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Torah Sparks

Parashat Ki Tissa
February 15, 2014 – 15 Adar I 5774

Annual (Exodus 30:11-34:35): Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352
Triennial (Exodus 30:11-31:17): Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352
Haftarah (I Kings 18:1-39): Etz Hayim p. 548; Hertz p. 369

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

The Israelites are to be counted as each male over the age of 20 must give a half-shekel to the Mishkan fund. Instructions are given for making a bronze laver, anointing oil and incense.

God tells Moses that Bezalel, assisted by Oholiab, will head up the Mishkan's construction. The Israelites are exhorted to observe Shabbat.

The Israelites panic when Moses does not return from Mount Sinai when they thought he would. Aaron responds by asking the people to bring him gold, which he melts into the shape of a calf. Moses descends the mountain to see the people worshipping the calf; he smashes the tablets of the Law in anger. The Levites kill 3,000 of the idolaters, and God causes a plague on the people, but Moses talks God out of destroying the entire nation. Requesting to see God, Moses is shown God's back, causing him to declare attributes of God. After issuing a second set of tablets, God warns the Israelites against idolatry, then reminds them of proper festival observance. Moses returns from Mount Sinai with a shining face.

Theme #1: Shekels and Census

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight -- twenty gerahs to the shekel -- a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. (Exodus 30:11-13)

The requirement to offer a half-shekel not only ensures that the Israelites are counted; it also ensures their institutions’ continuity.

The biblical text does not much approve of the census; whereas today a population count is used to determine social services and governmental representatives, in antiquity it was used primarily to determine taxation rates for districts. … On the positive side, the census allows all members a place in the institution; on the negative, it is another means of obtaining funds and indeed support for the central institution. The points are not mutually exclusive. -- Douglas A. Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible

Unlike the Pharisees, who interpreted biblical law regarding the contribution of half a shekel as an annual contribution, the Qumran Sect interpreted it as a contribution made once in a lifetime, when the person reached the age of twenty. Here, too, the Pharisees attempted to link the Temple service to the people by using their contribution for the daily cult. -- Israel Knohl, The Divine Symphony: The Bible’s Many Voices

In spending money, one must remember that the coin of gold or silver like a fire. Fire can burn and destroy, but if it is put to proper use, it can give warmth and do much good. The same is true of the coin. If it is spent for good causes, such as charity and free loans to the deserving needy, it can be of great benefit to mankind, but if it should be squandered for evil purposes, it can cause ruin and damage like fire that is allowed to burn unintended. -- Noam Elimelekh

Questions for Discussion:

Knight and Levine clarify that the practice of collecting the half-shekel for the census is as much about the individual as it is about the health of the collective whole. What practices in our society successfully keep in mind both the individual and the community? What about practices in our Jewish communities? Does a society’s future depend on a healthy balance of both, or are there times when we must emphasize community more and other times when individual needs should come first?

Knohl points out that early Jewish communities differed on how often the half-shekel must be offered. What are examples of practices that are important to engage in at least annually? Practices that need not happen more than once in a lifetime? Is an annual practice necessarily more important than a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence? For example, if one had the means, would it be important to travel to Israel annually? Or would a single trip suffice? Is there a Biblical basis to high holiday appeals at so many synagogues?

Elimelekh believes that where we spend money is an important moral choice. How does the command of the half-shekel reflect the priorities of the ancient Israelite community? Given that it is incumbent on every Jew, regardless of income, to give tzedakah, how do our decisions of where and how much to give impact the lives of those around us? How do we decide, how should we decide, as we consider whether to give more or less to Jewish causes, as opposed to secular causes or locally as opposed to nationally or internationally, or to Israel as opposed to causes in North America?

Theme #2: “V’Shamru …”

The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages ages as a covenant for all time. (Exodus 31:16)

One of the most familiar phrases from Shabbat liturgy takes place at the conclusion of the lengthy description of the Tabernacle and all that goes with it.

Why is [the word] Shabbat stated twice? ... Perhaps because there are two dimensions to Shabbat. One mode is sitting still and not doing anything, keeping the word, the conduct, and the like. The other mode is getting up and doing something, enjoying Shabbat, learning Torah and the like. ... Only [when fulfilling both dimensions of Shabbat will Shabbat become] "throughout their generations, an eternal covenant. For at last the children of Israel, having earned a time of unending Shabbat, will be "redeemed in an instant." -- S.A. Taub of Modzhitz

“Le-dorotam” (“throughout their generations”) is spelled without the Hebrew letter vav. Hence, it may be read le-dirotam (“throughout their dwelling places”). When the Sabbath enters and the dwelling place of the Jewish home is ready to receive it, if the Sabbath table is set and the lights have been kindled, the Shekhina says: “I will dwell here with you.” But if the home is not properly prepared for the Sabbath, the Shekhina says: “This is no dwelling-place of Israel.” -- Yalkut Reubeni

What is the proof that danger to human life suspends the laws of Shabbat? … Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya cited, “The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath” (Exodus 31:16). The Torah says: Profane one Sabbath for a man’s sake, so that he may keep many Sabbaths. – Talmud Yoma 85b

Questions for Discussion:

S.A. Taub of Modzhitz reminds us that observing Shabbat can be more than simply refraining from work; in its ultimate form, Shabbat is a time for learning and thinking while enjoying family and good food. What makes a particular Shabbat fulfilling? What are the best circumstances for enjoying Shabbat? What can we do to make Shabbat the highlight of our week? And is it possible to enjoy Shabbat if we only observe one of the two dimensions of the day?

Yalkut Reubeni’s teaching reinforces both the centrality of the home in Shabbat observance and the concept of hiddur mitzvah (fulfilling a mitzvah ought to be aesthetically pleasing) whenever possible. How can we make our homes a place where Shabbat is not only observed, but observed beautifully? Are luxurious items or food necessary for such an endeavor? And how can we help create beautiful Shabbatot for those who cannot afford fancy items?

The Talmud explains that it is worthwhile to sacrifice one Shabbat observance for the sake of preserving a lifetime’s worth of Shabbat observance. This one of many occasions when we must set aside performance of one mitzvah so that it is possible to observe many others. What are other examples of this kind of choice? In the case of saving a life, the choice to suspend Shabbat observance is clear-cut; what should we do when the choices aren’t quite as obvious?

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