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The parashah of Ki Tissa deals with several topics, including a census of the Jewish people, in which each person who donated a half-shekel was counted; the incident of the Golden Calf; and Moses’ destroying the tablets containing the Ten Commandments out of rage at the people’s idolatry. It ends with Moses’ obtaining from God a second set of tablets, and God’s forgiveness of the people for their grievous sin.
The people’s half-shekel contribution formed a communal fund for the construction of the Tabernacle. According to a midrash, the amount itself was chosen by God, who showed Moses a coin of fire and instructed him, “like this shall they give” (Exodus 30:13). This midrash demonstrates that both money and fire, which often are media for selfishness and destruction, may be employed to benefit the entire community. The users’ intention determines whether they’ll be employed for good or bad.
By contributing together, the Jewish people united in purpose as one nation, and in doing so, strove toward the common goal of building the Tabernacle, where they could best worship God. Regardless of each person’s financial means, they attained a spiritual equality by each donating the identical amount.
According to the Or Hachayim (Rabbi Chayim ben Atar, 1696-1742) every mitzvah, or commandment, is meant to bridge a gap that may exist between man and God. Some commentators believe that the commandment of the half-shekel occurred after the sin of the Golden Calf, and so was meant to restore the entire people’s closeness to God.
The symbolic meaning of the “half” drew people’s attention to the fact that they needed each other to build the Tabernacle. Were a wealthy person allowed to contribute more according to his/her means, the purpose of the half-shekel–to register the people’s common dedication to building the Tabernacle–would have been undermined.
Another instructive part of this parashah concerns the ingredients for the holy incense used in the Tabernacle. One of the spices to be offered had an unpleasant aroma, from which the sages derive that for a congregation’s prayers to be most acceptable to God, that community must include the prayers of sinners.
This notion is particularly relevant to this parashah, because the entire community, including Moses’ brother Aaron, the High Priest, sinned by worshipping the Golden Calf. After miscalculating the time it would take for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai, the people surrounded Aaron and implored him to “make for us gods that will go before us.” Aaron replied, “Remove the golden earrings which are on the ears of your wives, sons and daughters, and bring them to me” (Exodus 32:1-2). How is it possible that Aaron, a truly righteous man, would consent to help the people make an idol?
The Daat Zekainim, a compilation of medieval French commentators, note that Aaron’s intentions were good. He considered the possibility of appointing a temporary leader to calm the people, yet was afraid that the new leader would not step down upon Moses’ return. He also thought of appointing himself as the people’s head, but was afraid that Moses would mistakenly think that he was trying to usurp Moses’ leadership. Therefore, he tried to use the Golden Calf as a means of “buying time,” so as to avoid actions that could hurt the community and its leader. Perhaps this episode might impel each of us to consider an individual’s motivations and intentions before judging his or her behavior.
It’s also important not to rush to judgment when a person’s appearance seems different than usual. Near the end of the parashah, the Torah describes Moses’ face, after he received the second set of tablets, as emitting rays of light resulting from his closeness to God. From then on, when speaking with the people, Moses would cover his face with a veil.
According to the Be’er Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Yechiel Ha-Levi Epstein, the Ozhorover Rebbe, 1890-1971), he did so to spare them the embarrassment of realizing the closeness with God that they had lost due to their sins. We learn that even when a person is angry, he or she should be sensitive toward others’ feelings, rather than having a judgmental attitude.
To summarize the parashah’s meaning for us: Ki Tissa demonstrates the good that may come from communal action. Our work unites our community in a common cause, in respect and understanding for all Jews, and in sensitivity of the plight of those in need. We should continue to learn the lessons taught to us by our ancestors, and remember that which binds us to them and to our fellow Jews today.