“When you count the numbers of the Children of Israel,” says the sidra, “this they shall give: half a shekel as an offering to the Lord” (Ex. 30:11-13). According to Rashi, God showed Moses a fiery half-shekel coin and said, “This shall they give”. But why a fiery coin?
There is a remarkable interpretation in the “D’var Sh’mu’el” of Rabbi Shmuel Katz. The coin, he says, was designed “to teach our lawgiver and his people a lesson that money is like fire. Fire is the most useful thing in the world. Without fire, the world could not exist. However, the same fire can also destroy the world. And so it is with money. Money can bring the greatest blessing, if one knows how to use it, and money can be very dangerous is it falls into the wrong hands.”
The lesson is suggested, if only human beings realised it, in the earliest ages of the Bible. Not far from the Garden of Eden was a land called Havilah asher sham hazahav – “where there was gold, and the gold of that land was good” (Gen. 2:11-12). Havilah gold was good… but other gold is not: that’s the conclusion we have to draw. But what makes one type of gold better than another?
Rabbi Katz finds an answer on the same page of the Bible, in the verse, “And a river went out of Eden to water the garden”, and one of the heads of the stream “compasses the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold”. What gold is good? The gold in a place which is watered and nourished by the spirit and teachings of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life of the Garden of Eden.
When gold is an end in itself, to be gained without thought of the ethics of making a living… when gold matters more than human beings… when gold is spent on baubles and luxuries whilst the cry of the hungry, homeless and disadvantaged is not heard – that’s when gold is a dangerous thing, like a fire that is out of control. But when human beings are scrupulous in the way they earn their money, recognise that money is not everything, and use their means to help others – that’s when gold is good and a blessing.