I'VE SEEN FIRE AND I'VE SEEN CHANGE
by Rabbi Alexander
When Hashem gave Moses the commandment that every adult male Jew should give "an atonement for his soul" through donating the half-shekel (Exodus 30:11), our sages tell us that Moses was stunned: How could any donation possibly equal the value of a Jewish soul?
When Hashem gave Moses the commandment that every adult male Jew should give "an atonement for his soul" through donating the half-shekel (Exodus 30:11), our sages tell us that Moses was stunned: How could any donation possibly equal the value of a Jewish soul? Hashem replied by taking out a "coin of fire, half a shekel in weight, from under His throne" and showing it to Moses as an example of what the mitzvah would require. (Hence the Torah's expression "This is what they shall give" (ibid. 30:12).)
The two properties of this "coin," though, seem to be incompatible. Fire is not only weightless, but is the most ethereal of all phenomena in the natural world, and constantly strives upward as though to return to its Divine source. Furthermore, it is an infinite force, for even a small ember can kindle a large blaze that can, in theory, go on forever. Weight, by contrast, implies both earthboundedness attraction to the earth's mass and therefore its gravitational field and finiteness; the item weighs only so much, no more and no less. What is the lesson that the Divine half-shekel contains both of these opposing characteristics within itself? Furthermore, how did G-d's showing this "coin" to Moses answer his question?
The half-shekel donation, our sages tell us, was meant to atone for the sin of the golden calf, described later in this week's Torah portion. While any sin damages the spiritual connection between a Jew and G-d, idolatry is far worse. It touches the usually inviolable core of the soul, which is at one with Hashem Himself, and in doing so it destroys that connection. Thus, when Moses heard that the Jewish people would need an atonement for their souls for this act, he was dumbfounded. Could there possibly be any way to reattach such a spiritually dead soul to its Source?
Furthermore, the law is that the annual half-shekel, unlike other offerings to G-d, need not be given willingly. In some cases, where one is obligated to bring an offering and refuses to do so, a court of Jewish law can compel him to say "I want to bring it." Maimonides, in his Code of Jewish Law, explains that this declaration reflects the intrinsic desire of the Jew to obey the Divine will, which until now had been obscured by external factors. However, in the case of the half-shekel donation, this was not even necessary the collectors could forcibly take collateral from a person in payment of the half-shekel. How then, Moses wondered, can such a totally unmotivated offering, not involving even a subconscious desire for a relationship with Hashem, be the vehicle for reestablishing that relationship?
Hence the response, you need a "coin of fire." It is true that the core of the soul has been ruined, and for that reason a forced declaration of "I want to obey Hashem," which emanates from that core, cannot be effective. However, there is still a deeper dimension to the relationship between the Jew and G-d, which is in fact beyond all dimensions and parameters the intrinsic and unseverable relationship of a parent and a child. It is this essential nature of the Jew that, like fire, tends always to reach upward to reattach itself to its Source. Hashem was telling Moses that no Jew is ever beyond hope and return. What you need to do is to unearth that fiery essence of the Jewish soul and use that as the basis for creating a renewed and stronger bond between G-d and His people.
Yet this "coin" must have a "weight" as well. That soul-essence, which no sin can ever touch and which therefore was never disconnected from G-d, must not remain some abstract, ethereal concept. It must permeate the Jew's entire being, even his most physical and earthbound drives. Even when the half-shekel must literally be ripped out of the hands of the unwilling donor, when the corporeal "weight" of the person dominates and completely overshadows his nobler drives, the fact is that this "weight" contains within itself a sub-subconscious "fire" that pulls the person upward to Hashem.
The same holds true for us today. It happens often that we have the opportunity to put on Tefillin or to recite the Shema prayer with a Jew to whom his heritage is completely unknown, or to teach a woman to light Shabbat candles. Such a person has no idea of the tremendous spiritual importance of his or her action in fact, it may seem to him or her nothing more than a nice tradition. We might well ask ourselves, then: Why bother? It is one thing to take another Jew by the hand and teach them about the Torah step by step, eventually leading them towards observance of mitzvot; but what good will one single mitzvah, unaccompanied by any Jewish knowledge or feeling, accomplish?
Hashem answers: Remember that the "weight" of the Jewish half-shekel is composed of "fire." That even a mitzvah seemingly unmotivated by any commitment to Hashem and His Torah reflects the innermost core of the soul and its inalienable bond with its Source. That one mitzvah itself may well be the pathway by which that spark can be fanned into a roaring flame that will engulf not only that person, but also his or her surroundings.
Subsequently, as usual, Hashem stands ready to repay our efforts in kind, with the Divine fire that will be the building material of the rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple. As we say in the prayers on Tishah B'Av afternoon, the anniversary of the day the Temple was destroyed by fire: "For You, G-d, have set it afire, and You will rebuild it with fire, as it is written (Zechariah 2:9): "G-d says, 'I will be a wall of fire around it'."
This essay was adapted from a public address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.
Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.
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