Parshas Ki Sisa; Limits : So...this action-packed sedra (building mishkan things, golden calf, near destruction of the Jewish People, 2nd tablets, pesach, bikkurim, shavuos, Moshe's mask, etc...hardly time 2 catch your breath!) starts with the giving of the half shekel. Now the purpose of giving the half shekel was either to be part of the public sacrifices or donations (see rashi & tosfos kesubos 108); the 1/2 shekel itself was just a means to enable the Jews to be counted, lest there be a plague if we were counted individually (2nd pasuk of the sedra - 30;12). But what is so bad about counting Jews individually? Rashi (30;12) says ayin hara - what does that mean?

(most of what i am about to say comes from a tape i heard by rabbi tatz btw). To understand this, we need to get an understanding of what curse (klala) is in Judaism. One of the things to learn from the fact that the mizbayach had a slope and not steps is that just as when one puts a ball on a slope it rolls down, so too in jewish person's life there is either a religious up or a down - there is no 'staying the same'. Staying the same (like the ball) means rolling downwards. [This is also (as my grandpa said at Ariel's barmitzvah) a message of the half shekel that each person realise they are just a half and thus still have room to work on themseves].

Thus, the status quo should be that we are growing always. A curse in Judaism is if something staying precisely the same way it is, without increasing. (As a Spurs fan i can appreciate this curse. Those Man City fans might be grateful for keeping constant survival but should still get the point!) Thus, giving anything limits is essentially putting a curse on it. One aspect of this is that a woman ('nekeivah') has an aspect of curse (sometimes called 'kavah' in Hebrew - bamidbar 23;8) in that (as evident physically in childbirth) she gives physical limits to things (the baby in the womb). Now once something is counted, dimensions are put onto it, and there is almost an admission of limitation - remember that we are supposed to be as numerous as the stars and sand grains (eg bereishis 32;13) (that if i remember correctly is where the gemorro deduces the issur in counting bnei yisrael from). So bnei yisrael cannot be counted individually - it is against our supernatural and limitless nature.

One explanation of the stars and sand bracha (i heard in the name of the orech chaim) is that individually we will be like starts, and as a collective unified entity we will be like sand. ie individually we will shine independently and brightly, and collectively as a Jewish nation we will be as strong, resiliant, and unified (sand does not dissolve by the way) as the sand grains. Note we are the only nation in the history of the world to have returned to its homeland three time after exile. This message is very apt nowadays; in a world which tells us that we have no self-confidence (what do you expect when we are led to believe we came from monkeys), we dont realise that both on a collective and an individual level that so much of the limits we have are merely limits placed by ourselves, without which we would burst through all personal and collective expectations.

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