THE GOLDEN HALF
The first subject discussed in this week's Torah portion is the collection of the half-shekel coin from every member of the Children of Israel. Included in the instruction to solicit this donation is the injunction that every man give the same amount -- a half-shekel. A rich person may not give more and a poor man may not give less than this specified and defined sum.
The first subject discussed in this week's Torah portion is the collection of the half-shekel coin from every member of the Children of Israel. Included in the instruction to solicit this donation is the injunction that every man give the same amount -- a half-shekel. A rich person may not give more and a poor man may not give less than this specified and defined sum. Certainly, this demand seems more than slightly peculiar, for no where else in the Torah do we find such a command to reject the offering of a generous benefactor. Why then does the Torah here insist that a charitable individual close his hand and contribute only the minimum requirement?
In order to answer this question, we must examine the nature of the half-shekel. In fact, the Torah itself informs us that the objective of this donation is to purify our souls and atone for our sins. The Rabbis explain that this atonement was necessary following the sin of the Golden Calf. (The fact that the sin of the Golden Calf is not mentioned by the Torah until later on in this week's Torah portion does not present a difficulty if we keep in mind that, as a general rule, the Torah is not meant to serve as a chronicle of history, but rather as a book of instruction. Therefore, at times, the Torah will divert from a direct linear account of history.) Thus we see that the donation of the half-shekel is intrinsically bound to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Therefore, in order to understand the essence of the half-shekel contribution we must first inspect the sin of the Golden Calf. Undoubtedly, the most striking aspect of the sin of the Golden Calf is its proximity to the revelation at Mt. Sinai. It seems almost incredulous that the same nation which only forty days earlier had climbed to the spiritual heights of the world could fall to the depths of iniquity. It is almost unbelievable that a people whom such a short time ago had heard directly from Hashem the prohibition against serving other idols could now succumb to that very sin. Clearly, the sin of the Golden Calf requires explanation.
The Ramban, one of the leading Torah scholars of the Middle Ages (also known as Nachmanides), explains that, in reality, the Jews had no intention of straying from Hashem. Certainly Hashem had "merited" the wholehearted allegiance of the Jews after having performed so many miracles for them throughout the redemption from Egypt. However, the Children of Israel made a gross miscalculation concerning their relationship with Hashem. From the time they were informed that they would be redeemed, throughout the ten plagues, and continuing through the redemption from Egypt and the revelation at Mt. Sinai, the Jews had been led by their trusty commander Moses. Their entire existence as the Chosen People, it appeared to them, had only been defined by Moses serving as their spiritual leader. The Children of Israel had come to believe that only through a spiritual mediator such as Moses could they relate to Hashem. Now that Moses had ascended Mt. Sinai and had not appeared after the prescribed forty days as he had promised, the Jews began to panic. How could they proceed to function as the people of Hashem without their leader? How could they continue to connect to Hashem without Moses as their intermediary? Thus, in a state of confusion, the Jews began to search for a new leader. In their haste to restore their bond with Hashem, they demanded that Aaron create for them a Golden Calf. They hoped this Golden Calf would serve as their spiritual link to Hashem. However, the Jews had made a terrible mistake. They had failed to realize that they too could rise to the spiritual level of Moses. They too had the potential to communicate with Hashem. However, the Children of Israel underestimated their own potency and instead chose to place their reliance for spiritual salvation in a mere Golden Calf.
Now we can surely understand the insistence of the Torah concerning the half-shekel coin that each and every member of the Children of Israel donate the exact same amount. The Jews had assumed that Moses was intrinsically greater than all the other Jews, and had failed to realize that they too could achieve the same level of prominence. Thus, Hashem was trying to teach them the error of their ways. That each and every Jew, including Moses, contributed the exact same amount demonstrated the equality of each and every Jew. Every person starts out on exactly the same level; no one is inherently better than any one else. Each and every Jew has the potential to rise to the spiritual heights of Moses or to sink to the depths of Pharaoh.
In fact, this message can serve as an invaluable lesson to us as well. No one has the right to feel superior or inferior towards any other Jew. Although, of course, each person is born with different talents and faults, nonetheless, we all start out on an even playing field. We have the same potential for eminence. The only question is how we will utilize our G-d-given tools, whether they be virtues or shortcomings. Each one of us has within ourselves the capability to soar to the spiritual heights of the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai, while at the same time we possess the faculties to sink to the level of the Jewish people just forty days later at the sin of the Golden Calf. The possibilities are there -- the choice is ours.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is currently enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the University of Maryland, both in Baltimore.
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