Parashas Ki Sisa – Was the Sin of the Golden Calf even Idolatry? : This week's Parasha sees us conclude the descriptions of the preparations for the Tabernacle. The sedra begins with Hashem commanding Moshe to take a census of the Jewish people through the giving of a half shekel coin which were then all counted in order to determine the census. The Torah teaches that it is forbidden to count Jews in an ordinary way, and that when it is necessary to conduct a census, it should be done by having the people contribute items, which would then be counted. The half shekel coin was then used as a charitable contribution in the construction of the Tabernacle. The Torah states, “This shall they give” [30:13]... according to Rashi, Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire and said to him, 'Like this shall they give'... the mefarshim bring down some interesting insights on this, among them are... that G-d showed Moshe through this image that money is like fire, both can be either beneficial or destructive depending on how they are used. Another insight is that if one seeks atonement through the giving of funds for charity, the good deed should be done with fire and enthusiasm. So why a half shekel coin? Many commentators interpret that the requirement of half a coin alludes to the concept that no Jew is complete unless he joins with others; as long as we are in isolation, each of us is only 'half' of our full potential... we are a nation firstly, then individuals. According to a possuk in Proverbs Tzedakah has the ability to save one from death, when we break down the word used by the Torah for the half Shekel... מחצית השקל, we can see illusions to this...

If we take the central letter of the word מחצית.... we have a צ which represents צדקה/Tzedakah...

And what is on either side of the צ... the word חי, which means life.... And what is on the outside which the Tzedakah will keep you distant from... מת, which means death.

Therefore we can bring down that the giving of charity will bring life closer and distance you from death. Cute indeed.

The last three items for the Mishkan to be described are that of the laver, the anointment oil and the incense. The laver was a large, copper water-filled utensil from which the Kohanim were required to wash their hands and feet before performing the service. Rashi informs us that it was a basin which had two spouts at the bottom through which the water would flow. According to Ramban the hands and feet represent the upper and lower extremities of the human body, and by sanctifying them, the Kohanim symbolise their total devotion to the service they are about to perform. For this same reason, it was instituted that we wash our hands before prayer. Whereas the anointment oil and incense were products to be used in the Mishkan, the laver was an actual vessel... so an obvious question to ask is, why wasn't it mentioned with the other ones which were described in Parasha Terumah? Sforno answers this question by stating that the laver was not mentioned with the other utensils in previous chapters because its function was different from theirs. The other parts and vessels caused the Divine Presence to rest on the Tabernacle, whereas the laver merely served to prepare the Kohanim to undertake their mission. The anointment oil and the incense were made by Moshe himself who had the list of superior spices, their heights and weights dictated to him by Hashem. The sages derive that there were eleven ingredients in the incense and they were offered twice a day, morning and night on the Golden Altar which was inside the Tabernacle. The fragrance of the incense was a representation of Israel's responsibility and desire to serve G-d in a manner pleasing to Him. We learn from a Midrash that one of the spices, Galbanum, emitted an offensive odour... if we are told that the Incense was representative of the Jewish people serving him then why have a foul smelling spice in the mixture? With the help of our Sages (as quoted by Rashi) we learn from this that sinners should be included with the community in its fasts and prayers. The incense therefore also expresses the idea of Jewish unity, that everyone from the righteous to the Arsenal fans has a share in the service of G-d.

So we have finally concluded the instructions for the construction of the Mishkan, all we need to know now is who is going to make it all?... The beginning of chapter thirty one tells us of the designation of “Betzalel son of Uri, son of Hur” who will supervise the construction. Betzalel was only thirteen years old at the time and according to a Midrash in gemara Sanhedrin (69b), Hashem revealed to Moshe that he was destined for this task since creation. Betzalel was the son of Hur who had been slain during the incident involving the Golden Calf. The construction of the Mishkan through Hur's grandson atoned for the guilt of Hur's death during this incident. Betzalel was also the great-grandson of Moshe's sister Miriam; she was rewarded with a such an important descendant who knew how to build the Mishkan as a reward for her fear of Hashem which prompted her to disobey Pharaoh's order to murder the Jewish new-born in Egypt. So apart from a fortunate family tree, what did Betzalel have which made him the perfect candidate for such an important mission? It states in the Torah that Hashem... “filled him with a G-dly spirit, with wisdom, insight, and knowledge, and with every craft; to weave designs, to work with gold, silver, and copper; stone-cutting for setting, and wood-carving – to perform every craft” [31:3-4]. Through this 'filling' Hashem effectively showed the whole of Israel that he had not merely redeemed them from slavery but had endowed them with the capacity to serve Him beyond their ordinary human potential. If they showed their desire to do His will, He would respond by giving them the ability and the human resources to do so. We learn some important lessons on this regarding our own motivations, if we show desire to serve Hashem we will receive the help we need... all it takes is for us to motivate ourselves initially and the rest will come. A drunk once staggered out of a bar and tried to make his way home. He lost his way and ended up walking across a cemetery, where, he fell into an open grave. He tried to get out for twenty minutes but was unable to do so. He decided to make himself as comfortable as possible and lay down to stare up at the stars, enjoying the effects of his alcohol. About a half-hour later, another drunk started walking across the cemetery, and in the quiet night he suddenly fell in the same grave. The first drunk, terrified out of his wits at a midnight visitor to a cemetery, immediately jumped out of the grave and ran home. He was later asked how he managed to get out after he had been unable earlier. He replied, “when you are sufficiently motivated, you can do just about anything” (Story from Rabbi Kaplan). The sages expounded that Betzalel knew the art of combining the sacred letters with which the heaven and earth were created, and that he possessed a degree of wisdom similar to that with with which G-d created the universe vessels used for the preparation of a meal-offering. In fact, if we de-construct the name, Betzalel/בצלאל... we get the words בצל which means shadow and א-ל which is one of Hashem's names. We therefore see that his name actually meant, 'he who was in the shadow of the almighty' as his abilities were so great.

Having told us what is to be created for the Mishkan and by who, the Torah is ready to jump back into the narrative on the giving of the Luchos (or Two Tablets of Testimony for the more poetic amongst us) but before we do so the Torah gives us yet another reminder of the importance of keeping Shabbat. This seems like a random place for the Torah to start discussing how we should guard and sanctify the Shabbat considering we already had the laws given over in the giving of the Ten Commandments, only a few parashot ago. The placement here is of course no accident however and it is written just after our completion on the blueprints for the Mishkan as a caution to the nation that the construction of the Tabernacle, however important this mission is, does not override the commandment to keep Shabbat. The Jewish nation are being told here that they must observe Shabbat even while they are fashioning the resting place for G-d's presence.

When Hashem finished giving over the instructions and the additional reminder on the observation of Shabbat, we are told that he gave Moshe the two Luchos which the Torah tells us were made of stone. The Luchos were a physical reminder that Moshe had communication with Hashem... now we just have the narrative in the Torah but originally we had a 'souvenir' from the event which removed any doubts about the revelation at Sinai. Stone is permanent and this choice of material represented the eternalism of the Torah... in fact if we outline the fact that two stones, hit together, create fire we can begin to understand the deeper meaning behind the Luchos. Torah is likened to fire and is mentioned throughout our writings as having the ability to 'burn' the Yatsa Horra or even more colloquially, 'give us that spark'. If we dissect the first word in the Torah, 'בראשית', we get the words אש and ברית which translates as the covenant of fire, Torah is fire... the Luchos were the physical creation of this. Unfortunately as we all know, the first Luchos (which were inscribed by G-d) didn't last long with Moshe famously smashing them following the incident of the sin of the Golden Calf which takes up the rest of the Parasha.

When analysing the incident of the sin of the Golden Calf it seems on the surface to be an almost inconceivable act from the fact that the Jewish nation undertook such mass idol worship after the height of the revelation to the fact that Aaron appears to be the ring leader of it all... the brother of Moshe and G-d's chosen anointed Kohen Gadol. We learn that a Jew is required to give up his life rather than worship idols so how can it be that Aaron failed the test that countless amounts of Jews have withstood over the centuries. What appears to be the strange truth is that instead of being liable to the death penalty, he was virtually whitewashed of the apparent sin and went on to serve in the Tabernacle for the next forty years, not to mention the fact that he was Moshe's partner in leading the nation and receiving many of the commandments from Hashem. In fact we learn that the only sin Aaron was charged for was when he joined with Moshe in striking the stone to draw water in Parasha Chukas. So what is going on?

According to the mefarshim the people did not deny Hashem, and specifically stated that they needed a replacement for Moshe following a tragic error in calculating his descent down from Mount Sinai. With this miscalculation and the thought that Moshe had died, they attempted to produce a replacement for Moshe by thinking that G-d assigns powers and responsibilities to subordinate powers which they saw Moshe as (along with the pillars of smoke and fire according to Ramban). We therefore learn that though such a misconception could lead to idolatry, their goal was not to worship an idol at all! More evidence to suggest such a conclusion is found in the fact that they would not have fled the scene when Moshe returned, and they certainly would not have let him destroy their 'idol', rather the enthusiasm for the Golden Calf was merely because it was a substitute for their vanished leader... once Moshe was back, they recognised that their allegiance to the new 'god' had been a terrible and foolish mistake. According to Midrashim, even the Jews who truly worshipped it as an idol were a tiny minority of about one half of one percent of the grown male population, and even they were the Egyptian rabble that flocked to join the Hebrews when they left Egypt. In fact in the Torah it states... “This is your god, O Israel” [32:8], they didn't refer to it as 'our god' because they were outsiders who were addressing the Jews.

So what about Aaron? Aaron agreed with them though he knew they were wrong, because their sin did not involve idolatry. Having seen Hur (the person Moshe had assigned to share the leadership in his absence with Aaron) be murdered in his efforts to try and stop the desperate gang, Aaron attempted an approach of appeasement after calculating that they would kill him if he defied them. In this approach he hoped to stall for time until he hoped he could wean them from their mistake. By asking for the gold jewellery of the women and children, he was certain that they would refuse to surrender it immediately, and by the time the rebels succeeded in seizing the gold, Moshe would probably be back. Rashi tells us that he was not correct with this however and the people were so enamoured of the prospect of the Golden Calf that they had the gold in hand without delay. This provides us a classic example of crowd psychology, in which a mob is capable of excesses beyond the imagination of any of its individual members.

I wish everyone a good Shabbat and a successful week ahead.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem

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