“Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the LORD.” — Exodus 30:13
The Torah portion for this week is Ki Tisa, which means “when you raise up,” from Exodus 30:11—34:35, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 18:20–39.
The Jewish sages teach that when God commanded Moses that every Israelite should bring a half shekel as part of taking the census, Moses was confused as to what this half shekel could be. In response, tradition teaches, God showed him a half-shekel on fire, and then Moses understood the meaning.
Two questions: First, why was it so hard for Moses to understand what a half shekel looked like? That doesn’t seem too difficult a task! Second, why does God show him a coin on fire? What’s the meaning of that?
Of course, Moses knew what a half shekel looked like physically. He just couldn’t understand what it looked like spiritually. The trouble Moses had was in understanding how such a mundane item with such little value could become holy before the Lord.
When God showed Moses the coin on fire, He was exposing its true reality. Deep inside the piece of metal were sparks of holiness, waiting to be released. When the half shekel was used for God’s purposes, the “fire” within the coin would be released and go straight up to heaven, just as the animal sacrifices did.
It wasn’t the physical contribution that God was after; it was the spiritual contribution – the act of generosity on the part of the Israelites and their commitment to God’s Word. When they used the half shekel properly, the holiness was released and its potential realized.
Rabbi Elimelech, an 18th-century rabbi, added another level of meaning. He explained that fire can be either enlightening and warming, or it can be destructive and consuming. All money has the potential for both. If used for evil causes, it can bring destruction to the individuals who spend it and many others.
But when used for God’s purposes, it becomes a blessing to those who spend it and many others. As it says in Proverbs: “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed” (11:25). Giving doesn’t diminish us; it makes us even stronger.
There is a deep and holy fire burning inside every coin or bill that comes our way. Let us never take this responsibility lightly or forgo the opportunity to release the “fire” and be a blessing to others. Just as the children of Israel contributed to God’s purposes in Moses’ time, our obligation is no different today. So make a gift of charity today and let the holy fire warm you, guide you, and bring much light into your life.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President