Beit Midrash

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

Who Counts in Judaism?

The Parsha begins with Hashem’s command to conduct a census of Bnei Yisrael. Why is the command given here?


Rabbi Stewart Weiss

Adar I 15 5782
Ki Tisa’s central subject, of course, is the incident of the Egel HaZahav, the Golden Calf. But the Parsha begins with Hashem’s command to conduct a census of Bnei Yisrael; each person donates a half-shekel to be used both for the communal Korbanot as well as for the upkeep of the Mishkan. Why is the command "davka" given here? The classic answer is that this Sedra is read during Adar, in advance of Nisan, when an unusually large amount of offerings would be brought. It’s also read close to Purim, & Chazal offer that the silver of the census is an antidote to the silver Haman tried to give to Achashverosh to murder the Jews. (Achashverosh, no less a Jew-hater, refused the bribe and signed Haman's edict anyway!).

But could there be another reason for the census appearing in this Parsha?

4 times within 5 P’sukim the word "Kofer," or "Kapara" is used. The usual translation of this word is "atonement," suggesting that by joining in a community-wide effort to maintain the Mishkan, we would be forgiven for our sins. Fair enough.

But I want to suggest that these donations are also directly linked to the sin of the Egel Zahav. The root KFR can also mean rejection, or denial of Hashem, as in "Kefira," When we chose to worship a calf – a symbol of idolatry that we knew from our days in Egypt – we were insolently insulting G-d, & so we were in dire need of saving our souls.

But why did we do it?! Why, so soon after the Exodus & Ma’amad Har Sinai, just when Moshe was bringing down the Luchot, did we have the Chutzpah to proclaim that an inanimate object was a replacement for the living G-d?

The incident of the Calf begins, "And it was when Moshe delayed his descent from the mountain…" The unusual word used here for "delayed" (the only time it appears in the Torah!) is "Boshesh." It clearly connects to "busha," or shame. The nation was so ashamed of itself & unsure of its own merit, so sure that they needed an intermediary to reach Hashem, that they freaked out when Moshe seemed to be late, & frantically created a demi-god to take Moshe’s place.

The way to restore the people’s confidence in themselves was to count them, to indicate that each & every person is valuable & counts in G-d’s eyes. The strange term the Torah uses here for counting, "Ki Tisa" - to "lift up" (the heads of the people) sends the image that we can all hold our heads up high, knowing that Hashem loves & wants us. And the fact that money is involved pits our silver against the calf’s gold & thus we are "makdim refua l’maka," we administer the antidote prior to the ailment - just as we are doing regarding Haman's payment.

So, people of Israel, hold your heads up high, don’t lose faith in yourself & don’t be "cowed" by others. Remember: YOU are golden - Hashem loves you – and you count!
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