Parshas Ki Sisa

This week’s Sedra contains possibly the most complex dialogue in the entire Chumash. This dialogue is rather long and contains numerous complexities. To discuss and solve all these complexities would require much more than a short essay.  I will, therefore, focus on just a portion of these complexities.

Following Klal-Yisroel’s sinning by creating and worshipping the Golden Calf, and then Moshe Rabeinu’s destroying it and all those who were involved, Moshe then enters a plea bargaining session with Hashem (32, 31 – 34, 35). Moshe beseeches Hashem not only that He should forgive Klal-Yisroel for their sin, but as well that Hashem shouldn’t – in any way whatsoever – leave Klal-Yisroel without His Divine Presence. Hashem agreed to Moshe’s demands and agreed that He would continue to ‘reside’ amongst Klal-Yisroel. Moshe Rabeinu’s instant reaction to Hashem’s ‘complete’ forgiveness to Klal-Yisroel is to want to better understand Hashem’s ways. Hashem replies to Moshe Rabeinu by teaching him the correct formula of prayer to use to evoke Divine Mercy (see Tanchuma), the Thirteen Divine Attributes of kindness and mercy.

The simple question is: how are the Thirteen Attributes tantamount to or synonymous with understanding Hashem’s ways?

The Gemorah (Brachos, 7a) explains that Moshe wanted to understand how Hashem could allow or cause bad things to good people and by the same token how Hashem could cause good to bad people. There is a difference of opinions in the Gemorah as to whether Moshe Rabeinu received a full answer or not – and if he did receive a full answer, what that answer was. The opinion in the Gemorah that Moshe Rabeinu wasn’t granted this wish of being able to understand Hashem’s reasoning behind bad befalling good and good befalling bad.  The Gemorah does, however, maintain that Hashem did allow Moshe Rabeinu to understand why good things happen to bad people and that this was the idea of these Thirteen Attributes.

The Passuk states that Hashem said to Moshe that he will pass all His Divine Goodness over Moshe’s face, the idea being all goodness – even the good which befalls evil people. As to why bad things occur to good people – that was something that Moshe had the ‘opportunity’ to understand if he had continued to look at the Burning Bush, but Moshe Rabeinu had already understood that it was too great for him to grasp.

The Gomorah’s explanation of Moshe Rabeinu’s request does fit into the words of the Psukim. It is, however, rather difficult to understand what comprehending Hashem’s evaluation of cause and effect have to do with Moshe Rabeinu’s wanting to understand Divine Forgiveness.

Perhaps by focussing on the answers and what they mean and represent we will then be able to understand what indeed Moshe Rabeinu’s request from Hashem was, and why he asked Hashem for it.

Hashem answered Moshe Rabeinu with a formula that works to achieve Divine forgiveness. However, when we use this formula to evoke Divine Mercy and Forgiveness we aren’t beseeching Hashem for mercy at all but rather just mentioning all His Divine Merciful attributes. Nonetheless, since these are actual attributes or names of Hashem (see Ramban) when we utter them we evoke these Midos/attributes of Hashem, thereby somehow instantly causing Hashem to be completely mercifull.

It would seem that what Moshe Rabeinu realized that there is more to good and bad then just reward and punishment. Moshe Rabeinu understood that Hashem must have a different formula for deciding how to act with people. If good can happen to the wicked and bad can befall the good then Hashem must not be calculating good and bad as reward and punishment. Moshe Rabeinu therefore understood that to attain forgiveness there might possibly be a way to tap into Hashem’s Mercy, but in order to do so he would need to understand Hashem’s Compassion.

Hashem answered Moshe that while this is all true all that was pertinent to him or to attaining His Forgiveness is to know and understand Hashem’s Attributes of mercy.

In life the important thing isn’t to understand the ‘negative’ but rather always to focus on the positive. To build and to succeed one must focus on the help and mercy that we receive from Hashem.

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Towards the beginning of this week’s Sedra the Torah instructs Moshe Rabeinu regarding the Kiyor – Washing sink. Hashem instructs Moshe Rabeinu to construct a copper washing sink in between the entrance to the Mishkan and the Mizbaich – Altar.  Hashem then instructs him to put water into this sink and that the Kohanim should wash their hands and feet there when they come to do the Avoda.  We can easily understand the necessity of a command as to having such sink, as to the materials to be used in its construction, and as to the Kohanim having to wash both hands and feet prior to performing their priestly services. The additional instruction to fill it with water appears somewhat superfluous.  How else would there be water for the Kohanim to wash their hands and feet?

The Ramban explains the significance of the Kohanim being obligated to wash their hands and feet prior to performing the Avoda. The Ramban offers two approaches: 1) that out of sheer Kavod for the Avoda they are to wash their hands for regular cleanliness purposes, and then the feet for the very same reason as they perform the Avoda barefoot; 2) that the hands and feet represent the two extremities of one’s body thus symbolizing the cleansing of the whole body (this is an over simplification of the latter as the Ramban explains this concept on a much deeper, more complex level). The Ramban therefore concludes that the only actual Mitzva associated with the Kiyor is the Kohanim washing their hands and feet. The Ramban says that the actual creation of this Kiyor isn’t really a Mitzva.

If, according to Ramban, the creation of a Kiyor isn’t a Mitzva, it would nevertheless appear that it is at the very least a Hechsher-Mitzva – a facilitator for a Mitzva. If it isn’t a Mitzva but rather only the means for a Mitzva, we see how the Torah treats a Hechsher-Mitzva very much as it does a Mitzva itself.

The Torah’s emphasis on the need to fill the Kiyor with water is not then in any way superfluous. Since the Torah treats Hechsherei-Mitzva in very much the same light as Mitzvos themselves, it considers it necessary to mention all such Hechsherei-Mitzva (and filling the kiyor with water is also a ‘Hechsher Mitzva’).

If the Torah emphasizes these Hechsherei-Mitzva as much as Mitzvos themselves we must therefore pay attention to them in the same way we do to Mitzvos. We must bring ourselves to realize not only how great it is to fulfill Mitzvos, but also how important everything around the Mitzva is as well.

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The Chet HaEgel (Sin of the Golden Calf) recounted in this week’s Sedra is so multifaceted and complex that it is a virtually inexhaustible subject of discussion.  Aside from the inherent complexities of this fiasco there are some technical difficulties. The Torah tells us that after the infamous “Golden Calf” emerged from the oven “they” said: “These are your gods Israel who took you out of Egypt”. With this declaration there is the obvious difficulty: if they made only one golden calf how did it come instantly to be multiple gods? Secondly who were the “they”? (See Rashi, Klei Yakar, and Baal Haturim.)

On a different note there is the big question of how Aharon HaKohen (who would seem to have been somewhat responsible – even if inadvertently – for this entire horrible episode) could escape seemingly unpunished? This question is yet further amplified by the fact that all the participants were killed even if they did so thinking that it was with Aharon Hakohen’s approval.

The Mefarshim explain (see Rashi, Klei Yakar, and Iban Ezra) that it is obvious from the psukim that it was really the Eirev Rav (the Egyptian tag-alongs) who were the key players and initiators. They suggest this as an answer to the question of who the “they” is.

Once it is clear that the Eirev Rav were the ones responsible for the idea as well as for a good part of the actual creation of this Golden Calf, we can start to put into perspective the rest of the of the episode.

The Egyptians worshiped multiple gods; therefore it was a natural terminology to use the plural gods as a description of the golden calf. The Egyptian culture embraced the idea of many gods and this was somehow the interpretation of the Eirav Rav regarding the Golden Calf. It is thus evident from the fact that the Eirav Rav had become not mere tag-alongs, but rather a significant element who had a say with Klal-Yisroel. They had become, in this incident, quite powerful figures who had in essence taken charge. Klal-Yisroel fell prey to this mob mentality and they were beginning to like this idolatrous culture – to find in it somehow some sort of comfort.

This was where Am-Yisroel erred. In the entire Parsha of the Golden Calf there is no debate as to whether or not it was the right thing to do; whether or not it made any sense. Instead of taking a moment to think if this whole Egel HaZahav was right, instead of contemplating it, or debating it, they fell prey to some sort of mass hysteria.  Klal-Yisroel was thus punished for this lack of contemplation and thinking. A nation that just witnessed Yetzias Mitzraim and Kabbolas HaTorah should have been able to realize the invalidity of such societies. The proof that Am-Yisroel fell prey is that the incoherent call of the Eirav-Rav of “these are your gods” was accepted.

Aharon, however, didn’t.  Aharon Hakohen told Am-Yisroel to bring their Jewelry. The Meforshim explain he hoped that they would be reluctant. He then ordered them to melt it also on the assumption that it would take some time to be able to melt and shape so much gold. Once the Calf emerged from the oven he delayed displaying it yet another day.  Each of these delays also represented another opportunity for people to reconsider and stop their ill-conceived, impulsive action.  While Aharon HaKohen may have allowed the creation of this abomination he nonetheless was trying to stall. He was trying to appease the mob by buying time. Aharon HaKohen took the right perspective; Aharon Hakohen refused to be rushed into sinning. He tried to at least delay it and to buy time to stop it.

From the contrast between Aharon HaKohen and the multitudes of Am-Yisroel we learn a tremendous Yesod in Avodas Hashem: sometimes the Yetzer Horah may seem impossible to overcome. Perhaps sometimes it may be almost impossible to overcome the Yetzer Horah. But if we directly fall prey and don’t even attempt to run away or at least push off the Yetzer Horah then we are complete failures; if we at least attempt to veer away from it then we have actually already won.

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This week’s Sedra opens with Hashem’s instructions to Moshe Rabeinu on how to conduct a census of Klal-Yisroel.  Hashem instructs Moshe Rabeinu that all men 20 years and older should give a half Shekel and trough the number of half Shekels Klal-Yisroel will affectively be counted. In describing this counting the Passuk says זה יתנו – and this shall be given. Rebbi Meir (Medrash Tanchuma) picks up in the word זה – this and explains that Hashem pulled out from under His Glorious Throne a half Shekel of fire. Rashi appears to have a slightly different text of the Tanchuma as Rashi adds that Hashem showed Moshe Rabeinu the weight of the half Shekel of fire.

Rashi is inherently difficult since one cannot weigh fire. The Medrash, however, is not easy to understand even without the additional issue of weighing fire. The half Shekel coin is distinguished by the fact that it weighs a half Shekel. A shekel is a unit of weight (actually being the root word for ‘Mishkal’, ’weight’). [This is most probably the reason Rashi assumed Hashem showed Moshe Rabeinu the weight through fire because otherwise what is a half a Shekel if not a weight?]. How could Hashem show Moshe Rabeinu weight through a vision of fire?

Just a few lines earlier in the text, the same Medrash Tanchuma explained that Moshe Rabeinu didn’t understand why Hashem wanted to count Klal-Yisroel.  Moshe Rabeinu even had proofs from Pessukim that Hashem shouldn’t count Am-Yisroel.  Hashem had already stated (Bereishis 28, 14) that the Avos’ children would be as numerous as the dust of the earth, and (ibid 32, 12) “I (Hashem) will make your children (plentiful) like the sand of the ocean.”

This was not the first time that Hashem answered Moshe Rabeinu through a fiery vision. Moshe Rabeinu was grappling with how the righteous could be subjected to suffering while the wicked were allowed to flourish (such as the Jews suffering in Egypt, with their oppressors being the super-power of the era). Moshe Rabeinu received some sort of answer to this through the Sneh – the burning bush that wasn’t being consumed by its fire.

Moshe Rabeinu couldn’t figure out how Hashem wanted him to construct the Golden Menorah out of one solid block of gold without temporarily separating it. Moshe Rabeinu was once again answered with a vision of a Golden Menorah of fire.

Whatever else we might be able to understand from Hashem’s Fiery Answers, one thing is certain: Fire somehow represents the inconceivable. Perhaps this is the meaning of the Passuk in Yermiyahu “הלא כל דברי כאש נאם השם“– “for aren’t all my words like fire, says Hashem”.  While we may think we understand Hashem’s words, there is actually a certain depth to all of Hashem’s Words that we cannot fully grasp.

In the Megila we read of Haman Harasha weighing out ten thousand silver bars for the sake of wiping out Am-Yisroel. Chazal tell us that Hashem preempted Haman’s attempt of utilizing coins to wipe us out through the mitzva of Machatzis Hashekel that he gave us and that we fulfilled. It was in the zechus of fulfilling that Mitzvah of Machatzis Hashekel that we were saved from the wicked Haman’s evil plot.

While there may be many explanations to several of the aspects of Machatzis Hashekel, the overall idea of the Half Shekel is something almost impossible to comprehend.

We live at a point in time when we once again are seeing the evil will of wicked people towards Am-Yisroel.  Let us pray (in the merit of Hashem’s Mitzvos that we keep) that we may be worthy of being saved in the most glorious way ever – Bezras Hashem may we be zoche to the Geula Asida in the very near future.