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Shekalim: The Power of the Fiery Shekel

Parshat Shekalim (Exodus 30:11-16 )

by Rabbi Zvi Belovski

The parsha of "Shekalim" describes the half-shekel coin that every Jew was required to contribute to the communal coffers on a yearly basis. After describing all the details of the donation, the Torah advises us that the gift of the money serves: make atonement for your souls. (Shemos 30:14)

As my holy father asked, how is it possible to make atonement for one's sins without the animal offering that the Torah usually mandates? The act of forgiveness requires the sprinkling of the animal's blood on the altar in the Beis HaMikdash. How can the mere gift of a coin achieve the same end? It seems that the half-shekel enables the sinner to be readmitted to membership of klal Yisrael, from which his sins had in some way excluded him. How exactly can this occur, given the limited nature of a monetary donation?

Let us begin by examining a well-known statement of our Sages:

Rabbi Meir said, "The Holy One, may He be blessed, took a type of fiery coin from under his Throne of Glory and showed it to Moshe. He said to him, 'This shall they give.' " (Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:4)

Why should the coin shown to Moshe be made of fire? The Hebrew word for "silver" or "money" is kesef. The same root appears in the following verse:

...since you had a strong longing [kasaf] for your father's house. (Bereishis 31:30)

Since all similar Hebrew words have the same basic meaning, we can say that the use of money expresses in some form a strong craving for the object purchased. A mitzvah performed with money will therefore be one in which a deep longing and love for God and His Torah is represented. When one feels a strong passion for something, he burns with desire for it, and this, of course, is the meaning behind "the fiery coin" mentioned above.

When a Jew's appetite for mitzvos and closeness to God has waned - that is, his passion for Jewish life has cooled - he easily falls prey to indolence and sin. When he realizes his error, it is not enough simply to return to mitzvah observance and continue as if nothing has happened. Rather, he must grasp the opposite mind-set from that which led him to sin in the first place. He must revise his view of life and try to infuse his performance of mitzvos with a burning and all-consuming passion. Only then can he be certain that the lackadaisical attitude that caused him to err will not creep up on him again. Only by understanding the fire, and the fervor, which is represented by the mitzvah of the half-shekel can he truly atone for his sins.

This idea will help us to understand the following, rather cryptic statement from our Sages:

Reish Lakish said, "It was known and revealed to He Who spoke and made the world that in the future Haman would count out shekalim [to buy the right to exterminate] Yisrael. Therefore He arranged His shekalim [the obligatory half-shekel] to precede Haman's shekalim." (Megillah 13b)

When describing the evil nation Amalek, the Torah tells us that we should remember:

" he chanced upon you on the way..." (Devarim 25:18)

They cooled you down and made you lukewarm after your great heat, when all the nations feared to attack you. (Rashi loc. cit.)

When Yisrael performed their mitzvos with a burning desire for closeness to God, they were invincible. But as soon as they lost their enthusiasm, as happened just prior to the war with Amalek, the enemy was able to strike, clearing a path for attack by any other adversary. As a future safeguard against this repeating itself on a national level, God gave the mitzvah of the half-shekel, the embodiment of excitement in mitzvah performance, the burning fervor of the fiery coin. Thus the Jewish people's means of salvation was in place long before Haman, the wicked progeny of Amalek, was able to try his ancestral wiles against klal Yisrael. And in a deeper sense, we re-experience these feelings each year. Although we no longer give the half-shekel to the Beis HaMikdash, we are certainly able to reawaken our burning desire to serve God with all our strength.

We can now understand how it is that the simple mitzvah of the half-shekel can enable an errant Jew to rejoin the klal. Our task as Jews is to perform every mitzvah and to learn every word of the Torah with a great and passionate love. Failure to do so may mean that even a technically observant Jew has failed to achieve full membership of the Jewish nation. But anyone, even the least observant person, who appreciates the great power inherent in his soul and gives the half-shekel, intent on awakening these strengths, has revised his personality and Jewish orientation to the extent that he is now truly part of klal Yisrael.

Excerpted from Shem MiShmuel by the Sochatchover Rebbe, rendered into English by Rabbi Zvi Belovski, published by Targum Press. Click here to order.


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