Ki Tisa תשע”ט

This year, in shuls around the world, Parashat Ki Tisa will be read on Shabbat two weeks in a row! This coming Shabbat, it will be read for the first time as the portion of the week. Next week, the Shabbat before the 1st of Adar 2 (this is a leap year, so we add a second month of Adar to the calendar), is called Parashat Shekalim, on which we must read the commandment for every male to give a half shekel to the Tabernacle, and, later, to the Holy Temple.  Hence, in addition to the Sefer Torah for next week’s portion of the week (Parashat Vayakhel), we take out a second Sefer Torah from the ark and again read the beginning of Ki Tisa for Parshat Shekalim.

This week’s portion begins with the following instructions to Moshe (Exodus 30:12, 13):

יב) כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַידֹוָד בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם

יג) זֶה יִתְּנוּ כָּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַידֹוָד

12) When you count the Israelites according to their numbers, every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them. 13) This shall they give, everyone who passes through the census, a half a shekel as a portion to Hashem.

The instructions are that when counting the Jewish people, instead of counting heads, each male must give a half a shekel, and by counting the half shekels you will know the number of male adults. Indeed, the Torah tells us that by not counting heads we avoid a plague from coming upon the Jewish people. The inference is that counting the actual “heads” will result in a plague. (This is the basis for the custom not to count people when determining if there are ten for a minyan, but, instead, to recite a 10-word verse from scripture so that we count the words, not the people.)

This half-shekel was in addition to the donations given for the Tabernacle’s construction. Yet, in this case only, the silver from the half-shekel donations was melted down and used for the 100 sockets that supported the beams of the Tabernacle. The Jewish people were counted twice during the 40 years they wandered through the wilderness, once at the beginning and once at the end. In both cases they used the half-shekel method, the money from the second counting going to buy the animals for all the community sacrifices, the incense, and the ingredients for the showbread. Since these items were needed annually for the Tabernacle’s daily service, an annual mandatory half a shekel contribution was imposed on every person to provide the funds necessary.

The fiscal year for sacrifices began in Nissan (the first month), and the law is that the sacrifices of one fiscal year may not be used in another. Thus, from Adar, the prior month, the communal leaders would begin announcing and urging people to bring their half-shekel to the Tabernacle. This is why the Shabbat before the 1st of Adar is called Paarshat Shekalim, and, as noted, we take out a second Sefer Torah and read about the half-shekel to remind us of the times in our history when the call was made for the people to bring their half-shekels.

The verse announces: 13) This they shall give. To what does this refer? “This” is a demonstrative pronoun, which usually refers to something tangible in front of you. How does it fit here?

The Midrash (Tanchuma 9) explains that Moshe had difficulty understanding the commandment of the half-shekel, so, in response, Hashem showed him a “coin of fire” and said, “This is what they should give!”

Different approaches explain Moshe’s difficulty and how the “coin of fire” answered it.

Here are a few laws about the half shekel that could raise a question:

  1. The half shekel provided atonement for the giver’s soul. Moshe wondered how, if a person would be ready to give anything for his soul, could a mere half shekel provide atonement?
  2. Everything we have comes from Hashem’s goodness and generosity. How are we worthy of such a great reward for giving Him back some of what He gave us? If I gave you a box of 50 chocolates, and then asked you for one, would you hesitate to give it to me?
  3. The rich were not permitted to give more than a half a shekel, and the poor were not permitted to give less. Where is the justice here? And how do both achieve atonement from the same amount of money?
  4. Why give only a half and not a whole?

To answer all of these questions, Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire, which symbolized the spirit, the love, and the good will and happiness with which a person gives his coin. Here are the answers:

  1. Hashem told Moshe, of course a person would be prepared to pay much more for his soul, but the money does not interest Me. I want the thoughts, the love, and the feelings that they are giving it with. I want the “fire” that is created in the hearts and minds of the people when they make the contribution.
  2. True, everything comes from Hashem. Yet it becomes ours when we pay for it by doing a mitzvah with it.
    1. This is based on the Talmud in Brachot 35a, which points out a contradiction between two verses in Psalms. Psalm 24:1 tells us:

א) לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר לַידֹוָד הָאָרֶץ וּמְלוֹאָהּ תֵּבֵל וְיֹשְׁבֵי בָהּ

1) A Psalm to David, Hashem owns the whole earth and everything in it.   

Psalm 115:16, however, says:

טז) הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַידֹוָד וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי אָדָם

15) The heavens belong to Hashem, and the earth He has given to mankind.           

How do we reconcile these two contradictory verses? Either the entire universe, including the earth, belongs to Hashem, or He has the heavens, and the earth is ours?

The Talmud responds: “In one case it is before the blessing, in the other, it is after the blessing.” Before reciting the blessing and acknowledging Hashem as our benefactor, we haven’t “paid” for it, so the world and everything in it still belongs to Him. But, after paying for it by reciting a blessing on it, thus recognizing Hashem as the source of all blessing, Hashem gives it to us as our own.

All we can give Hashem in return for all that He gives us is the feeling of thanks and appreciation that we express when reciting a blessing, for example, over food before we eat it.

Based on this, the Talmud says that whoever eats without reciting the blessing on his food is like stealing from Hashem.

The same concept applies to our wealth! It also all belongs to Hashem, and the only thing that we have to offer Him is our heartfelt feelings of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings that He has given us. We do so by giving the half shekel, or charity in general, with our whole hearts full of thanks and gratitude, which is epitomized in the half shekel of fire that Hashem showed Moshe.

  1. Even though everyone gave the same half shekel, because every person did so with different thoughts and feelings, every one’s donation was ultimately different that his friend’s. Once again, this is what the fire represented – the feelings of love and thanks with which the person gave his half shekel, Hashem saying, “That’s what I want, not the amount!”
  2. A simple and straightforward answer as to why Hashem instructed us to give only a half a shekel rather than a whole could be to teach us that, as individuals, we are incomplete. We need the input and participation of others to make us whole. According to this explanation, however, the coin of fire does not address this question.

I learned a different answer from my Rebbe, Harav Moshe Shapiro זצ”ל (1935-2017).

When we want to assess an item’s value, the conventional way to do so is to determine how much it sells for on the open market. The amount of money that people are prepared to pay for it gives us an idea of its value. Money serves as the tool for measuring value.

Human beings need stuff. We are actually the neediest creature on the planet; from the moment we are born until the moment we leave this earth. Just to survive we need so many things. Think about getting through this winter without central heating in your house, and a warm coat and gloves to go out of doors with, just to mention a few.

If I raise sheep, I can shear the sheep and make myself a warm wool coat, but from where does my food come? I am not raising wheat and peas on my farm, just sheep and cattle. Well, if you raise crops and need a warm coat, I can give you a coat and, in return, you will give me crops and vegetables to eat. How many vegetables I will receive in exchange for one coat is determined by the law of supply and demand. If there are many coats available, the one who raises vegetables will have to give fewer of his crops for a coat than if there are only a few coats. Bartering can alleviate some of our needs, but it is a very difficult system to use for everything. If I have a coat to barter, I have to find a person who needs one and who also has extra vegetables he wants to give away. The other guy needs to find someone who has an extra coat to give away and needs vegetables. Without Craig’s List, this may be difficult!

What is the solution? Money! Man created a monetary system with a specific value to each denomination and with set prices for all the items people need based on the demand for them. Thus, a person can purchase a coat and vegetables without having to raise either.

Even though neither the Torah nor the prophets invented the idea of money, the Torah accepts the concept and works with a monetary system. Every government mints money and sets its value so that society can operate with a smooth monetary system. People are paid for their work in money and purchase what they need with the money that they earned, or they sell their goods for money and purchase what they need with the money they received for the sale of their items.

This is why money is so precious and its pursuit occupies most people’s existence. Money contains infinite value because money has limitless possibilities! When you have an item, you are limited to the uses of that item, as it can only do certain things. With money, you have the ability to buy anything and everything in the world! All options are open before you.

This is a great system, and it operates very well most of the time. But the reality is that money itself has no value. Taking a step back, a bill is an almost worthless piece of paper. How much more did it cost to print a $1,000 bill than a $1.00 bill? Probably nothing. Still, the $1,000 bill is worth a thousand times more than the $1.00 bill and has a thousand times more buying power. The value of money depends on the trust people have viz, that they can use it to buy what they want. When confidence in the dollar plunges, so does its purchasing power. What happens to money when the government decides to mint a new currency and dispose of the old one? All the thousands and thousand of dollars that people saved up immediately become totally worthless. (They do make great paper airplanes, but how many can you fly?)

So, is there anything in the world that has intrinsic value that is not dependent on the ups and downs of supply and demand? Yes, there is.

We say in our prayers every Shabbat morning:

אֵין כְּעֶרְכֶּךָ יְדֹוָד אֱלֹקֵינוּ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה

There is nothing as valued as You Hashem, in this world.

Hashem’s value system – what Hashem says has value– is like no other. Its value is intrinsic and eternal. It is not subject to external influences and does not fluctuate with the market. It is rock solid and will never change.

Hashem has written down His value system in the Torah and has shared it with us. He has clearly expressed to us what is important and what is not, what we should do, and what we should not do. The mitzvot are what we should do. A mitzvah can never lose its value and benefit. A commandment not to do something renders that thing always the wrong thing to do, no matter how “good” we think it is. The Torah, for example, is replete with commandments cautioning us to treat our fellow with respect, not to speak poorly about him, hurt his feelings, or embarrass him in public.

These are some of Hashem’s values and they absolute, not dependent on any other factors. This is the meaning of the “coin of fire” that Hashem showed Moshe. Fire consumes everything and turns it into fire like itself. The consumed object thus becomes fuel for the fire and feeds it. The value system of Hashem consumes all other value systems in the world, and turns them into itself.

How is that? This “coin of fire” that Hashem showed Moshe was, in actuality, the other half shekel of the half shekel coins given by the Jewish people. When we give our material earthy coin to the Holy Temple with the proper holy thoughts, we are coupling it with its other half, the “coin of fire,” the Torah’s value system; hence, we are doing an act with intrinsic and eternal value. The only things that have true value are Torah and mitzvot, nothing else.

The word שקל  in Hebrew comes from the word meaning to weigh. Before we spend money on an item, we “weigh it” in our minds: “Is it worth giving up this amount of money for that item? Is that item worth it to me?”

With what we have said, we can add a new dimension to why it is called a .שקל  I must weigh if the money that I am about to spend will line up with the “coin of fire,” namely, Hashem’s value system. If it doesn’t, I shouldn’t!

It is important to know that it is entirely possible for every single purchase that a Jewish person makes to be in line with the “coin of fire,” if he purchases worldly goods to help him serve Hashem. He, for example, needs to eat so that he can function to do mitzvot. He needs clothing so that he can look respectable and be a proper representative of Hashem. He needs transportation so that he can come to Partners. Every physical need can be used to serve Hashem, and lined up with Hashem’s “coin of fire.”

This idea stands in sharp contrast to our world’s general value system where money is hoarded for its buying power and to generate more money to buy more things of often dubious spiritual value.

How privileged we are to have the Torah to guide us and set down the proper values for us, so we do not follow the masses who are investing their time and energy in items that have no value and that will not go with them into the next world.

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