Parashat Ki-Tisa begins with the mitzva of machatzit ha-shekel, the half-shekel silver coin that Benei Yisrael donated at Mount Sinai, with which the foundation of the Mishkan was built and through which they were counted. The Midrash Tanchuma, cited by Rashi (30:13), comments that God showed Moshe a “coin of fire” and instructed that this was the coin Benei Yisrael were to donate. It is commonly understood that Moshe had difficulty identifying the kind of coin that should be used for the machatzit ha-shekel, and so God showed him a prophetic vision of the required coin.
The Klausenberger Rebbe offered a symbolic approach to the Midrash’s comment, explaining that Moshe’s quandary related not to the physical properties of the coin, but rather to its function. In presenting this command, God mentions several times that this half-shekel donation served as a means of atonement, and this is what troubled Moshe. For a person of his stature, for whom money had little importance, it was difficult to imagine a silver coin having the power and capacity to bring atonement. How, Moshe wondered, could something insignificant as money be invested with so much value that it could atone for a person’s grave mistakes and spiritual failings?
God answered Moshe’s question by showing him a “coin of fire.” The Rebbe explains that the imagery of fire is often used to represent the yetzer ha-ra, our base human desires that interfere with our spiritual ambitions. God’s response to Moshe was that while he did not afford much value or importance to money, most people “burn” with a lust for money. The natural human tendency is to crave wealth and material luxury, and this desire rages like a furious fire within them, driving them to expend vast amounts of time and effort in the pursuit of money. And thus for the overwhelming majority of people, indeed, the donation of a half-shekel of silver brings atonement. For them – for us – parting with money is a significant sacrifice and display of devotion and faith, and they thereby earn God’s compassion, grace and forgiveness.
Along these same lines, the Rebbe suggests explaining a different passage in the Midrash Tanchuma relevant to the command of machatzit ha-shekel. The Midrash tells that Moshe expressed his concern to God that after his death, he would be forgotten. God encouraged Moshe by responding, “Just as you stand now and give them the section of shekalim, and you raise their heads, similarly, each and every year, when they read it before Me, it is as though you stand here at that moment and raise their heads.” Moshe feared that after he departs this world, his memory will be lost because he will leave nobody behind like him. He felt that he failed by not producing anybody who came remotely near his spiritual stature, and thus he would not be leaving behind any legacy of his unique level. God informed him that to the contrary, his legacy will be forever preserved and cherished through the machatzit ha-shekel, through the small but ever so significant “donations” made by each member of Am Yisrael. A leader’s success is determined not by his creating replicas of himself, but by inspiring each person under his charge to give a “half-shekel,” to advance and progress to the best of his ability, according to his current level and standing. As a result of Moshe’s leadership, Jews throughout the ages have given a “machatzit ha-shekel,” have made significant sacrifices and expended significant efforts for the sake of the Almighty, and this is his greatest legacy.
The Midrash here reminds us that we are all expected to do the very best we can at our current level, with our current skills, and under our current circumstances. We are each called upon to give our “machatzit ha-shekel,” to achieve what we are capable of achieving, advancing one small step at a time along the road to excellence.