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Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Sisa: Half for half

Summary

G'd instructs Moses to count the Jewish people by counting the coins of half a shekel given by every man. The sin after "half a day" refers to the sin of the golden calf. The half shekel was atonement for the sin of the golden calf. We are only half way, and we are never able to see the complete picture. What had initially appeared to be destructive to the city child was very much worthwhile, for the final product would provide sustenance for thousands of people. The half shekel reminds us that we do not see the complete picture. The Jewish people sinned at that time because they thought they had come full circle. Only when we have the whole Purim story in front of us do we realize how each event was part of G'd's masterplan to save His Chosen People.

Half shekel census

In the beginning of this week's Parasha, G'd instructs Moses to count the Jewish people. This census was accomplished by counting the coins of half a shekel given by every man. The Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 2:3) discusses why they had to give only half a shekel. We would expect that everyone should give a whole shekel. The Talmud explains that since the Jewish people had sinned after half a day, therefore they were commanded to give half a shekel.

Sin at half day

The sin after "half a day" refers to the sin of the golden calf mentioned later in this week's Parasha. The Talmud (Shabbat 89a) relates that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai, he informed the Jewish people that he would return after forty days in the sixth hour. The Jewish people were under the impression that the day he ascended was part of the calculation of the forty days. However, this was a mistake. Moses was required to stay on the mountain for forty full days. On the day that the Jewish people expected Moses to return, the Satan appeared to them to confuse them. He deceptively asked, 'Where is Moses your teacher?" The Jewish people answered, "He ascended the mountain." The Satan continued and said, "It is already the sixth hour", but they ignored him. "He must have died", said the Satan. They continued to ignore him. Finally, when the Satan saw that he was not getting anywhere with his smooth talk, he made it appear as if Moses was lying on his death bed. With this he managed to set in motion the sin of the golden calf. This is what the Jerusalem Talmud refers to when it says that the Jewish people sinned at half day, in the sixth hour.

Tabernacle and golden calf

Rabbi Yosef Zvi Salant asks, "What is the connection between the sin of the golden calf that took place at half day and the giving of the half shekel to the Tabernacle at the time of the census of the Jewish people?" The Da'as Zekenim already addresses this point and explains that the half shekel was atonement for the sin of the golden calf. This is the simple understand when it says (Shemos 30:15): "The wealthy shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel to atone for your souls." Although the instructions of building the Tabernacle are mentioned before the sin of the golden calf, it only took place afterwards. The fact that the Jewish people were instructed to build a structure that would allow the Divine presence to dwell among them, in itself is an indication that G'd had forgiven them on some level for the sin of the golden calf.

Half-way picture

However, we still need to understand the deeper significance of the half shekel being an atonement for the sin of the golden calf that took place at half day. Rabbi Salant explains that this comes to teach us that we should always realize that we are only half way, and never are we able to see the complete picture. When we look at the world around us, we often have questions that disturb us. Many situations seem to be unfair. This applies both on a national and individual level. At the revelation at Mount Sinai, G'd informed us that we are His Chosen people and He performed many miracles from the time of the exodus from Egypt, throughout our sojourn in the Wilderness, till we finally reached the Holy Land. But for thousands of years, we have been exiled and have gone through countless hardships. How can we reconcile that with our status of G'd's Chosen People? On an individual level, the question arises every now and again when we see the righteous suffering, whereas the wicked often seem to prosper and have a good time. The answer to all this is that, in our relative short time here on earth, we do not see the full picture. It is therefore impossible for us to understand what really is happening.

City child experiences life on a farm

Rabbi Salant quotes a parable regarding a child who grew up in the city and never had experienced life beyond the city limits. One day, the child was sent to the countryside, where he lived on a farm. Not long after his arrival, he saw how the farmer brought out his equipment to plow his fields. It bothered the child to see how the farmer dug his equipment into the ground, spoiling the nice smooth surface. He was even more surprised when he saw the farmer take sacks of wheat kernels and spread them all over the plowed fields. He did not dare to ask his generous host what he was doing and why he was wasting these kernels. He was totally at a loss when he saw how the farmer made sure to bury the kernels deep inside the ground. But as the time passed, he eventually saw the fields starting to sprout beautiful new green plants. He thought to himself, "Now I understand. The whole plowing and planting process was very much worth it as it turned the barren fields into beautiful green pastures."

Flabbergasted

The city child enjoyed seeing the plants continue to grow and develop further and further. It really was a beautiful sight. He would watch for hours as the tall sheaves of wheat swayed in the blowing wind, and he marveled at the wisdom of the farmer who transformed the barren fields into such a spectacular sight. But as the summer came to an end, he was aghast when one morning the farmer came out to harvest and cut down all the beautiful plants that had taken months to develop. The city child thought, "How can anyone be so stupid to spoil all the hard work he had put in to produce this beautiful crop." He could not understand why the farmer would bundle the stalks together into big heaps. What was the purpose of it all? It made no sense. He was even more flabbergasted when he observed how the farmer would thresh the wheat. To him it looked like the farmer was just spoiling everything and destroyed all the good work he had done. Eventually, he saw that the threshing produced a larger amount of wheat kernels than he had originally planted in the ground. Now he understood that it was worthwhile destroying a small amount of these kernels in order to produce so many more. But he was still wondering what the farmer was going to do next. Would he plant them again? He really had enjoyed the beauty of the sheaves.

Larger process

This time the farmer did something even stranger. He took most of his freshly produced kernels to the mill to grind them. Again, it appeared that he spoiled the product he had worked so hard to produce. Finally, when the boy saw the fine flour being taken to the bakery, and mixed with water and other ingredients to produce bread, he realized how he had mistakenly looked at each stage of a much larger process. He now understood that everything had been steps towards a greater purpose. What had initially appeared to be destructive was very much worthwhile, for the final product, these loaves of bread, would provide sustenance for thousands of people.

Small parts of a larger chain

Imagine if this child had returned to the city in the middle of the process. He would have been left with the impression that the farmer had no idea how to produce anything and only was involved in destroying whatever he made. This is how the world appears to us. We are not privileged to live long enough to follow the process from beginning to end. We only see small parts of a much larger chain of events that takes generations to come full cycle. This is the lesson of the half shekel. It reminds us that we do not see the complete picture.

Salvation sprout

We actually refer to this lesson in our daily prayers. In the second blessing of Shemoneh Esrei, we refer to G'd as the "King Who causes death and brings back to life and makes salvation sprout." When G'd lets someone die, it is not the final end of this person. Rather, it is just the end of one stage. The process continues with G'd restoring life, and eventually the salvation will sprout just like the plant in the farmer's field.

Half shekel atonement

This, says Rabbi Salant, is the deeper significance of when the Jerusalem Talmud says that the half shekel comes to atone for the sin of the golden calf. The Jewish people sinned at that time because they thought they had come full circle, and that the time was ripe for Moses to return to them. Had they realized their mistake, and understood that they were still in the middle of a process, they would have listened to Hur who told them to wait, and they would not have forced Aaron to produce the golden calf. This is the deeper meaning of the sin of "half the day". When they gave their half shekel they realized the flaw in their conduct, and this in itself was atonement for their sin.

Purim

This is also the message of Purim that we celebrated just a few days ago. The salvation that G'd brought about to save the Jewish people at the time of Mordechai and Esther, was through a chain of events that seemed not to be related to each other. Only when we have the whole Purim story in front of us do we realize how each event was part of G'd's masterplan to save His Chosen People. If we manage to internalize this message, and realize that, both in our personal lives and national situation, we never see more than only part of the picture, we will never despair. Rather, we look ahead with confidence to the day when G'd will fulfill His promise and make our salvation sprout.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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