The power of the half shekel

The half shekel defeated Haman
About 8 years ago, I posted this piece, which has the same idea my grandfather presents in his first comment on this week's parsha:

"Reish Lakish said, 'It is revealed and known to He who created the world that Haman was destined to measure shkalim on Yisrael; therfore, He brought their shkalim before his, as we learn that on the first of Adar we read Shkaim'" [Megillah 13b]. So the shkalim given by Yisrael counterbalanced those of their adversary. Haman could have made the case that he was offering the same sum as Yisrael, so his money should count just as much as theirs.

But one of the key lessons is that the whole -- the entity of klal Yisrael -- so much exceeds the sum of its parts. The 1/2 shekel illustrates the point that the parts have to combine to make a whole. It's not just a matter of "no man is an island" but an interconnectedness that brings together the separate strands to form something that is more than just a gathering of pieces -- like the reeds woven together to form a basket. 

[My grandfather stressed that this was the counter to Haman's argument against the Jews, depicting them as scattered and therefore not connected among the nations of Achashverosh's  kingdom.]

In the post I originally wrote, I continued: 
 And each Jew has an equally important part in making up the whole, which is why all must give the same 1/2 shekel -- neither more nor less -- whether you are wealthy enough to endow the building or poor enough to have to fit this amount into your budget for the month.
That is what makes this particular contribution so pure. It is given with no hope of personal distinction. It does not augment one's status to say, "I gave 1/2 shekel," for the rejoinder would perforce be, "Well, so did everyone else!" One does not get any recognition like a plaque or journal ad for this yearly contribution, in which everyone counts equally. There is no contest to prove one's worth by giving an impressive amount. That is not an option for the 1/2 shekel offering. It is a reflection of each individual's worth becoming great as an indispensable component of klal Yisrael.

That is something Haman was completely unaware of. He sought self-aggrandizement by showing how he alone could match the amount of money offered by all the Jews together. But he completely missed the greatness of the forest by only seeing separate trees. It is not the money but the cohesiveness of the people it represents that makes the 1/2 shekel so valuable in Hashem's eyes.

The coin of fire

My grandfather quotes Rashi's explanation on the word ze yitnu [this they will give] as indicating that Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire with the weight of half a shekel, saying, that is what they are to give. 

It seems difficult to accept that Moshe needed that illustration of the coin that parallels the demonstration of the menorah.  In the case of the menorah, we can understand that intricate workmanship was required for a solid bar of gold to take on the specified shape, but this was just a simple coin. 

In answer, my grandfather quotes Tosfos on Chullin 42b that says  Moshe's difficulty was not with the coin itself but that it would be possible for a person to give kofer nafsho.  He explains that Moshe's amazement was that money, which typically serves as the motivation for sin, could be the means of atonement. That function doesn't jibe with the principle of ayn kategor na'aseh saneygor which is invoked in explaining why the Kohen Gadol does not enter the Kodesh Kedoshim in his golden clothes so as not to evoke an association with the Golden Calf. 

It is for that very reason that Hashem showed him a coin of fire to show that in this case a destructive force is being channeled for a positive end. Fire consumes and destroys, but it can also be a blessing for person who uses it to warm a home and cook.  The same can be said of money.

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So what prevented the negef? Their being subsumed into a collective, or their mesiras nefesh?
Ariella Brown said…
Sorry for the delay in the response. I only saw you commented now because all comments have to be approved before publication. That's an interesting question. I'd guess you need that bit of kofer nefesh because a count is something that could direct din or ayin hara if you like. We do see that counting without the half shekel caused a negef when David ordered an unnecessary count. But he was actually offered a choice of punishments and opted for this particular one as the least of three evils. That indicates that it is not built in as a natural consequence quite the same way, say bringing an unauthorized ketores zaps a person dead.

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