Through The Eyes of a Woman
Parshas Shekalim: Fire Insurance
In Parshas Shekalim HaShem tells Moshe Rabbeinu to instruct the Jews to
contribute a half shekel in order to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. Our Sages
explain that Moshe Rabbeinu had a difficult time understanding what it was that
he had to do. So HaShem showed him a coin of fire and said, "This is what
they must give." Why did HaShem 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 Moshe Rabbeinu did
not understand exactly how the Menorah should be constructed, either. When
he asked HaShem, 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 Moshe saw it, he understood. Seeing is worth a thousand words. When he
saw it, he understood. So if we see that in the past HaShem 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 Beis HaMikdash there was a vessel known as the kior
-- the laver or wash-basin from which the Kohanim washed their
hands and feet before beginning their service in the Mishkan or Beis HaMikdash.
This was the preparation which the Kohanim made before they began HaShem'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 Mishkan, the women donated (among
other things) their mirrors, which were made out of highly polished copper. Moshe
Rabbeinu, 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 Mishkan?
Moshe Rabbeinu did not see how one could fuse the Mishkan -- which
embodies the highest levels of holiness and spirituality -- with something
that seemed so connected to physical desire and pleasure.
The Rebbe explains that the Mishkan 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 holy Jewish 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 Jew.
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
Rabbi Twersky (Rabbi-Doctor Avraham Twersky, for those of you who have not yet
heard of him, is the head of a prestigious psychiatric hospital, and he deals specifically
with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction) once mentioned in a lecture --
that drug and alcohol abuse and addiction have begun to invade Jewish society, where
they were almost entirely absent in previous generations. We always used to think
that Jews were above alcoholism and drug addiction. This is no longer true. There
is no longer any room for complacency in this matter.
Rabbi Twersky explained that drug addiction and alcoholism are diseases of excess
where a person cannot force himself to stop. They are the result of a lack of discipline.
You just start and you cannot stop. In our society, even though most healthy people
who are emotionally stable would admit that drug addiction and alcoholism are still
not acceptable and are self-destructive, he pointed out that among many religious
Jews money addiction is not viewed in the same light. Why is it that people
who earn a million dollars don't say, "Stop. A million dollars is certainly enough
to allow me to live comfortably." No. Now they've got to go for that second million.
And when they get the second million, perhaps they should stop now? "One minute,"
says the millionaire, "If I was able to make two million, I could make four million..."
And so it becomes an addiction, a disease, which may be even worse than alcoholism.
At least the average individual realizes when his drinking has gone too far. When
a person tries to amass more wealth than he could ever possibly use, that is a disease.
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 a become such a powerful focal
point for so much sin, for so much greed, and so much evil, that is only a 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?
HaShem says, to make your life holy as far as money is concerned, it must
be regulated by the Torah. Just as we have many halachos regulating the intimate
relationship between man and woman in order to sanctify it, so that the relationship
does not become a mere search for pleasure, so too with money. HaShem gives
us money and then HaShem teaches us how to deal with it.
One of the first lessons is, that a Jew must realize that the money that he earns,
or inherits, or receives as a gift, comes to him from HaShem. 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 HaShem in His supernal wisdom felt that at this moment you should be
the possessor of x amount of money. Now it's for you to decide how to spend it.
To a large extent you have free choice in this matter, but there are some preconditions.
HaShem 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 Beis HaMikdash,
or to a poor person who needs it, or some other form of tzedakah.
One action is worth a thousand words. Your giving to tzedakah 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 Him 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
There is a well-known story about Reb Zushya of Anipoli. A certain wealthy man
gave some money to the poverty-stricken Reb Zushya. He noticed that whenever he
gave the tzaddik 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 Reb Zushya's
shack to give him a gift, but he was informed that the tzaddik had gone to
visit his Rebbe, the Maggid of Mezritch. And so the wealthy man made the
following inference, a kal vachomer: When I give tzedakah to Reb Zushya,
HaShem blesses me with success. How much more so if I give to Reb Zushya's
Rebbe! So he stopped giving to Reb Zushya, 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 Reb Zushya.
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 Reb Zushya,
his Rebbe, for advice. Reb Zushya told him the following: "When you gave to someone
that was really undeserving of your generosity, HaShem 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, HaShem began doing the same thing.
The end result, you are familiar with...."
Does this 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 HaShem?
The idea that HaShem showed Moshe this half shekel was not only to show him
the amount of money that a Jew has to give -- because then He could have
showed him a gold or silver coin. Rather, HaShem specifically showed him
a coin of fire which He took out from under his Throne of Glory, as the
Midrash 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.
A Jew 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? HaShem
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." HaShem wants a Jew to imbue
his teva with eish -- fire, and that is why He showed Moshe
Rabbeinu a coin of fire. This means that a Jew should not be cold, uncaring or apathetic.
A Jew should be alive; a Jew 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: "HaShem created
the world ex nihilo -- from nothing, and He commanded us to make
from the physical world -- nothing, i.e. to transform it from physical
into spiritual, through observing Torah and mitzvos." 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 HaShem wanted specifically a coin of fire, and not a coin of silver
-- to teach Moshe and the Jewish people how important it is to serve
HaShem with simchah and with vitality.
The Rebbe now asks why HaShem 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 HaShem 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 tzedakah, you could give a million dollars; if you have it, give it. But
in this particular case, not. The richest Jew should not give more than a half and
the poorest Jew 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 Jew can fall into the clutches of
arrogance by saying, "Look, it's because of me that such-and-such a Yeshivah
manages to exist. I cover 75% 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 Jew, who can barely afford to give a few pennies
to tzedakah. He might think, "What is my contribution worth? A few miserable
pennies. Who needs me?"
Accordingly, through the mitzvah of the half shekel, HaShem tells
every Jew 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 Jew's contribution.
Moreover, no one can do it alone. Every Jew needs the participation of every
other Jew for completeness. There are Jews 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 HaShem 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,
which is an atonement for your soul. You need to get together with all other Jews.
Only together can you bring this sacrifice." Every Jew 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 Ahavas Yisrael, the love each Jew must have for his fellow, but of
Achdus Yisrael -- the interdependent unity of the Jewish people.
Elsewhere, the Rebbe makes another point about giving a half shekel, rather than
a whole one: A Jew 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,
since a whole shekel equals twenty gera). More than that he cannot give.
However, HaShem gives the second half, thus making a whole shekel.
Furthermore, the Rebbe asks why did HaShem have to show Moshe the
coin of fire? Why couldn't he just tell Moshe the lesson we have just learned
without showing him the coin? HaShem could have told Moshe, "Moshe, tell
the Jews, when they give tzedakah with simchah and with enthusiasm,
it'll do much more than if they give it without simchah and enthusiasm."
According to our Sages, one of the things that was created just before Shabbos
was this coin of fire. HaShem specially created a new thing --
a coin of fire -- just prior to Shabbos. Why?
The Rebbe explains that the fact that HaShem actually created this object
actualized it. We know that there are many concepts that sound very abstract, and
even though they may sound wonderful, they are unattainable. So HaShem told
Moshe: "Look, this is not just one of those abstract concepts that I'm telling the
Yidden. This is a real thing." HaShem actually brought into this world
a coin which was a fusion of physicality and spirituality. By showing it to Moshe,
as an actual three-dimensional tangible object, HaShem brought into this
world the potential for a fusion of the spiritual with the physical. Had He not
shown Moshe 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 tzedakah, 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 tzedakah is that it is not only an atonement for the past --
if a Jew sinned in the past and he gives tzedakah with the right intention,
it becomes like repentance, as we say on Rosh HaShanah, "Teshuvah (repentance),
tefillah (prayer), tzedakah (charity) [annul the evil decree]." More
than this 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 the Yidden 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 we know when we give tzedakah today, we know
that HaShem is putting it down in the spiritual computer up there. This person
has made a deposit of this and this money in this tzedakah bank and HaShem
will remember it for the future as well. So that we ourselves, and our children
and our great-great-grandchildren will someday benefit when a moment of difficulty