The obligation of machatzit ha-shekel, which the Torah introduces in the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa, requires each member of the nation to pay an annual half-shekel tax to the Beit Ha-mikdash. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shekalim 2:3) offers an explanation for why the Torah required paying specifically this amount – a half-shekel: “Because they sinned with the [golden] calf in the middle of the day, they shall give a half-shekel.” This amount was chosen for the annual tax because this payment serves to atone for the grievous sin of the golden calf, which occurred at midday. This follows the tradition mentioned in other sources (such as the Yerushlami, Ta’anit 22b) that Benei Yisrael had expected Moshe to return from atop Mount Sinai that day, and they waited until noon. After half the day passed, they despaired, and they decided to approach Aharon and demand that he create for them a graven image. The half-shekel paid to the Beit Ha-mikdash commemorates the sin committed by the people after half the day passed and Moshe did not return.
What might be the significance of the fact that the sin of the golden calf unfolded at midday? Why is this particular detail worthy of commemoration through the machatzit ha-shekel?
Perhaps, the time of day when this tragic incident occurred is to be seen as symbolic of the broader context of the golden calf. Benei Yisrael committed this act of betrayal at their most glorious moment, when they shone the brightest, having just proclaimed their unbridled and unwavering commitment to obey God’s laws. Not even six weeks earlier, they beheld God’s revelation and heard His pronouncement of the Ten Commandments, marking the peak of the bond between them and the Almighty. The Gemara (Gittin 36b) says about the sin of the golden calf, “How risible is a bride who is unfaithful inside her wedding canopy.” Just as the wedding marks the moment when the love between the bride and groom reaches its greatest level, so did Matan Torah signify the moment of greatest love between God and Benei Yisrael. The golden calf occurred at “midday,” when Benei Yisrael’s “light” shone more intensely than at any other point in our nation’s history.
The machatzit ha-shekel, which funded the public sacrifices in the Beit Ha-mikdash, calls upon us to work towards returning to our “midday,” to try to shine our brightest. We all, invariably, will have “brighter” and “darker” moments, but we must always strive to be our very best. The machatzit ha-shekel funded the public sacrifices, which included the daily tamid sacrifice, which was offered each morning and afternoon. Each day, we are given a new opportunity to shine brightly. The command of machatzit ha-shekel teaches us that even if we’ve failed in the past, nevertheless, we can still restore our “midday” condition, and illuminate the world like the midday sun, each of us in his or her own unique way.