The Gemara (Menachot 29a) states, “Tana DeVei Rabbi Yishma’el: Sheloshah Devarim Hayu Kashin Lo LeMoshe Ad SheHer’ah Lo HaKadosh Baruch Hu Be’Etzba’o, Ve’Eilu Hein: Menorah VeRosh Chodesh U’Sheratzim”, “It was taught in the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Yishma’el: Three things were difficult for Moshe [to understand] until Hashem showed him with His finger, and they are: the Menorah, Rosh Chodesh and Sheratzim.” Firstly, Hashem instructed Moshe to create a seven-branched solid gold Menorah, but Moshe didn’t fully comprehend how it should look without the assistance of a visual aid, requiring Hashem to show him how it should be constructed. Additionally, the complexity of the Molad, the point at which the moon is considered new for Rosh Chodesh, necessitated additional guidance from Hashem. Finally, the intricacies of the list of Sheratzim, the Tamei “creepy crawlies,” so Hashem showed them to Moshe. In all of these instances, Moshe experienced difficulty understanding something, and therefore Hashem needed to show him the solution.
In Parashat Shekalim, Rashi (Shemot 30:13 s.v. Zeh Yitnu) comments that Moshe Rabbeinu had trouble understanding a Machatzit HaShekel , and therefore Hashem procured a fiery coin that weighed a half a Shekel from underneath the Kisei HaKavod and showed it to him. But was Moshe Rabbeinu really unable to understand a Machatzit HaShekel? Furthermore, if this seemingly simple Machatzit HaShekel was truly a complex idea, why didn’t the Gemara Menachot include it as the fourth item in the list of intricate things that Hashem showed Moshe?
Tosafot (Menachot 29a) suggest that the Machatzit HaShekel was not included, because with Hashem’s assistance it wasn't difficult for him to understand. But if Hashem had not shown Moshe the fiery rendition of the coin, Moshe would not have had the slightest inkling as to what the coin should be used for. But he fully understood it with Hashem’s help and therefore the term for difficulty, Nitkasheh, is not appropriate in regards to the Machatzit HaShekel.
Tosafot, however, seems problematic; why is the term for difficulty inappropriate when the Machatzit HaShekel seems like a very challenging topic? The Shitah Mekubetzet explains the Tosafot based on a Midrash; it explains that the issue of Machatzit HaShekel was, in fact, fundamentally different. Even though Moshe certainly could have figured out what Machatzit HaShekel meant, unlike the other three cases in Menachot, he still would not have understood the nature of the commandment. How could giving the ostensibly insignificant Machatzit HaShekel achieve Kapara (atonement) for the egregious Cheit Ha’Eigel? Every sinner should have given the value of his own life to atone for their sin! Why does one measly coin accomplish so much?
Perhaps the true reason why Hashem showed Moshe a fiery Machatzit HaShekel was not as a diagram of the physical coin, but rather to show him that half a Shekel, despite its small size, can accomplish tremendous feats, including atonement for terrible sins.
I believe that Hashem’s lesson to Moshe Rabbeinu is to never overlook the little things in life -- particularly the good deeds that people do for others. The Machatzit HaShekel is both little and incomplete, yet when you join your small donation with another’s, you complete the Shekel, atonement can be achieved, and great things can happen.
We can use this principle to understand a very peculiar Gemara in Masechet Megillah 13b. “Amar Reish Lakish: Galui VeYadua Lifnei Mi SheAmar VeHayah HaOlam SheAtid Haman Lishkol Shekalim Al Yisrael, Lefikach Hikdim Shekalei’hen LeShaklav, VeHaynu DiT’nan: BeEchad BeAdar Mashmi’in Al HaShekalim”, “Reish Lakish said: it is revealed and known to the One Who spoke and the world came to be that in the future, Haman would weigh Shekalim against the Jews, therefore He put their [Jews’] Shekalim before his [Haman’s] Shekalim, as it was written in a Mishna: On the first day of Adar, a public announcement was made to collect the Machatzit HaShekel [for the Beit HaMikdash]” (13b). Hashem knew that Haman would eventually use Shekalim against Bnei Yisrael, therefore He preempted Haman’s Shekalim with our Mitzvah of Machatzit HaShekel.
However, one may ask what is the connection between the two different Shekalim? The answer, I believe, is that Haman’s Shekalim gained strength from his comment to Achashveirosh that the Jews are a nation “Mefuzar U’Meforad Bein HaAmim”, “Scattered and dispersed among the other nations” (Esteir 3:8) Haman interpreted the scattering of Bnei Yisrael a threat to national security, but truthfully Klal Yisrael’s lack of unity was extremely detrimental. The Jewish people thrive when they are united, but fail when they are divided. But Hashem already had a solution in place: the Machatzit HaShekel’s main purpose was to create a sense of Achdut (unity) among the Jews. The donations were used to fund Korbanot for the Tzibbur, which brought Am Yisrael together and enabled them to overcome their state of “Mefuzar U’Meforad Bein HaAmim.”
The Machatzit HaShekel teaches us to never ignore the little things in life; grandiose deeds in public may receive a lot of fanfare, but the smaller, less conspicuous activities, are equally, if not more effective.
I heard a story of a Ba’al Teshuva who lived in Yerushalayim who was distressed that his sister was living in India and practicing the nation’s religion. He begged her to come see what Judaism was about, but she had no interest in leaving her current religion. Intent on bringing her closer to Judaism, he came up with a plan. He requested that she come visit him in Yerushalayim for two weeks. He even agreed to pay for everything on the condition that she attends one class at a girls’ seminary in Yerushalayim. Interested in seeing her family residing in Israel and unconcerned about the impact of one short class, she accepted his offer. As the two weeks drew to a close, she had yet to attend a class, so arrangements were finally made for her to attend the sole class that conformed to her schedule: a dry, very technical Halacha class on Hashavat Aveidah, the laws of returning lost objects. She attended the class, finished her trip in Yerushalayim, and returned to India unaffected by her stay in Eretz Yisrael.
Three weeks later, she was walking with her guru in the marketplace, and they stumbled upon a wallet full of cash. The guru bent down, picked up the wallet, and slipped it into his pocket. She exclaimed, “How can you justify taking that? Someone lost it and it’s not yours!” He responded, “Don’t worry; I am not going to keep it. I’m giving it to the temple.” She did not relent, “But it’s not yours, someone lost it and deserves to have it back!” He again replied, “You don’t understand, I’m giving it to the temple.” But she did understand; she remembered the Halachot of Hashavat Aveidah she learned in the seminary and decided that India was not for her. She returned to Yerushalyim to study at the same seminary and became an Orthodox Jew. One trip, one “dry” class, made all the difference in her retrun to Judaism.
The little things in life are significant, and should never be underestimated. You never know how much they can accomplish. The minute Machatzit HaShekel was extremely effective in fostering unity among Klal Yisrael, even though it was something that could have easily been overlooked. Even though small details might seem unimportant, they will often have far greater impact than one would expect.