Written by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, Chabad at UCLA
This week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim contains a dramatic transition from last week’s climactic revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments to the seemingly mundane civil laws, torts, crimes, and money matters. It is also the first in the series of four special Shabbat Torah readings which gives this Shabbat a special name — Shabbat Shekalim, taken from Exodus 30. Shekel is not only the currency of modern Israel, but was used since Biblical times, including for the mitzvah of contributing a half shekel to the Temple treasury as every individual’s contribution in the communal offerings fund. A rich person could not contribute more than — and a poor person couldn’t give less than — half a shekel. They were collected starting with the month of Adar, which we will welcome next week, and that is why we read this special addition on this Shabbat.
There is a perplexing Midrashic teaching from our Sages, quoted by Rashi that Moses, when commanded this mitzvah, was puzzled by it as how perform it, so Hashem showed him a half shekel of fire, saying: “Give like this one.” Moses’ puzzlement is itself puzzling: what is so difficult about donating a small coin to charity? And how does a fiery coin answer his query?
However, the mechanics of donating wasn’t Moses’ main difficulty. He was, in fact, more puzzled by how such a seemingly insignificant act could serve as atonement for one’s shortcomings. Therefore, a fiery Divine coin was the appropriate answer.
To explain, fire is a unique substance, with no defined shape, always striving upwards and reaching higher. It is a great metaphor for the soul and for its passionate yearning for transcendence.
A metal coin, on the other hand, has a well-defined shape, it is made out of hard metal excavated from beneath the earth, cold, indifferent, and seemingly immutable. It represents well materialism and its intransigent coarse physical nature.
That was precisely what Moses found perplexing — how could a piece of metal, with its lowly materialist nature, provide a tremendous spiritual boost for the giver’s soul? Hashem’s response teaches us that the unrefined coarse materialism is not antithetical to spirituality. The coin of fire shown by G-d demonstrates that the physical and the spiritual can and should be fused together and harmonized. Moreover, when one gives from his or her material possessions in order to share with others, and does so passionately, the material itself becomes spiritual.
The Kotzker Rebbe once said: “Money is like fire — it can warm you, or it can burn you.”
The celebrated pyramid of human needs by famous psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow depicts the basic human physiological needs at the bottom, followed by needs for safety, belonging, esteem, and crowned by self-actualization. Anyone who took any psychology class is most likely to be familiar with this postulation. However, few people realize that long after introducing this human model in his 1954 book Motivation and Personality, towards the end of his life Maslow, came up with yet another level. At the pinnacle of his pyramid he placed the ultimate human need for transcendence, altruism and selflessness. Fascinating. However, from the Jewish perspective, this is hardly novel. I would also add: one need not satisfy all other parts of the pyramid of needs and pleasures in life in order to experience the most noble and ultimate need of transcendence.
The following story illustrates the point. The founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was once raising money for the great mitzvah of pidyon shvuyim (to redeem prisoners from debtors prisons). He went to a city famous for its miser, a stingy man who, despite his considerable wealth, was loath to share his blessings, no matter how worthy or urgent the cause. Rabbis and beggars alike avoided his home. Anyone who did end up on his doorstep was offered a single rusty copper coin, which even the most desperate pauper would throw back at the rich giver.
When Rabbi Schneur Zalman arrived in the town, the elders of the community graciously received him. But when he announced that he wanted to visit the house of the miser and wanted two rabbis to accompany him, he was met with serious resistance. The Rebbe was adamant, however, and they finally acquiesced and gave him the escort he requested. The next afternoon the three of them were standing in front of the miser’s mansion. Before knocking on the door, the Rebbe turned to his companions and requested that they not utter a word, no matter what they hear or see. Several moments later they were sitting in the luxurious front room, and the owner was returning from his safe with a small velvet money pouch.
“Yes,” said the rich man. “A touching story indeed! Widows and orphans in captivity. Ah, the suffering of the Jewish people! When will it all end? Here, Rabbi, take my humble donation.”
To the miser’s surprise, the Rebbe seemed pleased by the gift. He was actually smiling at him warmly as he put the coin into his pocket and said, “Thank you, Mr. Solomons. May G‑d bless and protect you always.” The Rebbe then proceeded to write him a receipt, adding all sorts of blessings in a most beautiful script.
“Thank you again, my friend,” said the Rebbe as he stood and warmly shook the man’s hand, looking him deeply in the eyes with admiration. “And now,” he added, turning to his two companions, “we must be on our way. We have a lot of collecting to do tonight.”
Suddenly they heard the door opening behind them and the miser calling: “Rabbis, rabbis, please come back for a minute. I must speak to you, please . . . please come back in.”
In a few minutes they were again sitting in the warm, plush drawing room, but this time the rich man was pacing back and forth restlessly. He stopped for an instant and turned to the Rebbe. “Exactly how much money do you need to ransom these prisoners?”
“About 5,000 rubles,” the Rebbe replied.
“Well, here is 1,000… you may count it if you want,” said the miser as he took a tightly bound stack of bills from his jacket pocket and laid it on the table. The other rabbis were astounded. They stared at the money and were even afraid to look up at the miser, lest he change his mind.
But the Rebbe again shook Mr. Solomons’ hand, warmly thanking him, and wrote him a beautiful receipt replete with blessings and praises, exactly like the first time.
As they left the house and were again walking toward the gate, once more the door of the house opened behind them. “Rabbis, please, I have changed my mind. Please come in once more. I want to speak with you,” Mr. Solomons called out.
They entered the house for a third time as the miser turned to them and said, “I have decided to give the entire sum needed for the ransom. Here it is; please count it to see that I have not made a mistake.”
“What is the meaning of this?” wondered the Rebbe’s astonished companions after they had left the rich man’s home for the third time that evening. “How did you get that notorious miser to give 5,000 rubles?”
“That man is no miser,” said Rabbi Schneur Zalman. “No Jewish soul truly is. But how could he desire to give, if he never in his life experienced the joy of giving? Everyone to whom he gave that rusty penny threw it back in his face.”
Allow me to conclude with a practical suggestion: get a charity box for your dorm room or apartment (we have them available for you, as well). Then every time you add a nickel or a quarter to it, experience the joy, the passion, the fire of transcendence and giving!
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.