This shabbat, in the first of four special parshiyot (sections from a second Torah scroll), we read about the donation of a half-shekel coin as “kopher nafsho,” an “atonement for himself/his soul.” Each person was to give the same amount, which in aggregate would be used for the upkeep up the sanctuary, and which could also be used to count the people (by multiplying the total amount of shekels by two). A famous midrash explains that Moses was having a hard time understanding what was to be given, so God showed him a fiery shekel that was produced from underneath God’s throne, just as God had shown Moses a fiery menorah to explain to him what that item was to look like.

We can easily understand why a diagram was needed to construct the golden menorah with its knops and calyxes; the verbal description is quite difficult to understand without Ikea drawings. But a shekel coin? It looks like a circle! Where’s the difficulty in understanding how to make a coin?

That’s a question Rabbi Gedalia Shor (20th century) asks in his commentary, Or Gedalyahu.

Rabbi Shor answered the question by noting the Talmudic teaching that the shekels collected in the desert were a pro-active spiritual investment to counteract the ten thousand silver shekels that appear in the megilla of Esther, where Haman pays King Ahashverosh for permission to exterminate the Jews. The vision of the fiery shekel was a tool to break the habit of seeing money as mere money. The physical coins, the precious metals and the sums they represent, are too easily understood in mechanical fashion, rather than understanding the underlying motivation that money can wield, the power balances that can be tipped one way or the other when money is involved, or the great evils that can be perpetrated in money’s name.

If the shekels the Israelites gathered in the desert were merely money, it would not have had any impact a thousand years later and ten thousand miles away in Shushan. The burning coin, however, taught Moses that money can have either destructive power or holiness, and that it can truly make the difference for the relationships it spawns.

As Rav Shor explains, the main reading for this shabbat, Mishpatim, concerns some of the loftiest moral and ethical commandments. It is followed next week in parshat Terumah with some of the most material passages in the Torah, detailing the sanctuary’s architecture and decorating. How can they be next to each other? It is only when we realize that considerations of materials and realpolitik are not at all separate from high ethical considerations that we begin to understand the Torah’s depiction of how the world we live in actually works. The shekel burns, the heart yearns, and the human influence can be felt anywhere on the continuum from Auschwitz to the highest heaven.

If we remain conscious and connected, dependent on both God and each other, the holy fire can reverberate throughout generations of darkness to be there for us when we most need it, even for our survival.

If we are not careful, however, that bonfire of the vanities can engulf any aspirations we have toward our higher selves. In that case, our basest motivations will engulf our lives and what our ancestors toiled so hard to build will lie in ruins at our feet. The choice is, clearly, ours.