Torah Reading — 20 Adar 5777 — 18 March 2017

Categories: Weekly Torah Reading

Ki Tisa: Exodus 30:11 — 34:35

כי תשא


Every Israelite had to give half a shekel (Ex. 30:13). What is a shekel? The Torah explains, “The shekel is 20 gerahs”. Moses must have had a problem with the mathematics, because the sages say (Shek. 4b) that God displayed a coin of fire to show Moses what was meant. But surely Moses could have worked it out for himself?

One possibility is hinted at by Rashi, who indicates that there was some confusion amongst the people as to the exact weight of the gerah, so God had to settle the conflict.

Another approach takes into account the psychology of Moses. As a spiritual leader he may have thought everyone should devote 100 per cent of their time to spiritual pursuits. Prayer, meditation, study – it could add up to a full-time occupation.

God, however, had a different plan. Half of a person’s time, energy and means had to go to spirituality, and half to material pursuits.

Yet even that is not quite as simple as it sounds. Just as there is a distinction between pure and applied mathematics – and other disciplines also – there is a distinction between pure and applied spirituality. Pure spirituality focuses on the soul. Applied spirituality works in and on the more mundane activities of the human being.

A person needs to eat – that’s a mundane activity – but eating with refinement and accompanied by b’rachot, that’s applied spirituality. A person has to work (the rabbis say that a person who wishes to observe a Sabbath must first spend the weekdays in work, even unpaid work if necessary) – and working honestly and ethically is applied spirituality.

One must live as a spiritual and ethical human being in the midst of the world, not as a hermit in seclusion.


A leader’s ransom

Counting heads is the subject of the opening section of this week’s portion.

The Hebrew literally means “When you take the head of the Children of Israel” – an instruction about taking a census. Look at the word rosh (as head) in a different sense and it means a head of the community. In that sense it tells the people what to look for in a leader. The criterion is kofer nafsho, literally “a ransom for himself”.

In the context of the census it tells us that every citizen has to pay a poll tax, and from the number of such payments we calculate how many people there are.

In relation to a leader it denotes his preparedness to be “a ransom”, the bearer of responsibility for his community. A leader who keeps aloof from the people and never emerges from his office not only is unaware of what is happening around him but is an administrator but no leader.

The Talmud makes this point in relation to Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua. When Rabban Gamliel visited Rabbi Joshua he was surprised to see how black his house walls were since he worked as a charcoal maker. Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to the generation whose leader you are, since you have no idea of how the sages live!” (B’rachot 27b/28a).

Half a shekel

Ki Tisa commences with the law of the half shekel. People were counted by means of their half-shekel contributions. The number of half-shekels signified how many Israelites there were.

Fair enough, but why a half shekel and not a full one?

The rabbis saw this as a lesson which the Almighty taught to Moses. It showed that were two sides to life, the material and the spiritual. Half the day was for material pursuits, half for spiritual striving.

God gave the example. He was both immanent and transcendent, both within and beyond the physical world. Human beings had to devote themselves to tilling and tending the earthly world, but not to the exclusion of spiritual concerns… and vice-versa: no-one had right to disdain the earthly realm and seek spirituality without material concerns.


Shabbat Shalom

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by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD