Skip to content

Parashat Ki Tisa 5779 — 02/23/2019

Parashat Ki Tisa 5779 — 02/23/2019

Shemot 30:11-34:35
I am told that there is a Japanese expression, “The nail that sticks its
head up is the one that gets hammered.” Japan is a very crowded set of
islands and survival requires a close coordination of the activities of
individual for the common good. The US has traditionally taken the
opposite tack – the “rugged individualist,” the maverick who defies
authority and prevails, is held up as the ideal. This approach certainly
provides incentive for individual initiative, but, taken to extremes,
can damage social cohesion. An ideal society balances between these two
poles, providing ample opportunity for individual creativity to benefit
both the individual and society, and rewards people in a way that
recognizes a person’s worth as a human being, not just his or her
economic value.

Judaism tries to achieve this balance in many ways – the Yovel (Jubilee)
year every 50 years where the entire nation goes through a kind of
economic “reset” being one obvious example. The half-shekel that every
male over the age of 20 had to give for the census, and later, as a
yearly donation to the Temple, is interpreted by some as another. For
the verse says, “…the rich shall not give more, nor the poor less.”
Everyone contributes equally to the great communal project – everyone
has an equal share in the community’s connection to Gd.

There is another aspect of the half-shekel contribution in our parashah.
It is called an “atonement” (kofer, same root as in Yom Kippur) for each
person’s soul, so that there shouldn’t be a plague on the nation. R.
Goldin asks what is the nature of this plague and why a plague should be
associated with taking a census (as happened towards the end of King
David’s reign). Furthermore, why should everyone’s contributing a
half-shekel, no more and no less, avert this plague (there was no plague
in Moshe’s time, but there was one in David’s time, where he simply did
a head count)?

Most of the approaches that R. Goldin brings have to do with the idea of
unity (achdut) among the people – and the “plague” may be read as the
plague of divisiveness and dissension that can destroy a community or a
country. Another interpretation of the “plague” Torah warns us against
is the “evil eye” (ayin hara). Here’s what R. Goldin has to say:
Commenting on the phrase “and there shall be no plague among them”‘
Rashi immediately pronounces that during a census the participants
become vulnerable because “the evil eye rules during counting”‘ …
Once introduced, the concept of ayin hara cannot be ignored. On the one
hand, Jewish thought clearly accepts the existence of this esoteric,
unlucky, damaging force. Literally hundreds of sources in traditional
Jewish literature make it clear that real danger lies at the center of
an ayin hara gaze. And yet, an argument could well be made that the very
concept of an evil eye runs directly counter to the clear prohibition
against superstition found in the Torah text.

I’d like to make one side comment before launching into a discussion of
the “evil eye.” Rashi says, “the evil eye rules during counting.” There
is a similar principle that “a blessing cannot rest on anything that has
been counted, weighed or measured.” “Blessing” in this case is taken to
mean, “increase.” The idea is that once we have measured the amount of
what we have (be it weight, volume or number), Gd can no longer give us
any more. By seeking to know what we have, we as if cut ourselves off
from the infinite Source of riches. If we ask for boundaries, that is
what we get. If we have complete trust in Gd, and that is not a state of
consciousness that most people have, then we get unboundedness. This is
similar to the quantum mechanical phenomenon of the “collapse of the
wave function.” The elementary particles of creation are actually waves
of various different fields – the photon of light is really an
electromagnetic wave, for example. If we try to treat the particle as a
bounded object and ask where it is at any particular time, nature does
its best to give us an answer, but in doing so the particle “collapses”
to a single point and loses its wave nature, which is actually
unbounded. Somehow, it seems that our desire for specificity interferes
with nature’s desire to keep things fluid, and with Gd’s desire to
shower blessings upon us. And this relates back to our census – by
counting the number of Israelites directly, we become vulnerable to the
plague of being fixed in place – loss of Gd’s blessings is in itself a

Now let’s return to the ayin hara. The ayin hara is often associated
with envy. If I have some good fortune and publicly flaunt it, I
naturally arouse envy in those around me. It’s too bad, perhaps. Our
tradition tells us that Gd gives us exactly the resources we need to
accomplish our mission on earth. Having somebody else’s resources does
us no good in terms of our spiritual development, and may even do us
harm by getting in the way. Nonetheless, people look at us and our new
found wealth and think, “Why should he have so much and I have to
struggle to get by?” And all those negative thoughts have their effect,
both directly on us and on the environment.

We go through all kinds of ritualized behavior to avoid the evil eye,
from saying Kinnehora (“no evil eye”) when recounting good news, to not
counting Jews directly, etc. R. Goldin suggests that the concept of the
“evil eye” comes to teach us something more profound: Envy of anyone
else’s life situation, indeed comparing ourselves to anybody else, is
profoundly damaging to both. We believe that everyone’s situation has
been designed for him or her specifically to provide the opportunity for
that soul to grow in the ways it needs to grow, and to contribute to the
revelation of the Divine in the world in the way only it can. If we
focus on what we are supposed to be doing, and not on what someone else
has or is doing (unless we have to interact with them of course), the
world would be a much better place. Kinnehora!

Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Ki Tisa
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 to me, the Eternal Flame is symbolic of Gd.

In this parshah, Gd commands Moses to tell the people to bring oil that 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 and people. “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 is also perceivable in Gd’s Presence dwelling in the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting. These qualities would be not only that of fragrance but of visibility, audibility, touch-ability. 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 perceive Gd and to 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 make our relationship with Gd, concrete and personal. This makes me very happy.

Baruch HaShem