An apprentice wished to learn the craft of goldsmithery. The master goldsmith patiently instructed him in all the fine details of the craft, showing him how to shape the gold into a variety of intricate forms. Finally, the apprentice was ready to attempt his first piece. He gathered his instruments and tongs, and began prodding the lump of gold, this way and that. It stubbornly remained the same lump as before. One thing the master had neglected to teach him—before shaping the gold, one must first light a fire and heat the gold until it is soft enough for shaping.
When G-d gave the command to Moses to collect one half-shekel golden coin from each individual to atone for the sins of the Jewish people, Moses was puzzled. How could one half-shekel atone for the people’s sins? G-d responded by showing him a coin of fire.
How did the coin of fire answer the query of Moses? G-d wished to explain to him that a contribution, regardless of its value, is worthless in atoning for sins unless the fire is first lit. Without that fire, the coin does not atone for the soul, since it has no soul in it. However, when the fire is lit, and the donation is given with enthusiasm, then even a half-shekel is enough to atone for one’s sins.
A coin is a metal piece that has a definitive value. Every coin of that denomination has the same value. This is unlike any other possession, the value of which can change depending on its age, condition or whim of the owner or appraiser. Someone who has a great need for a certain object will give it a higher monetary value than someone who has no use for it and wants to get rid of it. However, with a coin there can be no arguments. A half-shekel is a half-shekel; that is its predetermined value.
Thus, a coin represents the attribute of kabbalat ohl—the acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, to do G-d’s will regardless of one’s personal proclivities or desires. When it comes to other aspects of Divine service, such as Torah study, prayer or mitzvah observance, people have different strengths and may excel in one aspect or another. However, the simple commitment to do G-d’s will is the same for everyone.
However, when one performs a mitzvah out of kabbalat ohl—with no desire of one’s own, but merely to fulfill G-d’s will—there is the possibility that the mitzvah will be done apathetically, with little enthusiasm. For this reason, G-d showed Moses a coin of fire. G-d wished to teach the Jewish people that even the Divine service of kabbalat ohl must be done with enthusiasm.
The same is true of the mitzvah of tzedakah. A person invests his or her time and energy in order to earn money. The “fire” that went into earning money becomes a “coin,” something of value to give to tzedakah. The ideal is to give tzedakah not out of a feeling of duty but with joy—to truly feel the sorrow and need of another, and to be happy for the opportunity to help.