MACHATZIT HA-SHEKEL AND THE SECRET OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
In describing the commandment for the Jews to donate a half-shekel for the purpose of taking a census, Hashem tells Moshe that he should "raise the heads of Bnei Yisrael." The Pesikta asks why this peculiar language is used in this context. The immediate answer that is given is that Hashem is telling Moshe to raise up the Jews as much as possible, since when they are raised up, Hashem is raised up as well.
There are, however, a number of questions that need to be answered about the concept of the half-shekel. The first is how this particular minimum donation serves the purpose of "raising up the head" of both the Jewish people and of Hashem? The second question is based on the language employed in Shemot 30:13. It says "zeh yitno" - this they shall give. The use of "zeh" in Tanach almost always refers to a situation where one point to something (such as by the splitting of the Reed Sea, when the Jews sang "zeh keili v'anveihu," and Rashi notes that they were actually able to point to the presence of Hashem).What pointing occurred by the half-shekel? The Pesikta claims that Hashem had to show Moshe a fiery coin so as to explain what the Jews were supposed to give. However, we must then ask how one is to give a coin made out of fire? What message was contained in this vision that Hashem gave to Moshe?
A third question is based onRambam (Hilchot Shekalim 1). He says that it is a positive commandment for one to give the half-shekel, and it is so important that a pauper must sell the clothes off of his back in order to fulfill this law. This notion of selling the shirt of off one's back appears in two other places - in order to buy four cups of wine for the Pesach seder and in order to buy Chanukah candles. It is understandable that both of those commandments are reflective of great national miracles, and thus it is not surprising that we would require one to go to great lengths to be able to participate in them. However, how does the giving off the half-shekel fit in? Why is it so important that one has to sell his shirt in order to participate in it?
Our answer begins in Iyov 11. Iyov suffered through every type of personal misfortune imaginable. After the terrible losses that he suffered, three of his friends came to speak with him about what had occurred. In 11:7-9 they expressed the idea that Iyov could not get angry at Hashem, since he did not know the entire framework within which his personal tragedies were occurring. In verse 9 they state "arukah me-eretz mida, u'rchava mini yam" - the notion that the whole picture is longer than the land and wider than the sea. This metaphor is not accidental, and it in fact holds a key to answering our original question. What is the difference between the land and the sea? The land is something static that can be definitively measured. By contrast, the sea is something that is always in motion, and thus even when one tries to measure it, he can only measure it for a fleeting moment before it moves again.
There is another important aspect to the land and the sea, one that is rooted in the very story of creation in Bereishit 1. While each day of creation witnessed the birth of a different thing, no one day had any meaning without the others. The creation of light is worthless without trees to use it to grow and man to derive benefit from it. The creation of man goes nowhere without there first being a land for man to live on and trees and animals for him to make use of. As such, every day of creation had a hand in every other day. Working out the math, each of seven days counts as if it happened seven times, giving a total of forty-nine. This number is representative of our world, and thus the number fifty is representative of that which exists beyond our world (and thus we speak of the forty nine levels of purity or impurity, with the fiftieth being the point of no return, as well as of the forty nine levels of holiness than Moshe Rabbeinu attained, with the fiftieth being concealed from him).
Going back to Iyov, the gematria (numerical value) of the word "mida" is forty nine, while that of "yam" is fifty. This is indicative of the nature of these two components of creation - the sea wants to overtake and flood the dry land. Even in creation itself, Hashem had to pull the water back in order to reveal the dry land. It is for this reason as well that one has to immerse himself or herself completely in the waters of the mikveh, and may not use a water source that drips out (Sefer HaChinuch #173).
[editor's note: this may connect to the fact that Hashem is called the mikveh of the Jews in the last mishna of Masechet Yoma, in connection with the idea of doing teshuva and purifying oneself before Hashem. This may further connect to Rambam's statement that when one does teshuva, he proclaims that he is another person and not the one who sinned. Thus, the "waters" of the mikveh, namely Hashem, flood over the old individual and leave in his place a new sin-free person.]
Haman was one of the smartest and most incisive enemies of the Jews. He understand that overtaking and defeating them required looking into their history and finding the soft underbelly where they would be most vulnerable. He knew that Hashem hates lewdness, and thus he encouraged Achashveirosh to hold a party that would be characterized by self-indulgence and loose behavior. While the food may have been served on plastic plates so as to avoid kashrut problems, the very presence of the Jews at this party revealed a major deficiency in their overall moral and ethical nature.
Haman went even further. He cast lots to determine when the best time would be to destroy the Jews, lots that told him that the month of Adar was a time of weakness for them. This was so in part because it was the month in which Moshe rabbeinu died. However, Haman also noted that this was the month in which the Jews donated the half-shekel in the times of the Beit HaMikdash, and thus he gave Achashveirosh a large sum to offset the money donated by the Jews at an earlier point in their history.
Haman's one problem was Mordechai, whom he could not figure out. Thus, Haman went in the other direction, trying to place himself above Mordechai not only in the power structure of Shushan, but even in a more metaphysical way. Rashi notes that the reason that the attendants of Achashveirosh bowed to Haman was because he made himself out to be some form of a deity. Even further, the tree which Haman was to build was to be fifty cubits high, a clear sign of his attempt to exist above this world. Haman felt that if he could attain such a level, there would be no way for the Jews to thwart his plans of destroying them. The Yalkut Shimoni notes that the gallows that was built was built from a board taken from the ark of Noach, which served as a reminder of the flood (the water, symbolized by fifty, flooding the earth). Haman hoped to link up to this event in history and to thus overtake the Jewish people. Feeling his power on the rise, Haman did not wait until the morning. Rather, he built the gallows already at night, and rushed to the king's palace to have the royal seal put on his devious plans.
Of course, Achashveirosh's response completely floored Haman, as he told him to parade Mordechai through the streets of Shushan. Unable to grasp the meaning of what had just happened, the Midrash tells us that Haman ran to get Mordechai and found him teaching his students about the mitzvah of cutting the Omer. Why is this significant? The Omer is connected to the counting of the Omer, whereby the Jews count seven days seven times, for a total of forty nine. However, they then count day fifty, the day of the giving of the Torah. Haman did not realize that the secret that was contained in the number fifty, which he hoped to arrogate to himself, had already been claimed by the Jews. He was playing on Mordechai's turf, and thus there was no way for him to be able to win this battle. The tiny bit of barley grain that was taken for the Omer completely uprooted Haman's fifty foot high gallows.
In the end, Haman was undone by his inability to realize that it is quality, and not quantity, that matters. The little mitzva of Omer was able to trump all of Haman's elaborate plans, since Omer represents that which is above and beyond this world. It is representative of the power of that which is truly qualitative, an idea that is encapsulated by fire. A small fire can overtake even the largest building. Even further, fire is the only thing on earth about which it can be said that anything that enters it becomes it. Mixtures of sugar and water and the like can still be separated and distinguished under laboratory tests. Fire, however, turns everything into ash. Yaakov understood this idea when he went out against Esav and all of his men (seeRashi on the beginning of parashat Vayeshev), that he strength against overwhelming numbers lay in the quality of his character. Haman's failure was in his inability to realize this exact point.
Taking all of this into consideration, we can return to our earlier questions. Hashem showed Moshe a coin made of fire, a coin that was all quality and not quantity. Hashem's message to Moshe was that the half-shekel was not about showing off how much money one could give to charity. Rather, it was about each person making his contribution and showing that he counted in a meaningful manner. Each person's contribution was special, and when a person does something special, a person can be proud and can life his head up high. Thus, Hashem told Moshe to "lift up the heads" of the Jewish people. He commanded Moshe to teach the Jews a mitzva that would allow each person to feel pride in his role as an equal member of the Jewish nation.
The gemara in Megilla 13a states that Reish Lakish teaches us that Hashem knew that Haman would in the future pay a large sum for the lives of the Jews, and thus He pre-empted him by introducing the mitzva of the half-shekel. Reish Lakish, who began his career as a gangster and was able to find within himself the strength of character to return to Hashem, he is the one who teaches us this lesson about the half-shekel, a mitzva which is focuses on each person discovering what is special about himself.
In contrast to Reish Lakish, the gemara in Chagigah 15a states that Rabi Meir and Elisha ben Avuya were once walking on Shabbat (the Yerushalmi says it was Shabbat which was Yom HaKippurim) and they came to the end of the techum Shabbat, the farthest that one may walk outside of the city limits before violating the Shabbat. Rabi Meir pointed this fact out to his teacher and implored him to return to the city with him. Elisha ben Avuya, who had been one of the great Torah giants of his generation before veering from the straight and narrow path, answered that he could not do so, since he "has heard it stated from behind the (heavenly) curtain: Return may wayward sons, except for Acheir." Acheir, or 'the other one," was the name by which Elisha had come to be known, since he was now estranged from Hashem. However, Rabi Meir was trying to tell his mentor that he could still return, if only he would leave behind the part of him that had strayed, as Reish Lakish had done. However, Elisha failed to see this message. He heard the heavenly voice as saying that he could not return at all, since he and "Acheir" were one, he was totally consumed by the rebellious side within him, to the point where he could no longer conceive of the internal strength of his character being able to dominate and lead him back to the true service of Hashem.
The introduction to the Zohar includes a reference to the verse in Yeshayahu 40 "mi bara eileh" - who has created this. It explains that "eileh" refers to that which we can explain, while "mi" is a question word which refers to that in the world which we cannot find an answer to. While humans chase after those things that they can explain, one who does so without looking for the "mi" as well is worshipping idolatry. Together, these two words in Hebrew spell out Elokim, the name of God, as he is composed of everything, both the knowable and the unknowable in this world.
In this vein, we can understand some of the events surrounding the Golden Calf. When the Calf was constructed, those who danced around it said "eileh elohecha Yisrael," - these are your Gods, Israel. They had the "eileh," the simple and knowable, but they lacked the "mi," the mysterious and unknowable side of Hashem. Moshe restored this aspect to the Jews when he descended, shouting "mi la-shem elai" - whoever is for God should join me! Even further, the numerical value of "mi" is fifty, again indicating the presence of this supreme number as a foundation of faith and belief.
Finally, we come to the first mention of the half-shekel in the writings of the Sages. When the servant of Avraham presented Rivka with gifts at the well, one of the things that he gave her was a nose ring weighing a "beka." Rashi mentions that this alludes to the "beka la-gulgolet," the weight of the half-shekel. At the very moment when the Jewish people were being formed, as a spouse was being found for the child of Avraham, his servant incorporated into that marriage a major factor that would exist in the eventual covenant between Hashem and the Jews. The servant understood that the Jewish people, now only in their infancy, would only survive if they understood the secret of the half-shekel, the secret of those things which are eternal.
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