Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Parshat Ki Tissa

There are four Sedra Shorts on Pashat Ki Tissa:

Blood Money

The Other Golden Calves

Counting the People

The Golden Calf

Blood Money

This week's parsha begins with a very strange rule:

"When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord a ransom (
כֹּפֶר) for his soul when they are counted; so that there will be no plague among them when they are counted" Shemot 30:12. This is a strange concept. To begin with, why should a person have to pay a ransom just because he is being counted? Why does he need ransoming, what is he being held accountable for? Secondly, why should a plague result from the ransom not being paid? To answer this question, we will look at the word כֹּפֶר (ransom) by looking at its other appearances in the Torah.

In this form, it appears only a further three times in the Torah. Each case involves a homicide: 1. The owner of a habitually goring bull (
שור מועד) that has killed a person must pay a ransom (כֹּפֶר) in order to redeem his own life. “Insofar as ransom (כֹּפֶר) shall be levied upon him, he shall give the redemption of his soul according to all that is levied upon him" Ibid 21:30.

The owner of the bull really deserves to forfeit his life because of the life that his bull had taken. He knew his bull was dangerous, but did not take enough precautions. Nevertheless, the Torah allows him to ransom his life with a cash payment. 2. On the other hand, a murderer cannot save his life by paying the ransom: “You shall not accept ransom (
כֹּפֶר) for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, for he shall be put be put to death” (Bemidbar 35:31).

On no account can a murderer forfeit execution by paying a ransom.
3. Neither can an accidental killer save himself from exile by paying a ransom: “You shall not accept ransom (
כֹּפֶר) for one who has fled to his city of refuge, to allow him to return to live in the Land” (ibid 32).

In each of these cases, a ransom can or cannot be paid in lieu of the lost life of another.

It seems that it was common practice for people who had caused the death of another to forfeit execution or punishment by paying blood money, a ransom. The Torah forbids this procedure in the case of homicide, but permits it in the case of habitually goring bull.
Now let's return to this week's parsha.

The standard motive for a census was to prepare men for battle. Soldiers in combat are expected to kill. The Torah insists that as part of their conscription, the soldiers must pay a ransom for those they are destined to slay. The soldier enrolling for war must recognize that the taking of life, even that of an enemy in battle, is something that must never come easy. For their lives, he must gain atonement. He does it by paying the ransom. Failure to pay the ransom is equivalent to devaluing human life and would lead to God's wrath being vented against them.

The Other Golden Calves

This week's parsha sees the ultimate betrayal. Only a few months previously, God had brought Israel out of Egypt with tremendous miracles, culminating with the splitting of the Red Sea. Seven weeks later, God revealed Himself to the entire people and gave them the Ten Commandments. They began with the words: "I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt" (Shemot 20:1).

Yet, when Israel created the Golden Calf they proclaimed: "This is your god O Israel, who has brought you up from the land of Egypt" (ibid 32:4).

What is interesting is that Israel makes this very same proclamation just over 400 years later.

The northern tribes had just broken away from the rule of Rechavam, the Davidic king. Yeravam, the Northern Kingdom's newly crowned king, is worried that his secession would be short lived as his people's spiritual center continued to be Jerusalem. Therefore, he created his own spiritual centers: "The king took counsel and made two golden calves, and he said to them, saying, 'It is far for you to go up to Jerusalem; here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt'" (I Melachim 12:28).

Once cannot help but notice this parallel. For the second time in history, Israel has created golden calves and they make the same declaration about them being the gods who brought Israel out of Egypt. The Soncono commentary on Melachim asks whether it is possible that this formula was peculiar to calf-worship. However, surely these words would remind Israel of their previous apostasy and would teach them that these gods that Yeravam created were false and calamitous?

Perhaps however, these words were not actually said by Yeravam. What does this mean?

When the Tanach records conversations, it does not normally quote the exact words. Conversations were likely to be much longer, but the Torah just brings the summary, or the main points it wants us to learn. Indeed, the Daat Mikra commentary writes that only when the Torah uses the Hebrew word "
לאמר" - "saying", is it giving an exact quote. Otherwise the, Torah just brings the main ideas.

Therefore, rather than asking why Yeravam said what he said, we should be asking why the author of Sefer Melachim quotes Yeravam as saying: "Here are your gods, O Israel, that have brought you up from the land of Egypt."

It is possible that Yeravam did not say those words. Indeed, he would have been very foolish to say so. However, the prophet wants us to realize that Yeravam understood that he was not merely making a political decision to stabilize his own rule. The prophet wants us to know that Yeravam and the people fully appreciated that he was turning Israel into apostates on the same degree as the Golden calf apostasy.

If the Prophet would have quoted Yeravam's actual words, we, the reader would not have understood that Yeravam and the people were making a huge apostasy. We would have thought that he was just making a political decision. However, by bringing the quote from our parsha, we, the reader, now understand that Yeravam was fully aware of the great evil that he was doing.

Counting the People

Moshe made a number of population censuses during Israel's wandering in the wilderness. Indeed, throughout the Tanach, especially before battles, the people are counted. Nevertheless, counting the people could lead to disaster and therefore the Torah says that a donation of half shekel should be made as part of the census. This will be considered as atonement for their souls so that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted" (Shemot 30:12).

There was one instance when the disaster struck Israel as the direct outcome of a census.

In the final chapter of Sefer Shmuel, King David tells Yoav: "Go now to and fro throughout all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beer-Sheva, and count the people, that I may know the sum of the people" (II Shmuel 24:2).

Yoav's response is one of caution: "May the Lord your God increase the number of the people many hundreds of times over, and may the eyes of my lord the king see it; but why does my lord the king desire this thing?" (ibid 3).

It is clear that Yoav was against the mission and saw it as asking for trouble.

Nevertheless, being a loyal servant, Yoav traverse the country and counts the people. After nine months and twenty days he reports his conclusions (1,300,000 fighters) back to the king. David immediately recognizes his mistake and his "heart smote him after that he had numbered the people" and he admits he has "been very foolish" (ibid 10).

70,000 people die as a result of a plague, a punishment that David chose, as a result of the census.

What is so bad about a census and why can it be catastrophic?

The answer is nothing; as long as there is a purpose to the census. The fact is that in order to prepare a country for the future, governments need to know its population tally, both nationally regionally and the projected growth in the different areas.

Yet, David's only desire was to "know the sum of the people", i.e. to know how powerful his kingdom was. So Yoav tries to dissuade him telling him that that he should be even greater but that he doesn't really need to know the exact figure.

However, when Moshe and others count the people, it is because they need to know how many fighters they have at their disposal, as they are preparing for battle.

That is why the actual counting is dangerous. The minute the people (AKA men of military age) are being counted, fear sets in that war (and possibly even a new taxation) is imminent. When will they see their families again, who will tend to the farm and ensure that their families are safe and looked after, and will they even be returning? The effect on the morale, the economy and other aspects of family and national life can be devastating.

Therefore, counting the people for no purpose is not just pointless, it's counter-productive.

In order to offset the breakdown in morale, the Torah asks that everyone counted submit a half shekel donation to the Temple. The people, who are confident in God's protective powers, will then have the assurance that "there will be no plague among them when they are counted". They and their families will be safe.

The Golden Calf

Israel witnessed frightening events when God revealed Himself to Israel at Sinai (See Shemot Chapter 20). They then saw Moshe go up the mountain into the eye of the storm, without any food or provisions. He had not been seen since.

Israel's reaction was "Make us a god (elohim) that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don't know what has become of him".

This is strange, because if they wanted a replacement for god, Moshe's disappearance is irrelevant.

We have therefore to alternatives to understanding the people's requests:

The people thought the Moshe was a god
The people wanted a replacement for Moshe

It is easy to understand why the people may have thought that Moshe was a divine being. The people had seen Moshe perform signs, the ten plagues to Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the falling of the Manna and the water from the rock. Despite Moshe's insistence that they worship God, the people, with a primitive understanding of religion, may have still believed that he was a god.

However, even if the people did not think that Moshe we can still understand their request as a seeking a replacement for Moshe. If so, then why do the people ask for a

Within, Sefer Shemot, we have numerous examples where the word elohim, does not necessarily mean, God, but leader:

"Then his master shall bring him to the judges (elohim), and shall bring him to the door, or unto the door-post" (21:6).

"The plea[s] of both parties shall come to the judges (elohim), [and] whoever the judges (elohim) declare guilty shall pay twofold to his neighbor (22:8).

However, the most telling is:

"The Lord said to Moses, "See! I have made you a lord (elohim) over Pharaoh, and Aaron, your brother, will be your speaker" (7:1).

While it is also possible that Pharaoh also saw Moshe as a god, it is clear that God did not. Therefore, the word elohim does not necessarily mean God.

Therefore, by calling for the Golden Calf, Israel did not seek to replace God Himself, only Moshe. The problem, however, is that once the calf was created, the people forgot that it was merely a medium, but a god itself.


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