Parashat Ki Tissa
We can learn a great deal from how the Israelites acquire and spend their money in this Torah portion.
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This week's parashah contains the well known episode of the Golden Calf. Our ancestors eagerly gave their gold for its construction. That gold became an idol and the people made sacrifices before it. Their misuse of the gold was so grave that God sought to destroy the entire nation. Yet a few weeks from now we will read of our ancestors using their gold for good by eagerly offering it to create the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Israelites brought many gifts, including gold, to build a Mishkan so that God could dwell among the people. In this instance, the people gave freely of their possessions for a divine purpose.
The gold of the Israelites was used in two very different ways, prompting Rabbi Abba bar Aha to declare: "You can't understand the character of this people! When asked for the [Golden] Calf, they contribute. When asked for the Mishkan, they contribute." The gold was the same--it was what was done with it that gave it the quality of either idolatry or of holiness.
Asking vs. Plundering
Just as our ancestors used their gold in two distinct ways, they acquired it in two ways as well. It might seem implausible that newly freed slaves would possess such wealth. After all, the Israelites wandered the desert and were dependent on God for their sustenance. However, before leaving Egypt, the Israelites obtained the gold, silver and clothing from the Egyptians: vayishalu--they asked.
Rashi emphasizes that the Egyptians went one step further and gave even things that the Israelites did not request. Some commentators understand this as compensation for the slave labor that the Israelites were forced into in Egypt. Yet we also read a very different account of this event: vaynatzlu--they plundered. In this telling, the Israelites devastated an impoverished people in an already ravaged land.
As we follow the gold through the Exodus narrative, we are introduced to two ways of obtaining it (asking versus plundering) and two ways of using it (holy versus idolatrous). Today, it is more difficult for us to trace the origins of the goods we use. When we enter a store, the conditions of production under which the items were created are often hidden. We might know that our shoes were made in China or that our citrus fruit came from Peru, but we don't know who made them or under what conditions they were harvested. The goods we buy appear in our stores seemingly by magic, making it easy for us to forget that there are people who are responsible for them at the other end.