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Unfortunately, we’re guilty. Immediately upon receiving the Torah, certain elements among us (the “erev rav”) built a golden calf and began worshipping it. To understand the enormity of this mis-step, just consider that it took twenty-six generations and a horrible slavery in Egypt to prepare the world to receive the Torah. G-d finally found a human being and a nation that were prepared to receive His soul-message (as the Midrash calls the Torah), and what do they do? They violate the very first and second communication – to accept Him and not to worship idols. No wonder that G-d was prepared to wipe out the entire Jewish people and start all over again. But, Moshe went to bat for the Jews, including the very elements who committed this grievous error, and G-d listened to his entreaties. He gave the Jewish people a way to atone. He told them all to take a “half-shekel” and donate it to the building fund of the “mishkan,” or tabernacle.

If it were you or I that heard this from G-d, we wouldn’t ask questions. We would jump for joy over getting a second chance. But, Moshe came from the “sephira,” or G-dly emanation, of “chochma,” and his soul-root was intellectual. He had to ask questions. And he couldn’t understand how the half-coin could provide atonement and forgiveness for the terrible sin of the golden calf. By way of explanation, G-d showed him a coin of fire, and that satisfied his curiosity. But if your intellect is like mine, that only raises more questions. What exactly is a coin of fire and how does it provide atonement?

To begin, with, on the physical plane, a coin and fire are two opposites. Coins are made from metal, from the earth, while fire is…well, fire. It is the highest of the four physical elements; earth, water, air, and fire. While earth and water settle downward, air remains in place, and fire rises. So, the metal coin represents the physical attractions of the body, which is made from the dust of the earth, while fire represents the elevated tendencies of the soul. But, it doesn’t stop there.

Everything in the physical world has a spiritual source. Every creation, from inanimate objects in the mineral category to the vegetable, animal and human, has a source in the spiritual worlds above. In most cases, the spiritual source animates, inspires, and informs its physical counterpart, but it remains apart from it. The spiritual source does not unite with its physical counterpart. The kindness of the sephira of chesed is the source of such varied things as the sweetness of a musical tune, the good deeds we do for one another, and the sweet taste of an apple. Nevetheless, the sephira of chesed remains the source of all of these events. It does not unite and become one with them.

Not so regarding the coin of fire. G-d showed this coin to Moshe and said (Deut. 30:13), “This is what they should give…half a shekelŔ That is, the very coin of fire that G-d showed Moshe was the object that the Jews were to give as their “kofer nefesh,” or atonement. Not an ordinary coin, but a half-shekel of fire. The spiritual source together with its physical counterpart. The soul together with the body. When it comes to the essence of the Jewish soul, there is no separation from the body. A certain level of the soul is always present, no matter how far the Jew strays. It need only be ignited and the Jew returns.

Moshe’s question when he heard the command to give the half-shekel was, “How can the body, made from the dust of the earth, atone for itself by giving a metal coin, also from the dust of the earth?” But, when G-d showed him the coin of fire, he understood that the command wasn’t only about earth and the physical body. It was about the fire in the soul that uplifts the body. It is always present, even among those who stray. The half-shekel in which the fire is always present, ignites the soul that is always present in the body, looking for a way back to G-d. When a Jew gives that half shekel, it ignites his soul, lifting him to a higher level of atonement (“at one-ment”) with the One above. Unlike Fort Knox, the soul has infinite reserves. Even the golden calf wasn’t able to sever the essential connection between the Jew and G-d. But, ignition requires a special commandment, one in which the fire is always present, to re-ignite the soul. Once we give that half shekel of fire, we’re back on the path to good terms with the One above.

There’s another message that emerges from the half-shekel of fire. That is, when you do a good deed, it has the power to ignite. All of us have a little “mikdash” or temple inside, and when we do a mitzvah, the “mikdash” ignites inside and lights up the world as well. A few coins of tzedaka together with a few words of support and compassion ignite the poor person’s heart, and encourage him to keep going and hopefully get on his own feet. And so it is with all the mitzvoth; the energy, warmth, and positivity that we put into them ignite the soul. Enough good deeds of this nature will ignite the fire on the altar of the third Temple with all of us here in Yerushalayim with the Meshiach!

Adopted from Likutei Sichot, volume 26, pp. 229-237 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem