Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Ki Tisa
To dedicate this lesson

Ki Tisa


Rabbi Berel Wein

Though the main topic of this week's parsha is certainly the fateful and nearly fatal incident of the Golden Calf, the opening subject of the parsha also bears study and insight. We see throughout the Torah that there is an emphasis placed on counting the numbers of Jews that left Egypt, those that existed in the Sinai desert and finally, those that arrived in the Land of Israel.

In this week's parsha the Torah provides us with the "Jewish" way of counting the people of Israel. We do not count people directly but rather indirectly, as is the case of the half-shekel tax that was imposed by Divine commandment at the beginning of this week's parsha. The number of Jews present and accounted for was arrived at by counting the number of half-shekels that were collected.

We also see later in Jewish history, at the time of King Saul, when he wanted to conduct a census of Israel he did so by having everyone donate a sheep. He then counted the sheep, again not counting the people directly. Even when we count the ten people necessary for a prayer quorum we do not count them directly but rather only by counting the number of words that appear in a certain verse in the Bible.

The Talmud teaches us that King David was found guilty and punished for counting the people directly during his reign. Why is the Torah so interested in the numbers of Jewish population? And why is the Torah so loath to count people in a direct manner?

Even today, the census here in Israel, unlike the ones I remember in the United States, is taken indirectly and no one has ever appeared at my door here in Jerusalem to count how many people live in our home. Apparently this is the "Jewish" way of determining population numbers, always in an indirect fashion.

I think that the lesson here is fairly obvious. No two people are alike and each one is really number one by himself or herself. There is no number two because there is no one else like number one. The uniqueness of every individual is one of the axioms of Jewish life and thought. While people may appear to be similar they are never identical.

Fingerprints and DNA testify to this phenomenon in the physical world. In the spiritual and personal world of our souls, personalities, creativity and accomplishments are unique to each one of us. We are all different for so have we been created by the Lord.

The Torah treats every individual as special and because of this places a emphasis on the numbers of the Jewish people. Look and see how many different people exist within us and yet somehow we are all connected and part of the great whole that is the people of Israel! By counting people directly we somehow minimize their individual qualities and uniqueness.

The Torah, which is interested always in promoting individuality and creativity, counts us many times to indicate our importance, but never directly. The Talmud teaches us that the greatness of God can be seen in the fact that all human beings are stamped from the same die and yet no two are alike.

The Torah wishes us to understand and appreciate this lesson and transmit it to our lives through our actions and attitudes, our behavior and sensitivities. By so doing we "raise our heads" – ki tisa et rosh bnei yisrael - and become worthy of the Lord counting us amongst the eternal people of Israel.
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