The reason why a half-shekel was the amount required in contribution, says the Rabbeinu Bachye, is because the Jewish People transgressed all Ten Commandments by the sin of the golden calf and a half-shekel is equivalent to ten gerahs, since a full shekel is twenty gerahs. Therefore, each and every Jew was required to bring ten gerahs as atonement for transgressing the Ten Commandments. Only those over twenty years of age were required to bring it, because the Heavenly Court does not punish people less than the age of twenty.
The Rabbeinu Bachye later asks that, logically, since Moshe was designating the worth of this new currency, the Shekel, he could have made it worth ten gerahs, requiring the donation of a full shekel. Why did Moshe create the currency in this fashion?
The Rabbeinu Bachye answers that this odd currency valuation was done in order to hint that it is befitting for any intelligent person to weigh his actions equally, and to dedicate within himself to give of both his body and soul, each one equally and completely. The right and befitting thing to do is to push one’s body to serve Hashem and to go after its soul, which is the main part of existence. But at times one must also push his soul after his body for certain requirements, like food, drink, and clothing, which one cannot live without. As our Sages have taught us: “By Yom Tov the Torah writes, ‘It shall be a holiday for Hashem your G-D’ (Devarim 16:8). The Torah also writes, ‘A holiday it shall be for you’ (Bamidbar 29, 35). Rebbi Yehoshua says that Yom Tov should be split, half for Hashem and half for you” (Pesachim 68b). It is befitting for one’s efforts towards his bodily needs to be channeled for the sake of his soul. We find this by Yaakov Avinu, who put all of his efforts into his soul for fourteen years, learning in the House of Ever. He then put equal effort for his physical self, by engaging in manual labor for fourteen years, in order to marry the two daughters of Lavan. The purpose of his physical work was to serve his intellectual soul, which the half shekel represents; to figure out what is for the sake of Hashem by weighing all his deeds and actions in an equal manner, so that each one gets what is befitting for it.
This piece delivers a very profound message about how we must live our lives. It is easy and perhaps fun to live a care-free lifestyle, doing whatever one pleases, whenever it pleases, with no boundaries, enjoying the physical world to its fullest, partying, acting spontaneously, working off of gut feelings and simply believing and doing whatever one wants; indulge, indulge, indulge. On the opposite extreme there are those in this world who believe that to reach the ultimate in spiritual heights one must be celibate, living in silence, subsiding on stale bread and water, or by secluding themselves from society. However we see from here the Torah outlook is that the middle ground is the optimal.While the main thrust of life is spirituality, the soul, and one’s physical actions should be for that sake, physical needs and wants should also be taken care of, with the attitude that they are being done out of G-D’s will – the point being there is a defined purpose for everything. Hashem wants us to dress nicely at all times, elegantly conservative, and even nicer on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Hashem wants us to eat heartily if needed, and healthily to be strong, to serve Him as well as to have lavish feasts on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Hashem wants us to get married and raise a family, bringing the next generation up to continue a lifestyle of Torah and mitzvos.
In fact ,this might be the ultimate challenge in life, as well as the most difficult. The last Mishna in chapter five of Pirkei Avos says: “Reward is earned according to one’s efforts.” To figure out exactly what Hashem wants of us at any given time, to weigh the options and make the exact proper decisions, is very hard to do. To be able to figure out how much time should be spent on one’s physical needs versus on one’s spiritual needs, and to execute it in exactly the way Hashem wants of each individual, is the ultimate test.
The suffering, pain, and effort one puts into this drive towards perfection, for the perfect split in meeting one’s spiritual and physical needs, is what Hashem ultimately rewards. This is the lesson of the half-shekel.