"When you take a census of the Israelites to determine their numbers, each one will be counted by giving an atonement offering for his life. ...Everyone included in the census must give a half-shekel." (Exodus30:12-13)
Why were the Israelites commanded to give a half-shekel coin and not a whole shekel? And why is this donation required when counting the people?
The Unity of Israel
All nations require a measure of unity and goodwill. Unity is critical to attain national goals of prosperity and success. For the Jewish people, however, unity is not just a means to achieve worldly objectives. Inner peace is a far greater value, a goal unto itself. Our innermost aspiration is to merit closeness to God, and His presence dwells in Israel only when there is peace and harmony. As the sages taught: "When is My name called upon them? When they are united." (Sifri VeZot HaBrachah 346)
There is a second difference between the unity sought by the Jewish people and that of the other nations. Peace has two components: unity in deed and unity in thought. Unity in deed is when one acts to help one's neighbor or the nation as a whole. Unity in thought is love and concern for one's fellow citizens and one's nation.
All nations need both aspects of peace, but practical unity and cooperation is essential to realize worldly objectives. For the Jewish people, however, peace is a prerequisite for God's presence and providence, and this depends primarily on unity in the heart. Thus, for Israel, the primary component is unity in thought, and unity in deed serves to bolster and strengthen it.
The Mitzvah of Shekalim
What does this have to do with the yearly donation of half-shekels? The collection of half-shekels is a medium for uniting the Jewish people in deed and action. The money was used to provide for the nation's spiritual needs - to supply the daily Temple offering - as well as material needs - funds left over were used for the city walls and towers (Shekalim 4:1-2).
When other nations unite for some goal, they organize a census in order to determine what each individual will gain from the collective effort. This counting does not defeat the purpose of their unified efforts, since the ultimate goal is to benefit each individual. For the Jewish people, however, the purpose of joining together is to benefit and elevate the nation as a whole. Counting individuals contradicts the ultimate objective, as it emphasizes the portion of the individual. For this reason, the Torah requires that the census be accomplished through half-shekel coins - thereby indicating that the counting is for the benefit of the nation.
The shekalim collected in the time of Moses were used for the adanim, the silver sockets that formed the Tabernacle's foundation. This established the connection between each individual's service of God and the spiritual accomplishments of the nation. Even in exile, without a spiritual center in Jerusalem, the power of unity protects the Jewish people, as the service of each individual is directed at elevating the nation as a whole.
Directing this benefit to the nation requires some unifying act. This was initially accomplished through the donations for building the Tabernacle. Later, it was the half-shekels donated for the daily Temple service. And nowadays it is performed through our yearly reading of parashat Shekalim.
Now we may understand what the sages wrote in Megillah 13b: "It was revealed before God that Haman would one day pay shekel coins for [the 'right' to destroy] the Jews. Therefore, God anticipated shekel coins of the Jewish people to those of Haman, as we learned, 'The collection of shekalim is announced on the first of Adar.'"
What is the connection between our donations and Haman's bribe?
The nations were aware of the special Divine providence protecting the Jewish people and were consequently reluctant to harm them. Haman, however, felt that this protection was only when the Jewish people lived together as one people in their own land. But now, he claimed, they are not a nation, just individuals - "dispersed and separated among the nations." (Esther 3:8) Stripped of their Divine protection, it is possible to annihilate them. Therefore he weighed out his silver shekels to purchase the right "to destroy them" (Esther 3:9). Not 'destroy it' - the people - but 'them' - these disunited individuals.
Yet, God thwarted his plot, as the unity of the Jewish people continues even when they are in exile. Therefore, He preceded the shekel donation of the Jewish people to Haman's shekels, to demonstrate the strength of their unity and collective holiness in all generations.
The Other Half-Shekel
Each person was commanded to give a half-shekel. Why a half-shekel? Certainly they would have donated a full
The sages wrote that Moses had difficulty understanding what coin to collect.
shekel were it not for the command that "the wealthy shall not add more." The two halves of the shekel correspond to the two components of peace. The half-shekel that was actually given reflects their unity in deed, their practical cooperation; and the second half that they desired to give reflects their unity in thought.
The sages wrote that Moses had difficulty understanding what coin to collect, so God showed him a half-shekel coin made out of fire from beneath the Throne of Glory (Bemidbar Rabbah 12:3). What did Moses have difficulty understanding? And why does the Midrash state that the fire-coin came from beneath God's throne?
Moses didn't understand why the Jews needed to donate half a shekel. Therefore God showed him a fire-coin from a very elevated place, from under His throne - where the souls of the Jewish people are secreted. In other words, God showed Moses the second half of the shekel: namely, their unity in thought, which comes from the very roots of their souls.
[Adapted from Midbar Shur pp. 127-136' sent by Rabbi Chana Morrison)]