Money is like fire

It is a challenge to reconcile the possibility of atonement being realized using worldly and possibly defiled coins.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran

Judaism Some of the gold coins unearthed
Some of the gold coins unearthed
צילום: INN:RS

The Noam Elimelech explains that money is like fire; it can be used to create, protect and nourish, or it can be used to harm and destroy.

How to balance wealth, material beauty, comfort and desire with spirituality?  

How we manage our inherent materialism speaks to how we manage the fundamental tension between the physical and the spiritual.  It is not surprising that how we embrace (or don’t embrace) materialism speaks directly to our sense of good and evil. Unfortunately, too often the culture in which we find ourselves pushes us in the direction of materialism rather than holiness.  Our Torah portion speaks to the tension between the material and the holy.

To be counted in the first census, each male twenty years or older was to perform the mitzvah of donating a half-shekel coin.  “This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census – a half-shekel of the sacred shekel, the shekel is twenty geras, half a shekel as a portion to Hashem.  Everyone who passes through the census, from twenty years of age and up, shall give the portion of Hashem.” (Shemot 30:13-14) 

This is, at first glance, a curious method of taking a census.  Why not simply… count?  But when it came to the Jewish census, the people weren’t to be counted as mere ciphers, as sheep or some number of inanimate objects.  When a census was to be taken, the people were counted by inference.  Their number was determined by having each contribute a half a shekel and then the coins would be counted to determine the census!

Our numbers then depended on our coinage!  It wasn’t enough to “stand up and be counted”.  Our contribution was the determinant of our presence.

Zeh yitnu - this shall they give!  Rashi quotes a Midrash Tanchuma depicting God as showing Moshe a coin made of fire; weighing this required half a shekel and instructing Moshe, “This is what they shall give.”  The Midrash elaborates that Moshe had difficulty envisioning what this half a shekel looked like and so God had to show him.  This, God tells Moshe.  This is what they shall give.  

We are left to contemplate an obvious question, why was Moshe having difficulty visualizing, understanding what God is expecting each to give.  Why would the adon ha’neviiim – the Father of Prophecy – have trouble visualizing what a half a shekel looked like?   It’s true, this is not the only time Moshe had trouble visualizing something.  He struggled to picture the Menorah that was to be erected in the Mishkan.  We understand that, as the Menorah had many detailed and intricate parts as outlined in Terumah.  Likewise, we understand his difficulty in visualizing the many forms of impure sheratzim (insects and reptiles) listed in Parashat Shemini.  But these things were intricate, never seen before.  How hard could it be for Moshe to visualize a coin?

Rav Simcha Zissel, Chevroner Rosh Yeshiva, brings a perspective that resonates in our materialistic, over-commercialized, money-oriented time.  He teaches that Moshe could well understand (and visualize) that there are things in the world that are categorized as cheftza shel mitzvah – things used to perform mitzvot.  Some of these objects are natural products, such as an etrog or lulav.  Others are “manufactured” like the cow’s hide made ready to receive the sacred words of a Sefer Torah, tefillin, or mezuzah.  The process of rendering cow hide to parchment is a man-made endeavor but the sofer, with his sacred kavanah, his focus and holy endeavor transforms the hides and the strokes of ink he inscribes on them to become cheftza shel mitzvah.

But a coin?  

How is a coin, the epitome of materialism, to be transformed into a holy thing?  How can a coin, minted by secular – often ruthless, oppressive and certainly non-sacred – governments and authorities become cheftza shel mitzvah?  And let’s also keep in mind that these coins, used to count everyone under God’s canopy, were also intended to l’chaper al nafshoteichem - to atone for your souls.   

It is a challenge to reconcile the possibility of atonement being realized using worldly and possibly defiled coins.   

It was this challenge that Moshe struggled to comprehend; that coins could be a cheftza shel mitzvah, not what the half-shekel looked like in their physical form.  And so, God affirms to him that yes, indeed, even a coin can be uplifted and sanctified to the point of not only counting souls (and in doing so taking note of the significance and uniqueness of each Jew) but in aiding in their atonement.  The very coin that is required for every earthly, physical, and mundane exchange is also capable of spiritual currency!

We are familiar with the balance of good and evil, of man’s physicality and spirituality, but to see in physical currency the very same tension and promise?  That seems to be a step too far! Money is the root of all evil – we know this from experience and from adage. How can it also be a means of holiness? And yet, this is what God describes as kesef ha’kipurim.  “You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Children of Israel,” God says, “and give them for the work of the Ohel atone for your souls.” 

Lucre is what Hamas pays terrorists who murder innocent Jews.  It is the lubricant which oils drug transactions, turning a generation of children into addicts.  It is the reason an elderly shopkeeper is held at gunpoint on a lonely night. How can this same evil bring man closer to God? How can this mere coin, a half-shekel mind you, not even an entire shekel! be used to be counted as an entity before God even as it is also used as “a remembrance before Hashem ... to atone for your souls”?

This question certainly must have tormented Moshe and it is the reason God showed him a coin made of fire. 

Is fire good or bad? Constructive or destructive? 

Without question, fire can be the most destructive element in the world.  Even so, it can provide warmth and protection; with it, we can prepare food that is delicious to eat and not merely sustenance for our bodies; with it, we lit the flame of the holy sacrifices on the Temple Mount.  

The world does not exist without fire.

Therefore, the Noam Elimelech compares money to fire.  It can be thrown at our feet to “reward” demeaning behavior or it can elevate the essence of our goodness and generosity.  It is essential to expressions of tzedakah and chesed.  

God’s command that to count the children of Israel each is to give the half shekel begins, ki tisa.  That is, “when you count”.  But ki tisa means, literally, “when you raise up.”  The Talmud in Bava Basra 10b recounts a conversation between Moshe and God, “How can the Jews rise to a higher level as a nation?” Moshe asks.  God responds, Ki tisa – “when you raise them up by collecting charity from them.”  In other words, money is no different from the essential aspects of life, earth, water, fire.  There is no way to make one’s way in the world without it. The challenge is to make one’s way with it in a way that is dignified, spiritual, caring and good.

Money can be the source of evil.  It can also be used to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, educate the forgotten.  As with all other aspects of life, God wants us to engage in the world for good.  So, He teaches Moshe to inculcate in the Jewish psyche ki tisa – the notion that money can be used to raise up, to raise themselves and others.  But to remember that, as with fire, left untended, forgotten, or dealt with unmindfully, money can bring an inferno of destruction and pain.

We call charity tzedakah because “tzedakah” is derived from tzedek, righteousness.  Giving is the right thing to do.  It is not a choice; it is not merely an ethical response.  It is just, it is right. This is why Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that halacha requires that the poor also give tzedakah to one another.  Neither actually “gains” much, but in the giving, in the act of performing the mitzvah, they are raised up.

And to that the Kotzker adds, why did God show Moshe a coin of fire?  To teach that all giving of tzedakah, as all acts of giving to others, should always be done with “fire”, with enthusiasm and passion.  Not as an obligatory act but with an unstoppable inner need to raise others while raising oneself.

In giving, we are counted among those who stand up and raise up.

Rabbi Safran’s recently published volume on all parshiyot ha’Ttorah available on Amazon at greatly reduced price:  Something Old, Something New: Pearls from the Torah: Rabbi Eliyahu Safran: 9781602803152: Books