Parashat Ki Tissa

The Coin of Fire

How to rectify material wealth.

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Provided by Canfei Nesharim, providing Torah wisdom about the importance of protecting our environment.

Parashat Ki Tissa opens with God commanding Moses to take a census of the Children of Israel by collecting a half-shekel coin from each adult. The silver from these coins is to be used to make the sockets that hold the planks of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle that will be God's sanctuary among the people (Rashi on Exodus 30:15-16).

canfei nesharimThe previous two Torah portions, Terumah and Tetzaveh, featured detailed instructions for the construction of the Mishkan and all its utensils. At the beginning of Parashat Terumah, God tells Moses to call for a donation of precious goods to be used in the project:

"…gold, silver, and copper; and turquoise, purple, and scarlet wool; linen and goat hair; red-dyed ram skins, tahash skins, acacia wood; oil for illumination, spices for the anointment oil and the aromatic incense; shoham stones and stones for the settings... (Exodus 25: 3-7)"

The silver half-shekel, which is to be used to make the very foundation of the Mishkan, is not proscribed until now, two portions later. What is unique about these coins that they are not listed with the other materials donated in Terumah?

Wealth in Egypt

coin of fireThe Midrash says that God showed Moses a half-shekel coin made of fire and said, "Like this one shall they give (Rashi on Exodus 30:13)." 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. The silver half-shekel stands at the opening of our Torah portion as a warning of the potential dangers of wealth.

Many of the donations for the Mishkan came from the great wealth that the Israelites, following God's command, requested and were given from their Egyptian neighbors as they were preparing to leave slavery.

In Biblical times, Egypt, more than any other nation, was noted for its prosperity. The thought of Egypt evoked massive pyramids and palaces, heavily adorned with gold and precious materials. The yearly flooding of the Nile produced fertile soil that was farmed to feed vast populations. Not coincidentally, in the Book of Genesis, both Abraham and Jacob go to Egypt when there is famine in the Land of Israel.

A New Paradigm

Yet Egypt stands as the Torah's prime symbol of the gross misuse of material possessions. "Woe to those who go down to Egypt for aid," the prophet Isaiah says, "they did not turn to the Holy One of Israel and they did not seek out God (Isaiah 31:1)." Even though Egyptian wealth was sometimes used for good, feeding many in times of famine, the Egyptian relationship to wealth obstructs the awareness that God is the predominant power in the world.

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Shimshon Stuart Siegel is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in the Judean Hills.