Answers and food for thought on Parsha Ki Sisa

1. What does the title of the parsha mean?  What is it referring to?

A:   Ki Sisa translates as “when you lift”.

It refers to the directive to Moshe regarding how to take of the Jewish people.  In a few verses an actual mitzvah to count then is given.  Rashi explains this according to his view which we discussed two weeks ago, that the Mishkan was given after the sin of the calf – not according to the order the parshas are written, and we were smitten in the wake of the sin, and as a shepherd counts his flock after a great breach or pestilence, so too Hashem wanted to count His flock after our numbers were plagued.

The word ‘lift’ is used for a variety of reasons. One is to elevate and encourage them after their downfall that they should be hopeful, clean themselves up and move forward.  Also any counting should include the intent of showing the importance of each member, and lifting their self image, as opposed to confining each to being merely a number.

2.  Why is there all of a sudden a concern of a plague at the beginning of the parsha, and how is it averted?

A:   There is concern that the “evil-eye’ will be awoken to anything counted or publicized.  Thus all countings of the Jewish people had to be done vicariously, as Moshe was commanded to do so through a collection of coins.  (In the times of King David, he conducted a census on various townships, and immediately following a plague erupted, wiping out 70,000 Jews)

I am on borrowed time here on my friend’s computer, so we’ll have to do justice to the fascinating, and relevant topic of the’evil-eye’ for a later parsha.


3.   What were the donations for?  How much was asked?  What can we learn from this amount?  How much did the poor give? The wealthy?

A:    The donations served as atonement for the sin of the calf as we mentioned.  They were actually used to supply the money for purchasing the communal offerings of the Mishkan for the year, as a result they also served as a continued, daily atonement and merit for the entire nation.

Each person gave a half shekel, the poor and rich alike could not diverge from this; in this way everybody could be equal in their atonement, and nobody would feel beholden or superior (unlike other religions where one can buy their way out of Judgment, or into heaven).

The amount of a half-shekel is of course, not random, nor is the way it is denominated (i.e. the same amount could be called 10 Geras, or one sela, etc).  The amount of a half shows us that we are not complete as individuals, and that the only way we can construct a temple or a Jewish community is through mutual interdependence and healthy generosity.  On an individual level, our service is not completed by our wallets, but by the enthusiasm, and intention we put into our deeds.


4.   Rashi says that Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire – where does Rashi see this coming out of the basic reading of the verse?  What does this midrash teach us?

A:   Verse 30:13, says “This they shall give…a half shekel..”  The word “This” is superfluous. Furthermore, the word This (zeh), always refers to something clear, defined and perceived, thus Hashem must have been referring to more than an abstract mitzvah when He instructed Moshe, rather He must have shown Him something demonstrative.

The fact that the coin was flaming has much significance, and we’ll barely try to scratch the surface here.  For one, this demonstrates the lesson we just said, that the mitzvos are completed through our enthusiasm, our inner flame which accompanies the best of our actions.  Hashem was also revealing to Moshe, who was concerned how his nation would ever receive atonement, and find favour in Hashem’s eye’s again, especially via a measly half shekel coin, that there lies unspoken power and sanctity in the whole physical world, and if tapped into properly (e.g. used to perform a kindness or other mitzvah) can release atomic energy into the creation, and effect great changes.


5.    Who did Hashem choose to build the Mishkan?  What was he endowed with?

Betzalel son of Uri was in charge, with Oholiav, son of Achisamach as his aid. He was endowed with a spirit of G-d, and Chochma, Bina, and Da’as   (acronym – chabad)– 3 words related to wisdom.  One can ascertain the priorities and greatness of a people by checking their reflection in their language.  Eskimos have many words for snow, for it is central to their existence.  Baseball fans have many terms for sizing up the quality of a player or the repertoire of a pitcher.  We Jews have many word for wisdom, for our nation is distinguished in our intellect and our task to learn, practice and spread Hashem’s infinite wisdom.   Maybe we will elaborate on some of these terms at another time.


6.    Where do see a source for Netilas Yadayim – ritual hand washing – in the parsha? Is it limited to the hands?

A:    There was a sink in the Mishkan where the cohens had to wash their hands an feet (simultaneously by placing one atop the other) upon entering. (Failure to do so earned the careless cohen death by the Han of Heaven)
.   We also have a mitzvah to wash in the morning, when we start our day of service, which we try to set on a high plane.  (the Rashba –student of the Ramban, maintains that we should also wash before davening).  The Rambam holds that we should also wash our feet, but the consensus is that the sages only decreed on the hands, because the obligation to wash the feet would be something that the majority would not be able to maintain.

7.   How many spices were in the incense mixture that was offered twice daily?  How do we see this in the verse?  Are any of the spices seemingly unusual to be included?

A:    Although there are only 4 written explicitly, there were 11 in the mixture. We arrive (according to Rashi) at this number by the extra word ‘spices’ written twice. Before the first three, ‘spices’ comes to imply a minimum of two, coming to five, the spices is written again, to double the amount to ten (thus it was separated to be written there and not earlier), then the last is written, coming to eleven.

8.  What do we learn from the juxtaposition of the building of the Mishkan to keeping the Sabbath? What does the word “‘but’ keep my Shabbos” teach?

A:  The necessity to repeat the mitzvah of shabbos here, telling us that the world’s greatest project – namely the building of a divine tabernacle – does not override the prestanding laws of the Sabbath.  Obviously then, there is a contradiction between the building of the mishkan and keeping the Sabbath. This helps illuminate to us what is implied by the term ‘melacha’ which is ubiquitously scribed as that thing which shabbos prohibits, namely, this is the very same ‘melacha’ which defines the building of the mishkan.   Practically speaking, there were 39 categories of creative acts employed in construction the mishkan,(which is considered a microcosm of the universe and of man), thus these are also the parameters for the melacha which we musn’t do on shabbos.

The words ‘but’ and ‘only’ in the Torah always come to exclude something, and here ‘but’ serves as a source for the halacha that certain melachas which were required in the daily temple service are also permitted to continue on the Sabbath.  In fact many laws are overridden in the Temple, including laws of nature (for example, the Aron/ark was larger than the chamber it rested in, and numerous ongoing miracles were common place there, for it is not in the same plane as the rest of creation.

There are deeper understandings as well why shabbos overrides building the temple, regarding the holiness of time versus the holiness of space, but that we’ll save for our graduate level parsha page.

9.   What prompted the sin of the Golden Calf? Why a calf?  Who played what role?  What were Aaron’s intentions?   What were the punishments, rewards and consequences?

A:     See the parsha page

10.  What claims did Moshe use to plea bargain the Jewish people?  What succeeded to grant them atonement?

A:   So that Hashem’s Name would not be desecrated when the goyim would respond to our destruction saying (albeit not so rationally, as is the way with all scoffers), that because Hashem was not able to succeed in sustaining and leading us to our destination did He do this.  Then Moshe called upon the merit of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who are forever beloved to Hashem, and who merited to have His name united with theirs, (as we say in our davening {based on the chumash} G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac, and G-d of Jacob), and the promises and covenants He made with each of them.

11.  What is so special about tshuvah (repentance/returning) that Hashem decided to create it before the world, and that it is considered a supernatural phenomenon resulting from Hashem’s boundless mercy?

A:    Hashem foresaw that man would not always choose good, and if He conducted the world purely with the attribute of strict justice, man would quickly have himself wiped out and lose his privelage of life.  Therefore Hashem had to create Tshuvah (the potential to repent and return and repair) as a prerequisite to creation as a whole.

There are many unbelievable and unique facets to tshuvah, we’ll just touch on a couple.  Firstly, if you borrowed my car, and got drunk and smashed it, you would be obligated to compensate me.  Since most of the damage we do cannot be repaired (e.g. a mother drank and damaged the child), especially in the spiritual realm, Hashem allows our tshuvah to replace compensation.  As we also said, often the damage is done, and besides compensation, the consequences are irrevocable, with tshuvah, nothing in our account with Hashem is irrevocable.   Also, after you broke my car, hurt me, etc, our relationship will never be the same, but with tshuvah, Hashem waits and longs for His kinderlach to come back, and He receives them with open arms, and it even states in the gemarra, that in the place a ba’al tshuvah (one who rebelled/strayed, and came back) stands, even a perfect tzaddik (righteous from birth) cannot stand.   Lastly, we are taught that if one does tshuvah out of love, rather than out of fear or desire for benefit, then not only are all his debts and misdeeds erased, but they turn into merits!   Pretty good investment wouldn’t you say?!

12.   Who were the first chevrusa-pair in history?  How was the Torah given to Moshe?

A:  Hashem and Moshe.  After all his work, fasting and reviewing, Hashem gave Moshe the Torah as a gift (the verse writes as a Kallah – a bride).   For no matter how hard we try and how high we climb, the Torah is the Will of the Creator, and its essence lies worlds above our grasp.  Nonetheless, if we toil faithfully, and learn with the right intentions, we can all merit to receive our share of the Torah, just as Moshe ultimately depended on divine grace to bring it down.

Rashi adds that just as bride is decorated with 24 ornaments/jewellery, so too a Torah scholar should be decorated with the 24 books of scripture.

13.  Why was Moshe told to go down (in a repeated language “Go. Descend” –when one would have sufficed)  once the nation began to sin?

A:   The greatness of a Jewish leader is only according to his role towards the group.  Hashem only gives greatness, wisdom, power, honor, as it is deserved, and a leader only deserves these platitudes if it will of benefit to the nation, and since the Jewish people had just committed a grievous catastrophe, they lost much of their greatness and privileges, thus their leader, Moshe also was pulled down by his nation, to a level of greatness befit for them.

14.   What was the sequence of service/actions the nation acted out towards the calf?  What does this show?

A:   First they woke up early and bringing olah offerings – which are entirely burned up, like the root aliyah, or Elal, which means to go up, since it all ‘went up’ on the altar. Then the brought shalamim offerings, (from the word shalom -peace), in which the priests as well as the people receive a share.  Then it says they took a seat to eat and drink, and finally the verse tells us that they arose to ‘letzachek’ -which Rashi translates beased on the word’s usage in other contexts to mean either illicit relations, or bloodshed, or idolotry.  So we see how what may have began an altruistic attempt at divine worship so quickly degenerated into the most heinous of scenes.  In other words the road to gehennom is paved with good intentions, but without the truth of the Torah, and thorough and deeply honest self inspection, our untamed seedlings can bear nasty fruits.

15.   With what term does Hashem describe our people after the sin?  What does it mean? Why is it so bad  (it seems that Hashem was more upset at us about that term than the sin itself)?

A:  That we are a stiff-necked nation.  That is we don’t turn to listen, and like a person with a sore or stiff neck, whose head movement is strapped to the movement of his body, so too we let our bodies and hearts influence our heads, and we don’t let our heads lead our bodies. This trait is of such alarm to Hashem, because a stubborn person does not just have one negative character trait, rather he cuts himself off from the ability to grow and change altogether.   This trait has been a sore spot of our people for millenia, countless prophets were sent to us and spilled oceans of rebukes, pleas and, tears mostly to no avail – that is why antagonists like Haman (may his name be cursed) had to be repeatedly sent to us, for when we’re in a foxhole, we have much better attention.
On the other hand, our resilience has also worked to our advantage, to remain distinct and trailblazing nation in the face to the whole world, for countless generations, most of them spent as strangers on their turf, and they spared no power, technology, philosophy, and enticement to cause us to fall or to assimilate, and here we still are, and most of them are but pages in a history book.

16.   When did Moshe break the tablets? Why didn’t he break them when Hashem told him the situation?

A:  Only when he came down and saw the people sinning.  The Vilna Gaon (genius from Vilna),  says that what Moshe heard from Hashem was prophetic, but it was not an emotional reality to him until he saw it, for the heart is most drawn after the eyes.  Rabbi Dessler explains that there is something which supersedes Torah, so too speak, and that is the honour of Torah.  That is why one stops learning to arise for a sage or a torah scroll, or to go to a levayah (funeral procession) of a torah scholar, because we are not learning simply because we like to, or because it is our job, but because we appreciate that the Torah is divine, and must be learned and practiced with due respect; therefore to not honour it when the opportunity presents itself would cast hypocrisy on our learning itself.  Therefore Moshe’s protest was to defend the honor of the Torah, (which they were transgressing), and this is an even higher lesson than the particular mitzvos which he was bringing down.
The Sforno (15th Century) explains that originally Hashem told him what they were doing, he had judged them somewhat favourably, and compassionately, but when he came down and saw them totally corrupted and revelling i their sin, he came down on them harshly.    Finally, a more technical explanation, is that Moshe was a pure, utterly faithful servant of Hashem, and since Hashem told him to descend, he did not have the right to give way to act on his feelings until he first complied with his directive.

17.  What is learned from the word tablets lacking the letter ‘vav’  (and thus written as ‘tablet’ in the singular)?  What was different about the second set of tablets and how we received them?  What day did Moshe bring them down?

A:  without the letter vav – the reading of the word tablets, shifts into the singular.  This teaches us that the each of the tablets were equal, in construction and in importance.  Since we have previously mentioned, that the first tablet essentially contains mitzvos relating between man and his Creator, and the second consist of mitzvos between and his fellow, we learn that both take an equally primary role in Judaism, and nobody can choose to give preference of one type over the other.  Just as we have two legs, so too our task in yiddishkeit is two-fold, and if either pillar is absent or weak, our yiddishkeit will not stand, or appear in truth as an amputee.

18.  Where did Moshe relocate after the sin? Why?

A:  Away from the main encampment.  Wisdom and spirituality, are best grown outside the crowded markets and clamoring streets.  One needs a clear head and pure heart, and a minimal of distractions to overcome the natural flow of the world.  (Eventually one can strengthen themselves enough to retain one’s stature even in a challenging environment – as we may discuss on the parsha of the spies, about  the transition from the desert  yeshiva, to the land of Israel where  mundane activity was to begin for the ascetic nation.)  Conversely, it is  also important that those who seek wisdom and spirituality put in some effort and assert some independence in leaving the camp to come to Moshe.

19.  What was unique about Moshe’s prophecy, that makes him the father and yardstick of all prophets?

A:    HE spoke with Hashem even when he was awake, and in the daytime, while other prophets only experienced prophecy in dreams or visions..  Moshe spoke ‘face-to-face’ with Hashem, meaning that he had a qualitatively higher clarity than any other prophet, as if looking through a clear glass, versus a smudged and frosted one. The nation also witnessed him prophesying.  Hashem revealed to Moshe all the secrets of Torah and creation.   Moshe could prophecy on demand, that is Hashem was available whenever he sought him, while others spent their lives preparaing to receive, and their was no guarantee it would ever come.   Moshe is thus the yardstick for all prophets, and through him, Hashem sets forth who is and who is not a legitimate prophet. (one of the conditions is that he does not contradict or modify anything which was prophesized by Moshe – who is after all his only gateway to validation)

20.  What caused the nation the most grief in the wake of their sin and punishment? Did Moshe succeed in ameliorating this great tragedy and reclaiming the Jews and a favored nation, set apart from all other nations?

A:   That Hashem was no longer going to be in their midst, and rather they would be accompanied by an angel.  Moshe pleaded for Hashem to have mercy and forgive the nation, and he succeeded in his requests.  Through having the divine presence rest among us, being led through the desert by His clouds of glory, and the other miracles which demonstrate His love and closeness to us, we maintained our special role as a unique nation of Hashem.
There are so many precious items in this parsha that it is hard to contain them, so we’ll have to take comfort that we will get to return to Ki Sisa next year.

-Beth Shifra Crew