At the beginning of this week's Torah portion, following the detailed instructions for the construction of the Portable Tabernacle, the Israelites are commanded to pay machatzit hashekel, half a shekel. This is a tax levied on each person in an egalitarian manner - "The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel" (Exodus 30:15 ). It is intended to enable a census to be taken of the Children of Israel and to provide funding for work carried out in the Tabernacle. Furthermore, the payment of the half-shekel serves a third role - as "a memorial for the children of Israel before the Lord, to make atonement for your souls" (Exod. 30:16 ). For the Israelites, the coins can be seen as a form of atonement. Man is "converted" into currency, as it were, and the coins are passed on to God through the work carried out in the Tabernacle. Thus, man essentially transfers his sin to the coin and receives atonement for that sin.
Whereas in the Torah the commandment concerning the levying of the tax ends on that note, the sages, by means of a midrash, present a dialogue between Moses and God on the subject: "Rabbi Judah bar Simon, citing Rabbi Johanan, says: Three things that he heard from God frightened Moses. When God said to him, 'And let them make me a sanctuary' [Exod. 25:8], Moses replied: Master of the Universe, after all, it is written, 'behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee' (1 Kings 8:27 ) - yet you say, 'And let them make me a sanctuary.' God told him: Moses, you are mistaken. There will be 20 boards to the north, 20 to the south and eight to the west, yet I will descend and will contract my divine presence so that it can enter between them in the lower world - that is, in this world, as it is written, 'And there I will meet with thee' [Exod. 25:22].
"When God said, 'My food which is presented unto Me for offerings made by fire' [Numbers 28:2], Moses replied: Master of the Universe, if I bring all the animals in the world, they will be sufficient for just one sacrificial offering; and if I bring all the trees in the world, they will be sufficient for just one sacrificial offering, as it is written, 'And Lebanon is not sufficient fuel, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for burnt-offerings' [Isaiah 40:16]. God told him: Moses, you are mistaken. It is written, 'And thou shalt say unto them: This is the offering made by fire which ye shall bring unto the Lord' [Numbers 28:3].
"When God said, 'Then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the Lord' [Exod. 30:12], Moses replied: Master of the Universe, how can a man give a ransom for his soul, as it is written, 'No man can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him. For too costly is the redemption of their soul' [Psalms 49:8-9]. God told him: Moses, you are mistaken. This is what they will give. As Rabbi Avnin says: God took a coin of fire from underneath his throne of glory and, showing it to Moses, told him, This is precisely what they will give" (Pesikta, Parashat Shekalim ).
Three things that he heard from God frightened Moses - three things that were contrary to his perception of the Almighty and to his own perception of human nature. Moses' first two concerns are symmetrical : How can an infinite God contract himself so as to enter a tabernacle? And, how can a physical offering satisfy an infinite deity? In other words, Moses wonders, how can God contract himself so that he can enter this world and how can the world satisfy him?
Instead of clearing up what Moses sees as a puzzle, God tells him, "Moses, you are mistaken. Your working assumption is wrong. This is precisely what I want: a physical and limited tabernacle, and physical and limited sacrificial offerings." God will not alter his demands because of Moses' theological assumptions; Moses must change them. God's range of actions is more dynamic than what Moses dares to imagine.
The third conundrum relates not to God's capabilities, but rather to the perception of man. "How can a person convert all his actions into a coin?" Moses asks. "After all, man is a vessel for so many sins and, if he wants to effect such a transaction, the price will be too high, unobtainable." On this occasion as well, God denies the validity of Moses' working assumption and says: "Moses, you are mistaken. This is precisely what I want: I want man to convert his actions into precisely this kind of coin." To remove any doubt, God takes out a coin of fire and shows it to Moses - the coin that must be contributed equally by all, the half-shekel. The issue here is not how much sins cost, but rather the principle that man has the ability to atone for them. Just as God is more dynamic than what Moses imagines, man is also more dynamic than what Moses imagines: There is a possibility of atonement; there is a possibility of turning over a new leaf.
Later in this week's reading, there is another dialogue between God and Moses. This is not some creative interpretation by the sages; it is found in the literal interpretation of the biblical text. When Moses stands on Mount Sinai to receive the two tablets, God tells him about the golden calf that the people have fashioned below, at the foot of the mountain. Even before Moses descends or sees the golden calf himself, the Almighty makes a suggestion: "And the Lord said unto Moses: 'I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation'" (Exod. 32:9-10 ).
Moses does not accede to the suggestion; he urges God to waive the punishment and to remember his promise to the patriarchs. Moreover, after Moses himself punishes the Israelites, he tells them: "and now I will go up unto the Lord, peradventure I shall make atonement for your sin" (Exod. 32:30 ). Moses goes on to plead before God, saying: "Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written" (Exod. 32:31-32 ).
God is unwilling to grant the nation atonement, but Moses insists on and even nearly forces the Almighty to offer forgiveness. To use the sages' wording, Moses says, in essence, "God, you are mistaken."
The dialogue in the literal reading of these verses is diametrically opposed to that related in the midrash about the half-shekel. There, Moses clings to a dogmatic perception of human nature, a perception that denies the possibility of a person atoning for his sins, whereupon God persuades him that it is in fact possible to atone for sinful behavior. In the literal reading, God sees no possibility of man correcting his mistakes and Moses forces him to change his mind.
It is possible to regard this about-face as a historic change in the perception of human nature. In the biblical text, God does not want to believe that man is capable of changing, while man himself - or, in this case, Moses - believes in a more dynamic perception of human nature and persuades God to accept his view. In the sages' view, dogmatism characterizes the earthly realm, and man - or, in this case, Moses - judges himself harshly and denies the possibility of real change. And it is God who advocates human flexibility and the ability to atone for sins, and make a fresh start. In their homily, the sages thus suggest a totally new view that involves a measure of daring and humor, and perhaps also subtle, reflective criticism vis-a-vis the degree of dynamism that man can attribute to himself.