Thursday, March 03, 2011

the fiery shekel

The Midrash teaches that Moshe found the parsha of shekalim difficult to understand. Hashem responded by showing him a “matbe’a shel eish” pulled from under his throne. The Midrash is ambiguous – what did Moshe find hard to understand and how did Hashem’s response allay his concern? – and it leaves the door open to various interpretations.

The Sefas Emes explains: Machatzis hashekel was an equalizer. No matter how rich or poor you were, you had to give exactly half a shekel, no more and no less. This was the point which troubled Moshe. Are the poor man and the rich, the stingy miser and the benevolent “nediv lev” really cut from the same cloth? How can all people be expected to give exactly the same amount, to be counted the same way, as if on some level all are equal? Especially in our day and age, where our community is so splintered, with so many divergent viewpoints on anything and everything, does it make sense to speak of commonality in any sense of the word?

להגיד גדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים, הקדוש ברוך הוא, שאדם טובע מאה מטבעות בחותם אחד, וכולן דומין זה לזה, מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא טובע את כל האדם בחותמו של אדם הראשון, ואין אחד מהם דומה לחברו. לפיכך לכל אחד ואחד לומר, בשבילי נברא העולם.

The Mishna in Sanhedrin (4:5) teaches that Hashem was “tove’a” all humanity with one common stamp. The word “matbe’a” used by the Mishna shares the same root as this word “tove’a” used in the Mishna. It was this commonality which Hashem showed Moshe in response to his questions. As different as we appear on the surface, underneath it all we do share a common core. The Midrash refers to a “matbe’a shel eish,” a burning stamp, because as different as how we act, how we speak, how we think, there is an inextinguishable spark of common goodness that lies in the heart.


  1. great unknown10:12 PM

    I follow up to the last line, where you say "common goodness." Where did the "goodness" come from?

    The only universal common characteristic guaranteed is "lapesach chatas rovaitz."

  2. How about Tzelem Elokim. (which is also closely related to the concept of the matbe'a used by God in creating mankind.)

  3. great unknown2:25 PM

    Steven: does a non-Jew have a Tzelem Elokim?

    Even the oft-quoted Tosefet Yom Tov in Avos
    a) admits that the consensus of opinion among the rishonim is that they don't - although he doesn't understand why
    b) claims they have the potential for a Tzelem Elokim, and they should strive to attain it. But they certainly do not have one now.

  4. > Steven: does a non-Jew have a Tzelem Elokim?

    I thought you might ask that! I wasn't familar with the tosafos yomtov you cite -- thanks for that, I'll try to look it up (assuming it's on R. Akiva re: chavivin adam ...)

    However, does that matter for our purposes? The sfas emes is talking about Jews (givers of the half shekel). I think it's a nice idea that donating a uniform coin symbolizes that we all come from a common "stamp" of tzelem elokim. Some may see this as specific to Jews and others as general to humanity, but either way I think the drasha works.

    On reflection, your point of lapesach chatas rovetz works for this too. Perhaps not exactly what the sfas emes had in mind, but maybe the half shekel reminds us of our common *limitations* as mere mortals. Other acharonim -- e.g. my favorite is the klei yakar near the beginning of parshas Teruma -- have suggested that the uniform half shekel is an antidote to the pride/ga'ava that sometimes comes with flashier donations.

    Shabbat Shalom

  5. in bereshis where Gd created Man (not jew, but Man) it says "b'tzelem elokim bara otam." that implies that all humans have a tzelem elokim. not sure why the rishonim would have a consensus against pshat?

  6. great unknown7:21 PM

    Among other things, there is a clear chazal that: Atem k'ruyim Adam, v'ain umos ha'olam k'ruyim Adam.

    The mekubalim, as well as the Kuzari among others, understand that the chet of Adam Harishon diminished man, and only Bnei Yisroel managed to climb back to the level of b'zelem.

  7. Elokim asah es ha'adam yashar -- that's the common stamp.

    Re: tzelem Elokim - you can't ask why Jews have a tzelem Elokim and non-Jews don't because it's a tautology. The Jewish nation is by definition those children of Adam who retained their tzelem Eloki aspect after original sin as opposed to the rest of Adam's children that went in a different direction and lost that gift (see Derech Hashem II:4).