The Half-Shekel Atonement

The central narrative of this week’s parsha is the sin of the golden calf. Interestingly, the parsha begins with the commandment for each Jew to contribute the half-shekel as atonement for this transgression. The Torah does not always follow a chronological order. It can therefore discuss the antidote to the sin before it discusses the transgression itself. The half-shekel was used to construct the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and purchase the animals for sacrifices.

The Jerusalem Talmud discusses the reason why atonement was procured through giving a half-shekel. What was so special about this coinage that it could atone for Jewish history’s most serious and enigmatic betrayal of G‑d. Just 40 days after hearing G‑d declare: “Do not have any other g-ds in My presence” they constructed and worshipped this golden calf! How could they have fallen so low?

A partial answer to this question can be found in the symbolism of the Half-Shekel. A dispute between three of the greatest Talmudic Sages concerning this matter will introduce us to three opinions of the causes of their sin and the road to their atonement.

Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nechemia: One said, their sin occurred at the half point of the day (noon), they should therefore gave a half-shekel.

The other Sage said: Their sin occurred six hours into the day; they should therefore give a half-shekel because it consists of six garmisan.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai: They violated the Ten Commandments; each and every one of them should therefore give 10 geirah [the Biblical equivalent of a half-shekel].

What significance can be found in the three different explanations for using a half-shekel? And aren’t a half-day and six hours of the day identical?

Burnt by the Sun

Half of a day, or noon, is when the sun reaches its peak and is directly above us. The strength of the sun is a metaphor for the Divine emanations that sustain us, warm us and in which light we bask. But it could also burn us.

Indeed, the Talmud states that in the future, G‑d will remove the sun from its “sheath” (perhaps it is a reference to the protective layers of the earth’s atmosphere). The righteous will bask in its light and the wicked will be scorched by it.

Powerful spiritual energy can either lead one to a deeper relationship with G‑d or, ironically, induce a sense of superiority, which can lead to the person’s downfall. For the spiritual sophisticate, free choice is not about making a decision to do a Mitzvah or commit a crime; it is about choosing how to relate to the most potent spiritual energies. The more powerful G‑d’s presence is in the world at a given time, the greater the possibility that people will use that power for the very opposite.

Indeed, some of the greatest and most spiritual people had a spiritual downfall precisely because of their unalloyed spirituality. Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two sons, died because they were consumed by their own fiery passion. 

In the First Temple era, idol worship was far more rampant than in the Second Temple era.  This was true despite the fact that the Second Temple era did not possess nearly the same degree of G‑dly revelation as the first. However, it is precisely for that reason that the challenge was greater. The more intense the light of the sun the more damaging it can become. One can reach the spiritual zenith and then fall into the abyss.

This, then, is the first view as to why a Half-Shekel was to be given. The Half-Shekel was our way of taking the “bull (or perhaps the calf) by its horns” and reversing the negative influence of the powerful noon-time sun, diverting it into the construction and operation of the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash. One must be on guard to channel spiritual excitement toward positive efforts; otherwise, by default, it might lead the person astray.

Mr. Perfect

The second rationale for atonement with the Half-Shekel, which consists of six garmasin, is to remind us that the People chose to sin at the sixth hour.

According to the Talmudic text , Avos d’rav Nosson, G‑d finished creating Adam on the sixth day of Creation, at the sixth hour of the day when He placed Adam’s soul in him. A different version in the Talmud has Adam naming the animals in the sixth hour. These two versions complement each other. When Adam’s Divine soul entered into him, he simultaneously connected with the animal kingdom. This suggests that his G‑dly soul immediately encountered resistance from his animal soul. 

In this interpretation, the number six represents the fullness of the human condition. Chassidic thought holds that our basic character traits are six in number. It is precisely when a person is at the peak of his or her development that he or she is most vulnerable. A person who appears to be “perfect” is as vulnerable, if not more so, as anyone else. This state of perfection is threatened by the emotions that relate to the animal soul.  A person might not even be aware that strong positive character traits have been “hijacked” by the animal soul, to do its biding.

Accordingly, the proper atonement for the stumbles and failures of great achievers as they pursue self-development is the half-shekel. It represents channeling the six emotional traits in the right direction. Love should be directed outward; not smothered by narcissistic self-love. The trait of judgment, on the other hand, should be directed inward. Rather than judging others we should examine our own motives and behaviors. Compassion should be reserved primarily for others rather than be diverted into self-pity. The same can be said for each of the other emotional traits.

Divine Free Choice

The third view, advanced by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, is that the focus of their sin and atonement was the Ten Commandments. Just as heightened spirituality and emotional perfection can be channeled in the wrong way, so too even the Ten Commandments can be a dangerously sharp, double-edged sword.

To understand this point, we need to consider what G‑d really wanted to accomplish when He declared the Ten Commandments.

Chassidic thought explains that when G‑d said, “I am the L-rd your G‑d…”, G‑d actually invested His essence into us. His power became our power. By declaring these Ten Statements, G‑d was, in effect, telling us that we were given a new nature beyond that which was given to Adam at his peak.

This raises an obvious question. If at Sinai we were transformed into G‑dly beings how then can we as a nation sin and do it so very soon afterwards?

The answer is that precisely because we are now endowed with a revolutionarily new G‑dly power, we “share” G‑d’s ability to truly choose freely. After Sinai, we were dealing with a new dynamic.

The Double-Edged Sword of Sinai

Before Sinai, our nature was dictated by the degree to which we were receptive to the Divine emanations—the radiance of the sun at mid-day—or how much we worked at our own self-development (reaching the pinnacle of our development at the sixth hour when all of our emotions were at their peak performance). Prior to Sinai we had to struggle with the counterweights to the conventional measures of good—from Above or from within.  Free choice meant that we had the intellectual fortitude to know right from wrong and could analyze a situation to determine what the proper course of action should be. In other words, intellect becomes the arbiter between the twin forces that vie for dominion over us.

At Sinai, G‑d allowed His Essence to become our default nature and when that happened we were given a far more powerful mode of free choice. We acquired G‑d’s ability to truly choose freely.  This Divine ability can prove to be a double-edged sword. G‑d is the ultimate Master of free choice; nothing can constrain Him. With access to G‑d’s Essence we were empowered to transcend our nature, albeit in both directions. On the one hand, we now have the ability to elicit this G‑dly Essence to go against and even transform our base character, no matter how degenerate we may have become. The other alternative, of course, is that we can harness this G‑dly Essence to stubbornly go against our G‑dly nature and do what might be objectionable just because we can. Moreover, this newly acquired Ten Commandment power can keep us from returning to a higher plane, even when our Animal Soul says “enough.”  

The challenge of the post-Sinai era and the aftermath of the golden calf was thus to give our Half-Shekel, with the emphasis on its 10 geirah value.  In so doing, we can affirm and channel our G‑dly power in the direction of serving G‑d even when our nature militates against it.

The Three Sophisticated Challenges

To summarize, the three lessons of the Half-Shekel relate to three challenges posed, ironically, by: a) heightened spiritual experiences (“half-day; peak of sunshine”), b) advanced level of emotional perfection (“the sixth hour”) and c) the G‑dly energy that transformed us into G‑dly beings (10 geirah, corresponding to the Ten Commandments).

These three dynamics are the hallmark of the Messianic Age. We are at a point in time when we are beginning to see the sun shining brightly above. A discerning eye can see all the miracles that have transpired in the last two decades, many of which were predicted in classical Midrashic and Talmudic writings. But to counter heightened spirituality we are also witness to spiritual individuals straying into foreign territory.

We are also experiencing the struggle between the best and worst of traits and random acts of kindness versus random acts of violence.

Finally, we have never seen so clearly before the way people stubbornly cling to their errant ways even as they are witness to the newly acquired Divine goodness.

It is crucial that we know our strengths and understand that they can pose unprecedented challenges. We who live on the very threshold of the Messianic Age should equally appreciate the treasures we possess and the concomitant challenges they pose.