Parshas Ki Sisa contains apexes of glory and splendor, depths of catastrophe, and a cataclysmic blow, followed by the greatest message of forgiveness in the Torah.
The tragic error and climb back to teshuvah resound through the ages.
The Bnei Yisroel were counted, and they learned of the ketores and its powers. Hashem told Moshe that he had selected Betzalel to construct the Mishkon, its keilim, and the bigdei kehunah. The gift of Shabbos was granted to us, and Moshe was presented the luchos that Hashem had written.
But then the people sinned and constructed the Eigel, changing the trajectory of history until this very day. Moshe descended from atop the mountain with diminished greatness. Witnessing the scene of depravity, he shattered the luchos Hashem had handed him to present to the Jewish people.
Moshe summoned all who cared about the rapid degradation of Am Yisroel. Alas, it was only the tribe of Levi that rallied with him to wage war against the sinners.
Hashem wanted to destroy the Jews, but relented after Moshe’s pleas and quick action. Moshe was allowed to climb the mountain once again and transcribe the luchos. Hashem revealed the 13 Middos to Moshe and promised to allow the nation to enter The Promised Land.
It is apparent that as those who gave birth to the Eigel strengthened and accomplished their goal, Moshe weakened. The instigators of the Eigel, which they said would lead the Jews as they believed Moshe’s return from the mountain had been delayed, were the Eirev Rav, who had joined the Jewish people as they exited Mitzrayim. When they succeeded in persuading Aharon to tentatively accede to their plan, Moshe was commanded, “Lech reid.” He was instructed to go down and return to his people.
Chazal say (Brachos 32a) that in commanding, “Lech reid,” Hashem was saying, “Go down from your greatness, for I have only made you great because of Yisroel, and now that Yisroel has sinned, of what use are you?”
Very strong words.
The Peirush HaGra on Chumash (Shemos 32:7), quoting the Tikkunei Zohar, says, “Ispashuta d’Moshe bechol dor vador. In every generation, there is a nitzutz, a part of the neshomah, of Moshe Rabbeinu present in one great man.” Through him, the light of Torah is transmitted to the talmidei chachomim of the generation. All the chiddushei Torah that are nischadeish in the world is through the “hashpo’as ohr,” influence, of Moshe Rabbeinu.
Several times a week, we say, “Vezos haTorah asher som Moshe lifnei bnei Yisroel…beyad Moshe.” We extend our fingers and try to see the holy letters on the parchment, proclaiming not just that the words form our Torah, but that the Torah was given specifically through Moshe.
The repeated testimony to this fact – not just that the Torah is ours, but that Moshe is the one who gives it to us – underscores the fact that we are recipients. “Tov ayin hu yevorach – One who has a bountiful eye will be blessed” (Mishlei 22:9). This, Chazal teach us, refers to Moshe, who had the ultimate ayin tovah: He gave us the Torah and the ability to plumb its depths. He gave us the koach to “own” Torah.
The chet ha’Eigel put that whole gift in jeopardy.
At the time of the Eigel, Moshe became weakened to such a degree that the luchos were broken, causing a diminution of Torah knowledge and leading to all the exiles our people have since endured.
The Vilna Gaon writes (Even Sheleimah 13:8) that in our time, the Eirev Rav is basically composed of five groups of people: baalei machlokes and lashon hora, baalei ta’avah, hypocrites, people who seek honor to make a name for themselves, and people who crave money. He continues: “The worst are those who cause machlokes, and they are Amaleikim. Moshiach will not arrive until the world is rid of them.”
The Torah, in the opening of this week’s parsha, teaches us what we can do to help deter those practices from our people and help bring about the arrival of Moshiach. The parsha opens with the commandment of counting the Jewish people following the sin of the Eigel (Rashi). Instead of counting the people individually one by one, each person donated a half-shekel coin to the Mishkon and the coins were counted.
The posuk states that by conducting the census in this way, the act of counting would not bring on a plague, and each person’s donated coin would help forgive him for his sins.
Many commentators discuss what it is about the counting of Jews that causes a plague and why counting coins is better.
A simple explanation is that when all people are counted equally, it shows that each person is as important as the next. No one should view themselves as being better than others, and no person should ever consider themselves worse than everyone else. Similarly, even if someone has made mistakes in their life and is not doing well, they shouldn’t feel as if they are destined for failure and life as a second-class person. Everyone can come back. Everyone can improve and get back to where they ought to be.
People try tracing what happened to someone they know who left the path, and they find that it wasn’t one major step that sent them tumbling. It was small things that followed each other, each one minor by itself, but as they occurred, the person began feeling like a loser. They gave up on ever being able to rectify themselves and get back into the good graces of those in whose eyes they would have wanted to find favor. So instead of working to climb back to where they could have been and belonged, they slipped further and further away.
The Torah’s census demonstrated to all that even though they may have hit a rough patch and veered off, they are still loved by Hashem and their path to return is waiting for them.
Rav Tzadok Hakohein of Lublin writes (Tzidkas Hatzaddik 154) that just as a person is obligated to believe in Hashem, a person is obligated to believe in himself. No one should ever give up on himself and feel that all hope is lost and he is too far gone. In whatever position a person finds himself, he has what it takes to climb back up and excel once again. Everyone counts.
The most often quoted explanation is from the Alshich, who quotes Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, author of Lecha Dodi and the classic sefer Manos Levi on Megillas Esther, who says that each person contributes a half-shekel to demonstrate that every individual on their own is not whole. We only become complete and worthy of being counted as a member of Klal Yisroel when we live b’achdus with our brethren. If we are aloof, apathetic and alone, we don’t count, so to speak.
Rav Yitzchok Eizik Chover explains that the counting was not to determine how many separate people there were, but rather to bring the people together and count them all as one unit.
Additionally, the posuk states, “He’oshir lo yarbeh vehadal lo yamit,” the rich man should not give more than a half-shekel and the poor man should not give less. The count is conducted to remind the Jewish people to rectify the sin that causes the Shechinah to be removed from among them, namely machlokes and peirud.
At the root of every machlokes is ga’avah, when one person feels that he is better than the other. Such feelings lead to squabbles among Jews and the departure of the Shechinah.
Therefore, the Torah calls for everyone to contribute the same small amount to signify that nobody knows their value in the eyes of Hashem and people should view each other as equals. This leads to forgiveness of sins through the census, for the feelings of equality remove sinas chinom and machlokes, and thus leads to achdus. When there is achdus among the Jewish people, the Shechinah returns.
Rav Chover adds that when there is achdus among Jews, they are able to help each other improve. When people despise each other, they cannot offer reproach or help. When two people are squabbling and one of them sees the other doing something wrong, he smiles, fantasizing about how he can spread virally what he saw and cause the person much pain and anguish. Even were he to reprimand the person who acted wrongly, the person wouldn’t accept the tochacha and suggestions for improvement, because he would feel that the other person is mocking him and seeking his downfall.
If we cannot be mochiach each other, then people won’t improve, and we will stray further and continue to act foolishly.
In the spirit of Purim Koton which falls this week, we can offer that Mordechai Hayehudi was a champion of achdus and searched for ways to bring the Jewish people together to counter Haman. As a grandson of Amaleik, Haman’s ability to destroy the Jews would only be effective if the Jews remained divided. He enacted decrees and sought to scare and divide them further, but because Mordechai worked to bring the Jews together, Haman’s plot failed.
In our day, as well, we have to work to bring people together, to end acrimony, hatred and jealousy.
We need to connect to our brethren and understand what lies in the hearts of the members of our nation and what keeps them awake at night. And then we need to do what we can to help them.
What are their worries? What are their concerns? What do they want from life? Do they learn? Do they daven? Do they have any ambition? Do they want to excel at anything? If not, why not? Are they making ends meet? Do they have a decent place to live? Can they afford their rent or mortgage? Are they happy with the way their children are turning out? How is their health?
If you care about them, and you should, figure out how to reach and affect them, to inspire and offer direction and support in trying times.
We live in a very dangerous time.
Russian President Putin sees President Biden’s weakness as an opportunity to rope in a reluctant neighbor. He ramped up his army and surrounded Ukraine on three sides at he threatened a war which would cause untold human misery and harm to the Western world, to elicit a promise that Ukraine would not join NATO. The world quaked in fear and the threat remains.
The American people have tired of lockdowns, mandates, masks, and other failed government policies nobody any longer believes have anything to do with science. Inflation is worse than it’s been since the days of Jimmy Carter, as people have little trust in government anymore.
Iran is rapidly closing in on obtaining a nuclear weapon than ever, and once again, nobody seems able to stop them, preventing the world from becoming much more dangerous. China also sensing American weakness is up to no good, as American threats don’t intimidate them from their expansionist desires.
The reshoim who conned their way into controlling the Israeli government have no positive accomplishments to point to. They shamelessly try to create more hatred and division in the country, going so far as to blame rising inflation on the chareidim, as if the chareidim have anything to do with the failing government’s many missteps.
The gang in power is going to great lengths to destroy everything religious in the state. You would think that kosher phones are of no concern to them. Why should they care if certain people want to connect with limited technology? But nothing is beneath those who are evil.
Every day, they target another facet of religious life, from dumping rabbonim chashuvim, to destroying kashrus and marriage, to corrupting conversion until it becomes a meaningless fictitious ritual. That’s not enough. They want to defile the holiest place on earth, starve children of kollel families, and close yeshivos.
Their plans are reminiscent of the days of the evil czars my great-grandfather writes about in his classic Zichron Yaakov. Gedolim traveled from across the Jewish world to hold meetings in St. Petersburg and other capitals, working together to quash the plans conspired to crush religious Jewry.
What are we to do? Three times a day, in the final brocha of Shemoneh Esrei, we daven for peace: Sim shalom. Shalom rov.
The Yaaros Devash says that this is what we should be thinking as we are about to recite the tefillah. The only receptacle that can hold brocha is peace, shalom. We should daven that there be no machlokes, jealousy, hatred and rivalry among Klal Yisroel; that everyone should love each other, united in the strongest way possible with love, brotherhood and friendship, and all of Klal Yisroel should be as one nefesh. And we should daven not to have the middah of kaas, anger, but rather be humble to all, because where there is anger, there is no peace.
We have our work cut out for us. The world is a powder keg, ready to blow up at any time. As we engage in tefillah and teshuvah as is incumbent in times such as these, let us work to bring about peace amongst us so that this period of chevlei Moshiach will end quickly with the arrival of Moshiach speedily in our day.