Parashat Ki Tissa

The Coin of Fire

How to rectify material wealth.

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Yet, as contemporary commentator Dr. Aviva Zornberg points out, the most precious golden parts of the Mishkan--the Ark and the golden Cherubs resting on top of it--were not within view of anyone, ever, except for the High Priest on Yom Kippur, and to him only through the fog of incense.

In contrast, the Golden Calf, and the orgies that attended it, stood exposed before all the people (Rashi on Exodus 32:6). Proper use of material wealth sanctifies God's name in a way that is modest--practically unseen--and yet affects the whole world for good.

Today, wealth is portrayed as a gateway to personal fulfillment, power, and status. Consumer products, from cars to clothes to personal electronics, promote a life that is generally a race for acquisition rather than a quest for righteousness and communion with God.

The conveniences of modern life have freed us to pursue more consumption, while spiritual and emotional fulfillment is at an all-time low, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of the self-help and anti-depressant industries. People are seeking wholeness and healing, but they are turning towards consumer products and profit-driven media to find them.

And yet we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt every year at Passover, as if we were free, without even realizing that the ultimate slavery is not chains and forced labor, but the deification of wealth and human achievement. All of Egypt was enslaved to perverse materialism, and it was for this reason that God decimated the land and sent Israel out with its wealth.

God commands Moses to collect the half-shekel in the context of a census. "Ki Tissa," often translated as "when you count [the people]," literally means "when you lift." The elevation of material possessions elevates each of us when we dedicate all that we have to the furthering of righteousness in the world.

The Jewish people was born out of the rejection of material worship, and charged with the mission of transforming the way societies view wealth. Were we to really embrace this spiritual work, we would undoubtedly be a light unto the nations, and offer a model for satisfaction in Divine service over gratification in material excess.

Suggested Action Items:

1. Dedicate your wealth in service of something that will elevate you and make God's Presence manifest in your daily life.

2. Choose to buy something that is better for the environment, even if it will cost more.

3. Consider sponsoring a Torah and environment project through Canfei Nesharim.

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Shimshon Stuart Siegel is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in the Judean Hills.