A Coin Of Fire, Silly Bird And Berdichever Rebbe [Parshat Ki Tissa By Rabbi Zalman Lent]

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Little Johnny’s preschool class went on a field trip to the fire station. The fire-fighter giving the presentation held up a smoke detector and asked the class: “Does anyone know what this is?”
Little Johnny’s hand shot up and the fire-fighter called on him, “Yes, kid. What it is?”
Little Johnny replied: “That’s how we know supper is ready!”

Fire is often used as a metaphor for passion, drive, motivation and inspiration, and there are many such expressions that we are familiar with. We talk of “having fire in the belly,” of being “all fired up,” or of “setting the world on fire.” Something about those burning flames always striving to rise higher remind us of what we need to do to really achieve – we need to look upwards, always moving and being constantly and passionately alive.

In the parsha we read today Moshe was commanded to count the people without actually counting them in person … an unusual task. This was achieved by taking a donation from each person of one silver coin, worth half a shekel. Once the coins were gathered in and counted, and the head count was known, the coins were melted down and used in the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. However the collection of the coins was not just for these two purposes, to count and to build … there was a much deeper spiritual reason that G-d wanted these coins gathered. These coins, G-d told Moshe, would atone for the terrible sin of the Golden Calf.

Moses was perplexed; he simply couldn’t understand how that worked. How could the giving of a single coin per person bring about such great atonement?

The midrash explains that G-d showed Moshe a “matbe’ah shel aish – a coin of fire” and somehow Moshe understood. What did Moshe understand? Why does a coin of fire make a difference?

A story is told of the great Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev. He was visiting a town, and attended prayer services in the local synagogue. One day, he stopped at the synagogue door and did not enter the sanctuary. The many people who were accompanying him were perplexed. Why did the Rebbe not enter the synagogue? He told them, “I am not entering the synagogue because it’s too full,” even though the synagogue seemed mostly empty at the time! His students were mystified.

The Rebbe explained, “The synagogue is full, but full of prayers rather than people, and there is no room left for us to enter. Usually, when we pray, our prayers ascend to the gates of heaven; however in this synagogue the prayers are recited without proper concentration, without fire, so the prayers don’t reach heaven. In fact, they are trapped in the synagogue building-so there is no room left for us in the synagogue.”

Those prayers were similar to the silver shekel coins that Moshe collected. Prayers alone, without passion and concentration may not reach the Heavens, they may just remain in the synagogue. Coins too, if used in their normal fashion, do not enter the realm of the spiritual. More than that: If used for the wrong purposes, coins (and money) can cause terrible havoc and pain. But once you have a “coin of fire” then you have a whole different story. The symbolism of a fiery coin is of using mundane, even potentially negative resources for good, for spiritual purposes. When we give those coins to charity, or when we use them to buy things, but we imbue those acts with fervour, with passion to do good, to be charitable, to do a mitzva in the best possible way, then the “filthy lucre” is transformed to “coins of fire.”

Moshe saw the coin of fire that G-d showed him, and he understood the answer to his question of how a single coin could bring atonement. Giving coins alone cannot bring atonement, but give those same coins with intent to do a mitzva, with passion and motivation – and you have achieved something amazing – you have transformed cold metal into fire. That cold metal can be transformed into the very base of the Mishkan, G-d’s home on this earth.

There is a parable told about the beginning of Creation, when the bird was created. At first the bird could only waddle along, and was finding it difficult to move around. It cried out to G-d in distress, what are these heavy appendages on either side weighing me down?

Replies G-d, “Silly bird, those are wings – with those you will be able to soar into the heavens, far faster than any of the other creatures.”

We are all a little like that bird. We all have wings, wings that can power us into the heavens. The Torah study we do and the mitzvot we perform are the wings that carry us soaring up above – if they are done with life, with meaning, with fire. When we achieve that, the half shekels are halves no more, and we merge with G-d to become a single whole unit. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Zalman Lent




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