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Why Moshe Was Astonished

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Why Moshe Was Astonished

In the sichah that follows, the Rebbe communicates one of his most fundamental themes: that the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people is not initiated by our intellect or feeling, but rather is an inherent dimension of our being.

The Jews and G-d are two half-entities, and only through their union can either become complete, as it were. May the study of the Rebbe's teachings enable us to realize this inner truth and express it in our conduct. And may our efforts draw down overtly apparent Divine good and blessing, including the ultimate blessing, the coming of the Redemption, and the fulfillment of the prophecy, "And those who repose in the dust will arise and sing."

Sichos In English
Purim Katan, 5755

Why Moshe was Astonished

On the verse: [1] "This is what all... should give, a half- shekel," the Jerusalem Talmud [2] and the Midrash [3] comment:

"The Holy One, blessed be He, took out a coin of fire from beneath His throne of glory and showed it to Moshe, telling him: 'This is what [all] should give.'"

Tosafos [4] explains that the reason G-d showed Moshe the coin of fire was not because it was difficult for him to conceive of the form of the coin. Instead, Moshe's difficulty was: How is it possible that by giving such a coin, a person would attain "atonement for his soul"? [5]

For the Midrash quotes the verse: [6] "A person will give his flesh [to save] his flesh, and everything he owns will he give for the sake of his soul" and, concludes the Midrash, this is not sufficient. To satisfy Moshe's question, G-d showed him a "coin of fire," explaining that this was the spiritual nature of the coins the Jews would give.

On the surface, the concept should not have been so difficult for Moshe to comprehend, for there was a precedent of the sacrifices serving as atonement for sins.

Indeed, this concept was communicated directly after the giving of the Torah, before the command to give a half-shekel, as it is written: [7] "And upon [this altar], you will sacrifice your burnt offerings and your peace offerings," and at that time, Moshe did not raise any questions.

There was, however, a difference.

The half-shekel was to serve as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, [8] which involved the sin of idol worship. And this caused Moshe to wonder: How can giving a half-shekel serve as atonement for so severe a sin?

To explain the concept:

The mitzvos can be compared to the limbs and organs of the human body. [9] Within the human body, we find differences between the various limbs and organs. There are limbs and organs which are particular in nature, each one receiving its individual life energy from the soul. (Within this grouping, there are two sub- categories, limbs and organs on which one's life depends, and those on which one's life does not depend.) And there are organs like the brain and the heart which are general in nature; within them, rests our essential vitality, the life-energy for the entire body. [10]

Similarly, with regard to mitzvos: there are certain mitzvos which are particular in nature, and others which are of general import.

For example, the mitzvos "I am G-d" and "You shall have no other gods" include the entire Torah. [11] These mitzvos are of fundamental importance to the essence of the soul, and the Jews' connection with G-d depends on them.

Therefore, when G-d told Moshe that the half-shekel would serve as atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe responded with astonishment. Moshe wondered how the half-shekel could become "atonement for [a] soul" tainted by the sin of idol worship.

A Descent for Comprehensive Souls

The above also gives us insight into the interpretation of the verse: [5] "When you take the census of the heads of the children of Israel, according to their number," offered by the Or HaChayim.

The Or HaChayim explains that the verse refers to the premature passing of the righteous, "the heads of the children of Israel."

They may pass away before their appointed time because of pikudeihem (literally, "their number," but in an extended sense), meaning "your lack," as in the verse: [12] lo nifkad mimeno ish, "Not one man was lacking."

All of the different interpretations of a verse share a connection. [13]

What then is the connection between the interpretation of the above verse offered by the Or HaChayim, and the simple meaning of the verse?

The connection between the two concepts revolves around the fact that, according to its simple interpretation, the verse is speaking about the sin of idol worship, a sin which causes a blemish of a general nature. As such, there is a connection to the interpretation of the Or HaChayim. For a sin of a general nature effects the general connection of the souls of the Jewish people to G-d as expressed within the comprehensive soul of that generation, the "head of the children of Israel."

Indeed, we see such a pattern with regard to the sin of the Golden Calf, for it caused a spiritual descent within Moshe, the head of the children of Israel. Thus even though Moshe was not at all involved with the sin - at that time, he was in the spiritual realms - G-d told him: [14] "Go down," interpreted by our Sages [15] to mean: "Descend from your greatness."

We find that the Sin of the Golden Calf also brought about the possibility of death. For the Tablets of the Ten Commandments are associated with freedom, [16] and in particular, "freedom from the angel of death." [17] Conversely, the Sin of the Golden Calf reawakened the influence of the Sin of the Tree of Knowledge which brought death to the world.

Similarly, following this pattern, sins of a general nature effect the comprehensive souls of the generation. This relates to the Or HaChayim's insights regarding the premature passing of righteous men.

Giving With Inner Fire

To return to the original subject, the coin of fire shown to Moshe. A question arises: Moshe did not have difficulty conceiving of a half-shekel; his difficulty consisted of understanding how the gift of the half-shekel could bring about atonement. How then was this difficulty resolved by showing him a "coin of fire"? [18]

This question can be resolved, based on the analogy to follow (there are those who attribute the analogy to the Baal Shem Tov):

A man was trained in the art of crafting gold and silver. The master to whom he was apprenticed taught him everything except one particular: that before shaping the gold or the silver, it must be heated to make it pliable. The master thought that this point was obvious, and ignored mentioning it. The apprentice, however, never grasped it, and consequently, he was never able to be come a successful craftsman. Similarly, with regard to our Divine service. Our deeds and observance must be fired with the warmth and energy of the G-dly power of the soul.

On this basis, we can understand how showing Moshe a coin of fire resolved his difficulties. The mere physical act of giving a coin cannot in and of itself become "atonement for the soul." When, however, the gift is accompanied by fire, one gives with the warmth of the essence of the soul, "the lamp of G-d [which] is the soul of man," [19] the half-shekel can serve as "atonement for the soul."

At the Essence of the Soul

The deed through which a mitzvah is performed reflects the intent of the mitzvah and its inner dynamic. Accordingly, it must be said that the deed of giving a half-shekel reflects the spiritual intent of the mitzvah, showing how it is connected with the fire of the essence of the soul.

This, however, does not seem to be true. G-d showed Moshe a coin of fire, but the half-shekel which a Jew gives was, by contrast, a simple coin, with no connection to fire.

It is not sufficient to attempt to resolve this difficulty by explaining the advantage of tzedakah, in that a person gives away money for which he worked with all of the powers of his soul and/or with which he could purchase his life's necessities, [20] and thus show that tzedakah affects the essence of the soul.

This is not an adequate explanation of the matter at hand, however, for it does not differentiate between the giving of the half-shekel and other gifts to charity.

Similarly, it is insufficient to explain that the half-shekel was significant, for these donations were used for the adonim, the sockets which formed the base of the Sanctuary. In our Divine service, this refers to the initiative of kabbalas ol, making a commitment to fulfill G-d's will that transcends the limits of intellect. [18] This initiative stems from the essence of the soul, a level which joins all Jews together. (Moreover, in subsequent years, the half-shekel was used to purchase communal offerings, which also express the unity of the Jewish people.[18])

This explanation is inadequate, however, because it explains what was done with the half-shekalim afterwards. It does not explain how giving the half-shekalim themselves is an expression of the essence of the soul.

Similarly, we cannot use the explanation that the connection between the giving of the half-shekel and the essence of the soul is expressed by the fact that in contrast to the other donations to the Sanctuary, a specific amount had to be given. With regard to the other donations, every person gave according to the generosity of his heart, some giving more than others. With regard to the half-shekel, however, there was a specific command: [21] "The rich should not give more, nor should the poor give less." Every Jew was required to give the same amount. This points to the level of the soul which is the same within all Jews, the essence of the soul. When it comes to the revealed powers of intellect and emotion, there are differences between individuals, but all Jews share the same essence. [18]

This concept is not alluded to specifically by the command to give a half-shekel. On the contrary, the same concept is alluded to by all commandments which require that a single sum be given by all Jews. Accordingly, we are forced to say that it is the half-shekel itself which alludes to the fire of the essence of the soul.

Why a Half and Not a Whole?

To explain the above concept: The command to give a half-shekel states: [1] "This is what all... should give, a half-shekel.... A shekel is 20 gerah; a half-shekel [should be given as] an offering to G-d."

The verse informs us that we should give a half-shekel, and then so that we know the amount to be given, the Torah informs us that an entire shekel is 20 gerah, leading to the understanding that the donation to be given by every individual is ten gerah.

An obvious question arises: Why is the elaboration necessary? Why didn't the Torah merely say to give ten gerah? And if for some reason it was necessary to mention that the gift was a half- shekel, the Torah could have said that we should give "a half -shekel, ten gerah." Why was it necessary to mention that an entire shekel was worth 20 gerah?

This indicates that both factors are important.

A person must give half of an entire shekel. When a person gives ten gerah, he must realize that he is giving half of an entire entity, a shekel worth 20 gerah.

This concept, however, requires explanation.

In general, the Torah requires that our gifts to G-d be made from the best and most perfect articles we possess, as intimated by the phrase: "All the choice parts [should be given] to G-d." [22]

Why then does this mitzvah involve giving only half of an entity?

The question is not why it does not involve a larger sum of money, for every mitzvah has its purposes and its limits. The question is, however, why a half only? Why not give a complete shekel instead of merely half a shekel?

This is particularly true in light of the statements made previously, that the half-shekel serves as atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf. That sin involved the denial of G-d's oneness, and the conception of division between the world and G-dliness which is all-encompassing. Accordingly, it would seem appropriate that the atonement for that sin follow the pattern of "measure for measure," and involve giving away everything for G-d without leaving anything for oneself.

This, however, was not the case. Indeed, the mitzvah of giving half a shekel implies that one must retain a portion for oneself; it is forbidden to give an entire shekel. [23]

The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that, the Torah mentions the weight of a half-shekel with regard to another subject, but there, uses a term that implies an entire entity.

Eliezer gave Rivkah a golden nose-ring weighing a beka, [24] a term which Rashi identifies with a half-shekel. Why then doesn't the Torah use the term beka, which connotes an entire entity, in this instance, rather than referring to the coin as a half-shekel, an incomplete entity.

Making a Half, Whole

These questions can be resolved as follows:

As mentioned previously, the worship of false divinities involves creating separation from G-dliness. Accordingly, the half-shekel which atones for this sin, must express G-d's oneness and demonstrate the approach of oneness which is asked of a Jew.

This does not mean merely giving away everything for G-dliness. That would imply that the person is an entity which exists and which gives away things which rightfully belong to it for G-d.

The mitzvah of giving a half-shekel teaches a deeper level of commitment.

Alone, a person feels as a non-entity, for he is only half. How does he become complete? Through uniting with G-d.

This approach to Divine service evokes a similar initiative from above.

G-d's perfection is dependent on the Jewish people, as it were. For that reason, G-d refers to the Jewish people as Tamasi, "the one who completes Me." [25]

The Jews' connection with G-d is not a bond between two separate entities; they are one whole. Each one alone is merely a half- entity. [26] And it is when they come together that they attain perfection.

This is alluded to by the half-shekel. It is not a complete entity, containing twenty gerah. Instead, it has merely ten gerah, alluding to the ten powers of the soul. These a Jew must dedicate to G-d. And when he does, he draws down from above the second ten gerah, the ten sublime Sefiros which are emanations of G-dliness.

(G-d, Himself, is not limited at all, and cannot be defined in any manner. Nevertheless, because of His great love for the Jewish people, He confines Himself in the structure of Ten Sefiros. And from these Ten Sefiros are derived the ten powers of soul that exist within man. [27] In this vein, man is call Adam in Hebrew, referring to the phrase Adamah L'Elyon, "I resemble the One Above.") [28]

Thus the two - man's ten spiritual powers and the ten sublime Sefiros - are not separate entities. Instead, it is together that they make up one complete entity; alone, without the other, each one is incomplete.

This is how the intent of the mitzvah, that the coin a Jew gives is a "coin of fire," shining with the fire of the essence of the soul is reflected in the actual deed of giving the half-shekel.

For a half-shekel demonstrates that together, a Jew and G-d are a single entity, the essence of a Jew's soul being connected with G-d's essence.

At times, there can be blemishes and inconsistencies with regard to the relationship our revealed powers of intellect and emotion share with G-d. The essence of our souls is, however, unified with G-d in an essential bond, clinging to Him, essence to essence.

This explains how the mitzvah of giving a half-shekel can atone for the Sin of the Golden Calf.

For all sins, even the sin of worshipping false divinities, do not disturb a Jew's essential connection with G-d. This essential connection remains intact at all times and when this essential connection is revealed (through giving the half-shekel), it revitalizes the connection shared by the revealed powers, uniting them with G-dliness. [29]

Establishing a Covenant

This concept is also related to another element of Parshas Ki Sissa, the covenant established between G-d and the Jewish people.

After Moshe appealed to G-d to forgive the Jewish people, G-d agreed to pardon them and said: [30] "I will establish a covenant before all your people."

Making a covenant points to the establishment of unity between the principals of the covenant. A covenant was made by dividing a single entity and having the two principals of the covenant pass between the halves. [31]

As we see in Bris Beyn HaBesarim, the covenant established between G-d and Avraham, [32] Avraham and Heavenly fire passed between the halves of slaughtered animals.

This practice raises a difficulty.

For seemingly, the division of an entity into two reflects separation, rather than unity. Nevertheless, the intent of a covenant is to communicate the ultimate concept of unity.

The practice intimates that just as the two halves of the animal which was divided are two halves of a single whole, so too, the two principals of the covenant are half-entities that are complemented by each other.

This was the concept G-d wished to share with Moshe in connection with the atonement for the Sin of the Golden Calf.

By establishing a covenant, He sought to reveal the ultimate oneness between G-d and the Jewish people, showing the bond between the essence of the soul and G-d's essence. Nothing can effect that connection, not even the sin of idol worship. As G-d states: [33] "Regardless, they are My children; to exchange them for another nation (heaven forbid) is impossible."

"The deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants"

The covenant between G-d and the Jewish people began with Avraham, our Patriarch (the covenant established with Moshe represented a higher level). [34]

Similarly, the concept of half-shekel was first initiated at the time of Patriarchs, as reflected in the nose-ring, a beka in weight, which Eliezer gave Rivkah, [24] as mentioned above. Since "the deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign for their descendants," [35] our Divine service after the giving of the Torah is dependent on the Patriarch's accomplishments. [36]

Accordingly, the nose-ring which Eliezer gave was associated with the concept of marriage, and in particular, the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivkah, [37] which serves as an analogy for the bond between G-d and the Jewish people. And it intimates that through their Divine service, the Jewish people can evoke the half-shekel given by G-d, as it were.

Nevertheless, the "the deeds of the Patriarchs are" merely "a sign for their descendants," and the true expression of this unity came after the giving of the Torah. (Only then was the heavenly decree dividing the spiritual from the physical nullified.)

Therefore, Eliezer did not give Rivkah a half-shekel itself, but rather a nose-ring of equivalent weight. [38]

At that time, the initiative of man's Divine service did evoke a corresponding influence from G-d, but the unity was not complete. It was like a relationship in which each partner influences the other. It was only after the giving of the Torah [39] that the half-shekel itself - i.e., the concept that each is only a half-entity, and only together can they become a whole - was revealed. For it is the giving of the Torah which made possible the realization of the fundamental unity between G-d and the Jewish people - "Israel and the Holy One, blessed be He, are all one." [40]


  1. (Back to text) Shmos 30:13.

  2. (Back to text) Shekalim 1:4.

  3. (Back to text) Bamidbar Rabbah 12:3, also cited in Rashi's commentary to Shmos 30:13.

  4. (Back to text) Chulin 42a, entry, Zos hachayah.

  5. (Back to text) Shmos 30:12.

  6. (Back to text) Iyov 2:4.

  7. (Back to text) Shmos 20:21.

  8. (Back to text) Shekalim 2:3; Midrash Tanchuma, Parshas Sissa, sec. 10.

  9. (Back to text) See Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 30 (p. 74a); Tanya, ch. 23.

  10. (Back to text) See Tanya, ch. 9. See also Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 21 (p. 53a) and Tikkun 27 (p. 72b).

  11. (Back to text) Sheloh, at the beginning of Parshas Yisro in the name of the Sages of early ages; Tanya, ch. 20. See the sichah to Parshas Yisro in this series where the concept is discussed.

  12. (Back to text) Bamidbar 31:49.

  13. (Back to text) See the explanation of this concept in the sichah of Parshas Toldos in this series.

  14. (Back to text) Shmos 32:7.

  15. (Back to text) Berachos 32a, cited by Rashi in his commentary to the verse.

  16. (Back to text) Avos 6:2.

  17. (Back to text) Tikkunei Zohar, Tikkun 56 (p. 91a).

  18. (Back to text) See similar concepts in Likkutei Sichos, Vol. I, Parshas Ki Sissa and Parshas Terumah and in the sources mentioned there.

  19. (Back to text) Mishlei 20:27.

  20. (Back to text) See Tanya, ch. 37.

  21. (Back to text) Shmos 30:15.

  22. (Back to text) Vayikra 3:16. See the interpretation of this phrase offered by the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, the conclusion of Hilchos Isurei Mizbeach.

  23. (Back to text) See the commentary of the Ramban to Shmos 30:15.

  24. (Back to text) Bereishis 24:22.

  25. (Back to text) Shir HaShirim 5:2, as interpreted by Likkutei Torah, Shir HaShirim 34d.

  26. (Back to text) See the interpretation by the Maggid of Mezeritch (Or HaTorah, explained at length by the Tzemach Tzedek, Yahel Or 98:6) of the phrase (Bamidbar 10:2) shnei chatzotzeros as shnei chatzi tzuros, "two half entities."

  27. (Back to text) Tanya, ch. 3.

  28. (Back to text) Cf. Yeshayahu 14:14. See Sefer Asarah Maamamoros, maamar Aim Kol Choi, tract 2, sec. 33, Sheloh 20b.

  29. (Back to text) On this basis, we can also understand why it was the gift of the half-shekel which negated Haman's decree against the Jewish people (Megillah 16, Tosafos). The spiritual cause for this decree was the fact that they bowed down to Haman's idol (Megillah 12a). Nevertheless, the mitzvah of the half-shekel aroused the essential connection between the Jews and G-d which stands above all connection with sin. This essential bond was expressed in the Jews' commitment to mesirus nefesh for an entire year, and in the manifestation of G-d' choice of the Jewish people, that regardless of their conduct, they are His children (see Kiddushin 36a and the sources cited in note 33).

    On this basis, we can appreciate the significance of the directive (Shekalim 1:1): "On the first of Adar, an announcement is made with regard to the shekalim." For aside from the fact that Adar precedes Nissan (when the collection will be needed to purchase communal offerings), there is an inherent connection between the giving of the half-shekel and the month of Adar. For the fundamental element of the month of Adar is Purim, and the essential point of Purim is the revelation of the elementary bond shared between G-d and the Jewish people.

    (Indeed, the very name Purim reflects a connection which goes deeper than our logic and reason as explained in the sichos of Purim in this series.) This relates to the inner theme of the giving of the half-shekel.

  30. (Back to text) Shmos 34:10.

  31. (Back to text) See Yirmeyahu 34:18. See also Likkutei Torah, Nitzavim 44b, - maamar entitled Hinei Enochi Koreis Bris, 5654, and maamar entitled Ki Chelek Havayah Amo, 5702, sec. 13.

  32. (Back to text) Bereishis, ch. 15.

  33. (Back to text) Kiddushin 36a (see Rashba, Responsum 194), Pesichah, Rus Rabbah, sec. 3, Pesachim 87a.

  34. (Back to text) For the covenant with Avraham involved the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, while the covenant with Moshe centered on teshuvah, as explained in the maamar entitled Hinei Enochi Koreis Bris, 5654.

  35. (Back to text) Or HaTorah, Parshas Lech Lecha. See also the Ramban's Commentary to Bereishis 12:6 which states: "Everything which occurred to the Patriarchs is a sign to their descendants." See also the Ramban's Commentary to Bereishis 12:10.

  36. (Back to text) On this basis, we can understand the connection between the nose-ring associated with the half-shekel given by Eliezer and the two bracelets he gave (which allude to the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, Kli Yakar, commentary to Bereishis 24:22). For the new development brought about by the giving of the Torah is the fusion of the physical and the spiritual. This parallels the theme of the half-shekel.

  37. (Back to text) This point is emphasized by the fact that the marriage between Yitzchak and Rivkah is the first marriage mentioned in the Torah. (In contrast to the relationship between Adam and Chavah which came as a result of G-d's creation, the bond between Yitzchak and Rivkah came as a result of man's initiative.) See Likkutei Torah, Berochah 96c, Or HaTorah, the maamar entitled Yafah Sichosan, which explains that the marriage between Yitzchak and Rivkah represents the union of the mystic forces referred to as mah and ban.

  38. (Back to text) The nose-ring was said to weigh a beka (which as the Ibn Ezra comments alludes to the concept of a half-shekel, for beka means "divided"). There is, however, no explicit mention of a half-shekel with regard to Eliezer's gift.

    With regard to the half-shekel, by contrast, although the term beka is also used, as in Shmos 38:26, "a beka, a half-shekel per head," its association with the half- shekel is explicitly mentioned.

    On the surface, the opposite pattern would seem more appropriate. On the first occasion the Torah uses the term beka, at the time of Eliezer's gift, the Torah should have defined its worth, and afterwards, it could have relied on the definition given previously. Nevertheless, because the spiritual concept of the half- shekel was not relevant in a full sense until after the giving of the Torah, it was not until after the giving of the Torah that this association was made.

  39. (Back to text) Nevertheless, the Divine service of the Jewish people after the giving of the Torah is dependent on the "deeds of the Patriarchs" which preceded it and made it possible. Therefore, as mentioned above, the Tablets of the Ten Commandments are also alluded to in connection with the marriage between Yitzchak and Rivkah. 40. Zohar, Vol. III, p. 93b.
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