Parashat Ki-Tisa begins with the mitzva of machatzit ha-shekel – the annual payment of a half-shekel by each individual for the funding of the public sacrifices in the Beit Ha-mikdash. The Torah (30:12) refers to this tax as “kofer nafsho” – a “ransom” for one’s soul, meaning, a means of atonement. This is mentioned also several verses later (30:15), where the Torah commands, “The wealthy one shall not increase, and the poor one shall not decrease, from the half-shekel…to atone for your souls.”
A number of passages in the Midrash indicate that the machatzit ha-shekel served to atone specifically for the sin of the golden calf. (Although the story of the golden calf is told later in this parasha, several Midrashic sources maintain that it occurred before the commands regarding the Mishkan, including machatzit ha-shekel.) One such passage, in the Midrash Tanchuma (Ki-Tisa, 5), anchors this association between the machatzit ha-shekel and the golden calf in the common word “zeh” (“this”) which they both share. The Midrash comments, “With this term they [Benei Yisrael] were elevated, and with this term they were disgraced.” When Benei Yisrael approached Aharon and demanded that he form for them a graven image, they explained that they needed a new leader because they did not know what happened to “zeh Moshe ha-ish” – “this man, Moshe” (32:1). And so when God issued the command of machatzit ha-shekel, which served to ‘elevate” the people from the depths to which they had sunk by worshipping the golden calf, He said, “Zeh yitenu” – “This is what they shall give” (30:13), and proceeded to specify the precise value that is required.
Why would the Midrash emphasize these particular verses? What might the significance of the word “zeh” in regard to the connection between machatzit ha-shekel and the sin of the golden calf?
Benei Yisrael’s decision to worship a calf in response to Moshe’s extended absence bespoke an overdependence on his leadership. They felt lost and helpless without Moshe, such that when he did not return when they expected him to, they resorted to the drastic measure of creating a graven image which they would regard as their leader in his place. The phrase “zeh Moshe ha-ish” perhaps expresses this exaggerated role which the people ascribed to Moshe, to the point where they felt helpless without him. This mistake was corrected through the institution of machatzit ha-shekel, which emphasizes the equally vital role played by each and every member of the nation. Whereas the golden calf resulted (at least in part) from a feeling of helpless dependence on one individual, the obligation of machatzit ha-shekel highlights the value of each and every person, that our success as God’s special nation requires the contribution of each member. As the Torah emphasizes, “The wealthy one shall not increase, and the poor one shall not decrease.” Machatzit ha-shekel is all about the incalculable value and importance of each person, regardless of who he or she is. This mitzva therefore serves to correct the mistake of the golden calf, which resulted from the people’s overdependence on their leader. As important as Moshe – and all capable leaders – undoubtedly are, ultimately, our nation’s success depends not on just any single individual, but rather on the combined efforts and each and every one of us.