Merkaz Anash, Beis Hamedrash L’shluchim and COLlive.com present The Chassidic Perspective with Rabbi Yoel Kahn, a weekly short webcast on topics that are timely and relevant.
Rabbi Kahn, often referred to as “Reb Yoel,” is the most preeminent authority on Chabad-chassidic teachings and was the chief reviewer and transcriber of the discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Rabbi Kahn is also the lead editor of Sefer Ha’erechim, a multi-volume encyclopedia of abstruse chassidic and mystical concepts and the head Mashpia at the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY.
The topic of this webcast for Parshas Pekudei is “The Value of an Uninspired Mitzva.” It is delivered in Yiddish and a transcription in English appears below or can be printed in a PDF format.
This Shabbos parshas Pekudei is also Parshas Shekalim. Parshas Shekalim is about the obligation to give a half Shekel. At the beginning of the Parsha, where it says “they should give this,” “this” being the half Shekel, Rashi writes that Hashem showed Moshe “a fiery coin which weighed half a Shekel.” What bothered Moshe which necessitated that he be shown a half Shekel? Now it’s said that Moshe needed to be shown the Menorah as well. But considering how complicated the Menorah is with its buttons, flowers and all its details, it was necessary that it be shown to Moshe, but a half Shekel isn’t complicated at all!
Tosfos in Chulin say, that it’s not that Moshe was unaware of what a half Shekel was, rather he was bothered by the fact that a Yid can give half a Shekel and find “atonement for his soul.” That’s what bothered him. However, now it’s unclear how his question was answered when he was shown the half Shekel. He knew what a half Shekel was all along! He simply couldn’t understand how it brings “atonement for his soul.” And where’s the answer to that?
As to how his actual question, the same can be asked about other things, like korbanos. You can offer a larger object, or even a smaller object, and that brings atonement as well! Why is the case of the half Shekel more difficult than everything else? And how was his question answered? And what’s the significance of a “fiery coin”?
When giving the half Shekel, the rule is that even when you’re uninterested in giving it, it’s collected against your will. Beis Din would send agents and collect everyone’s half Shekel. Now a mitzva consists of two parts: the actual act, and the intent behind it; the ‘body’ of the mitzva, and its ‘soul.’ “A mitzva without kavana, is like a body without a neshama.” The ‘soul’ of all the other mitzvos always comes across on some level, the intent is somewhat conveyed.
Even when korbanos are collected from someone who was “coerced until he says ‘I agree,'” he may have been coerced, but it was with the aim of extracting his agreement, which he ultimately expressed. Now even though he clearly doesn’t actually consent when he says “I agree,” he was just being beaten and didn’t have a choice, yet, the Rambam explains that this reveals the true want of the Yid.
However, you don’t even say ‘I agree’ when you give the half Shekel! Beis Din just sends its agents to collect it, and that’s it. This means that the act is everything here, and intent doesn’t play a role. There isn’t even the perfunctory intent like the utterance of “I agree” through coercion. And it’s this act which is the “atonement for his soul”! Furthermore, this is for the sin of eigel hazahav, for avoda zara, a sin of a very harsh nature, yet the atonement is achieved through an act with no intent or emotion.
Fire or Weight?
Hashem showed Moshe a “fiery coin.” What is fire? Fire is excitement, emotion. There are famously four elements: Fire, wind, water and earth. The difference between fire and the other elements is that fire rises upwards. A wind blows this way and that, water flows downward, and earth descends even lower, but only fire moves upward. What principle does this demonstrate? That what’s spiritual is drawn upwards, while what’s material pulls downward. “Man’s spirit rises above, the beast’s spirit gravitates below.”
Here Rashi writes something astonishing. What did Hashem show Moshe? “A fiery coin, which weighed half a Shekel.” What does ‘weight’ denote? We see practically that when an object is weighed, it weighs more depending on whether there’s more matter, not more spirit; more quantity, not quality. And how is weight itself gauged? By how low the object descends. Two objects are placed on the two sides of a scale, and whichever weighs more, goes lower. This is the very definition of materiality. And this is what’s relevant here, the quantity, not the quality. That the object had weight, contained more matter, was more materialistic, and gravitated lower. And this bothered Moshe: what is a half Shekel? An object, with weight. And if it has weight, then how could it be the “atonement for his soul”?
What is the essence of avoda zara, the feeling or the act? Avoda zara is heresy, denying the existence of one creator. What seems most crucial here is the fact that it’s false. The fact that an individual’s mind reaches conclusions that are antithetical to Yiddishkeit, and that his heart bows to the Idol. That’s the main issue, not so much the motions he makes with his head. What’s important is the feeling. So for something like this the half Shekel was supposed to be the “atonement for his soul”?!
The Fire of Weight
But this is a mistake, and this is alluded to in the “fiery coin.” Everyone possesses this fire, and every mitzva one performs is a fiery thing; it’s just that this type of fire also contains weight. Deep down, when you do a mitzva, and you feel absolutely nothing inside, and you can complain that you’re doing mitzvos with no enjoyment, no excitement, you’re just performing something with your hands, how significant can that be? But no, you’re making a mistake. You’re under the impression that you’re just committing an act, but you have a neshama, and that neshama is connected to Hashem.
While Rashi doesn’t mention it, the Midrash states that Hashem took the fiery coin “from beneath His kisei hakavod (Seat of Glory).” So this not just any fire, but “a fiery coin from beneath Hashem’s kisei hakavod.” Hashem isn’t limited to the spiritual realms, He descends into the physical world as well, and the neshamos too, which are sculpted from beneath the “kisei hakavod,” have no limitations either. This has the effect that even an external act, the type of act where you don’t even nominally agree, it’s done completely by coercion, purely an act, turns out on the inside to be “a fiery coin from beneath Hashem’s kisei hakavod.” Hashem said: “they should give something like this,” meaning “a fiery coin from beneath Hashem’s kisei hakavod.” If it were just any fire, then it would be restricted to spirituality, and it would have no effect on materiality, but if it’s “from beneath Hashem’s kisei hakavod,” then it penetrates, even if you’re unaware.
This goes to the extent that there’s an astonishing statement in the Sifri, that if you were to walk down the street and lose a valuable coin, and a poor man found it, then the act of tzedaka has been performed. Did you want to give tzedaka? You lost the coin! And in fact you’re actually upset about your loss, yet it’s still tzedaka. Astoundingly, the Rebbe says, that it can happen sometimes, that since you have a neshama, and that neshama is “from beneath the kisei hakavod,” and your neshama really wants to give tzedaka, so subconsciously it causes the coin to fall out of your pocket, and get lost, so that a poor man should find it and tzedaka is accomplished.
An Essential Connection
Your existence is tied so deeply to Elokus, that even if you’re entirely not conscious of spirituality, your materiality possesses it too. If this were your own fire, human fire, then fire and weight are two opposites, and fire can’t create ‘weight;’ so what’s spiritual stays spiritual, and has no effect on the physical. But when it’s “a fiery coin from beneath Hashem’s kisei hakavod”, then it possesses weight, and when it’s collected from you, even if you’re completely unagreeing, then it’s a “fiery coin”, and it awakens your neshama, and then it’s “atonement for his soul.”
It’s important to understand this about yourself and about others. It’s the same question, some ask it about themselves, some ask it about others: What’s the point of going on mivtzoim? That a Yid should put tefillin on? What’s the use? If you want to bring someone close to Yiddishkeit, shouldn’t we first take the time to explain to him what Torah is, what Hashem is, and what tefillin are, and ultimately he’ll put on tefillin. Instead, we take this route, and you feel like you accomplished something. But what sort of accomplishment is this really? Did that person truly want to put tefillin on? You harassed him, he wanted to get rid of you, so he put the tefillin on. What’s the point?
It’s important to realize that both you and that person are Yidden. If we were dealing with a gentile, then his only connection to Hashem is when he understands; nothing more. But a Yid is connected to Hashem by his very existence, and awakening the neshama doesn’t occur through philosophy or debates. The “fire of Hashem”, the “fire of a mitzva”, that’s what reveals “the neshama of man is the fire of Hashem.” This goes both for others as well as yourself. When you do a mitzva, you discover the energy! And if you don’t have it yet, it doesn’t matter; the mitzva itself will bring it. And that’s the significance of the “fiery coin from beneath Hashem’s kisei hakavod.”