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Parashat Ki Tisa 5780 — 03/14/2020

Parashat Ki Tisa 5780 — 03/14/2020

Shemot 30:11-34:35

When you count the heads [lit. “lift up the heads”] of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, and every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them (30:12).

This is an odd verse and an odd concept. We are coming up on the 24th decennial census in the US, and so far there have not been any plagues associated with any one of them, unless one considers the fighting over Congressional and state legislature redistricting to be a plague. Why does the census that Gd specifies for the Jewish people have to be done indirectly, by means of counting half-shekel contributions? What is the meaning of the expression “lifting the heads”? And why a plague?

An exhaustive treatment of these topics would fill a book. Before I go on to the Or haChaim’s comments I’ll mention briefly a couple of ideas that have been put forth. Normally, when a census is taken it’s just a head count – all we’re interested in is some basic demographic information (age, gender) for planning purposes. We are not interested in anybody’s individual situation, their hopes and fears, the direction of their lives, etc. I think the reason for this is that the government has no way of dealing with all that information, so it must aggregate it into a few, simple categories.

This approach, where people are treated as statistics, as commodities to be bought and sold in bulk, is dehumanizing. We are not just ciphers or cogs in a great wheel. We are beings who are able to make moral choices, to direct our lives and have an impact on all of creation. Perhaps it is this dehumanization which is itself the plague that is referred to in the verse. (For another take on this issue, read the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov.) Moshe is told not just to count the people, but to “lift up the heads” of the people – each individual was individually uplifted by Moshe Rabbeinu during the counting.

Or haChaim uses some alternate meanings of some of the words in the opening verses to derive some important lessons in our outlook on the way Gd runs His world. At times we see truly righteous people who die young, and evil people who live long and apparently happy, prosperous lives. This of course causes a great deal of confusion, for why would a just Gd deal, apparently, unjustly? This is called the problem of theodicy, in Hebrew, tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo (“Why do bad things happen to good people, and good things to bad people”). Needless to say, countless explanations have been offered in religious and philosophical traditions around the world, none of which I am qualified or interested in detailing here. I might point out that according to the Rabbis, when Moshe (in our parashah) asks Gd to “show me Your ways,” he is asking this very question.

Or haChaim begins by translating “When you count the Children of Israel…” as “When the head of the Children of Israel is lifted…” We have noted above that the literal meaning of the verse is “to lift the head” with “head” being singular. It only becomes plural in the idiomatic English translation. The “head of the Children of Israel” is the leader of the community, be it an official of the community or an acknowledged tzaddik (righteous person) and spiritual leader. “Lifting the head” can mean elevating in stature, as in Yosef’s interpretation of the wine steward’s dream, or it can mean to die or be killed, as in Yosef’s interpretation of the chief baker’s dream (see Gen chapter 40). The reason this happens is given by the word lifkudeihem, “their countings” but interpreted here as “their deficiencies.”

Thus, the verse reads, “When the Children of Israel lose their spiritual leaders because of their sins / deficiencies, then each man must offer an atonement for his soul to Gd.” This can be read in one of two ways: (1) either the death of the tzaddik provides an atonement for the sins of the generation and/or (2) when a tzaddik is taken from a generation, the people living then should take stock of their actions, the deficiencies of which caused the departure of the tzaddik, and make the necessary corrections (“atone” = do t’shuvah). The first reading starts shading into the area of another religion, which I find a bit uncomfortable. The second, and perhaps more natural reading of the verse, is a more thoroughly Jewish response to evil, which is that we each must take personal responsibility not only for our own spiritual growth, but for the growth of the community as a whole.

How might the death of a tzaddik atone for a generation? How does atonement work, on either an individual or a communal level? Atonement of course is based on repentance / t’shuvah which really means, “return.” I take “return” in its deepest sense to mean “return to the deepest level of our Self,” which is the transcendental level, or, as we have discussed on numerous occasions, the unified field from which all individuality springs. When one experiences this field it is as if one sends ripples throughout creation, like dropping a rock into a pond. These ripples create coherence and positivity not only in the individual doing t’shuvah, but in everyone else as well. If this t’shuvah becomes a mass movement, so to speak, then there is some critical mass that can draw the entire society along with it, and perhaps this is part of the legacy of the departed tzaddik.

I believe there is a deeper level to this story. The tzaddik is continually operating from the level of the unified field; his mind is attuned with Gd’s Mind, fully expanded. His thoughts and actions are grounded in the silence of Being. Yet, for all this, he still has a body, some physicality which keeps him separate, to some extent, with his essence. The “death” of a tzaddik is really a very great process of t’shuvah, a return of his body to the dust whence it came, and the “return,” as it were, of his soul to Gd Who gave it. This merging of the tzaddik‘s infinity back into Gd’s infinity has a tremendous purifying effect everywhere, on every thing. It is not a process of loss at all, unless we look at it from a very limited perspective. In fact, it is cause for rejoicing in Heaven and on earth, for it brings both of them closer together.


Commentary by Steve Sufian Parshat Ki Tisa

“Ki Tisa” means “when you take.”  The parshah begins with “The Lrd spoke to Moses saying, ‘When you take the sum of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lrd an atonement for his soul when they are counted so there will be no plague among them when they are counted.’”

This brings us several important points about our drawing on Torah as a help in our return to Oneness, Teshuvah.

The first is that taking a census is a way of revealing that a community is not just a mass of people: each one matters, each one is to be known.

The second is that taking is not just something that Moses was commanded to do so that he would know the community in detail but also something that showed to every member of community that they mattered.

The third is that this principle of knowing the details of the community applies to knowing anything , anyone, including knowing Gd – and it applies not only to Moses but to everyone at all times.

Fourth is that, having shown they matter to Gd, they need to show that Gd matters to them: they need to make a donation as “an atonement for their soul,” a donation to dissolve any impurity that clouds their soul so they can experience “at-Onement,” Oneness with Gd. The donation in this parshah is a half-shekel and this is symbolic of our relation with Gd: we do our part and Gd does the rest. It is extremely kind of Gd to suggest to us that we are doing half and Gd is doing half. The reality, of course, is that we do our maximum and it is only a tiny drop of the Unbounded Ocean that is Gd.

If impurities are not dissolved, then they will distort Gd’s Presence and the Eternal Blessing that is Gd will be experienced as a plague. This is a particularly apt concern in this time when worries are that coronavirus can spread as does a plague. Our donation at this time is to take very good care of our health: get good rest, good food, wash hands (see for guidelines and information). As always, donations to charity with an open heart help us to stay pure and get purer.

Fifth is that the half-shekel will go to provide oil, along with the other offerings in the Temple.

In the previous parshah, we presented the view that the oil intended to provide fuel for the Eternal Flame is by our Sages considered symbolic of wisdom and that wisdom and eternity belong to Gd; so the Eternal Flame is symbolic of Gd.

The oil that people bring will be enhanced by the “art of the perfumer” with various spices and will be used in anointing the Tabernacle, the Ark, the priests and various parts of the Tabernacle. This anointing oil will be holy and everything anointed becomes holy as does everyone who touches the holy objects. “Holy” means “Whole,” Teshuvah, Full Restoration of the Awareness of One beyond the duality of Gd and individual.

One way to look at this is that the enhancing brings out qualities in the pure oil that were latent without the enhancement. My guess is that not only were these qualities perceivable in the anointing oil but they also began to be perceivable in the un-enhanced oil used in the Eternal Flame and in Gd’s Presence in the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting. These qualities would be not only that of fragrance but of visibility, audibility, touchability. Gd would be Concrete and Detailed: The reality that Gd is All and Everyone, Everything would be perceivable in the Eternal Flame and everywhere. Our ancestors would be gaining Omniscience, they would be making significant progress to complete Teshuvah, complete restoration of the Awareness that all is One, beyond the duality of Gd and person. Gd and things.

The fact that enhancement of the oil and the enhancement of perception was needed is suggested by the fact that in this parshah we are also told that when Moses came down from listening to Gd at the top of Mt. Sinai, he found the people worshiping the Golden Calf, dancing around it. Despite hearing Gd’s voice, and seeing Gd in flame and smoke, our ancestors needed something concrete to trust in.

To make Gd Concrete in our lives, we need to offer not only abstract wisdom, symbolized by pure oil, but also something we ourselves create; not something to worship instead of Gd, like the Golden Calf created by Aaron from vessels brought by our ancestors, but something to enhance our worship of Gd, to make it personal, like the enhancements of the pure oil with the spices and the art of the perfumer. Living our daily life with such creativity. Gd becomes more perceivable to us, and we do not need a Golden Calf or any material object to substitute for Gd: we perceive Gd and trust by Direct Experience that Gd is Real, Almighty, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omni-Joyful. Omni-Compassionate and that we are Gd in disguise, playing the important roles of our individual lives.

The cheerful respect and competence that our Congregation displays at each service suggests we are doing well in our lives to be pure, loving, generous, simple and our making our relationship with Gd, concrete and personal. This makes me very happy.

Baruch HaShem