avraham, our Patriarch; the covenant established with Moshe represented a higher level.34 Similarly, the concept of the half-shekel was first initiated at the time of the Patriarchs, as reflected in the nose-ring, a beka in weight, which Eliezer gave Rivkah, as mentioned above. Since “the deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants,”35 our Divine service after the giving of the Torah is dependent on the Patriarchs’ accomplishments.36

Accordingly, the nose-ring which Eliezer gave was associated with the unity of marriage, and in particular, the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah,37 which serves as an analogy for the bond between G‑d and the Jewish people. And it intimates that through their Divine service, the Jews can evoke the half-shekel given by G‑d, as it were.

Nevertheless, “the deeds of the Patriarchs are [merely] a sign for their descendants;” the true expression of this unity came after the giving of the Torah. Only then was the heavenly decree dividing the spiritual from the physical nullified. Therefore Eliezer did not give Rivkah a half-shekel , but rather a nose-ring of equivalent weight.38

At that time, man’s Divine service did evoke a corresponding influence from G‑d, but the unity was not complete. It was like a relationship in which each partner merely influences the other. It was only after the giving of the Torah39 that the half-shekel itself i.e., the concept that each is a half-entity, and only together can they become whole was revealed. For it is the giving of the Torah which made possible the realization of the fundamental unity between G‑d and the Jewish people “Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, are all one.”40