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Parashat Ki Tisa

Dedicated for a refuah shelemah for Rachel bat Deborah.

Parashat Ki Tisa

Machatzit Hashekel

This week’s parasha begins with Hashem telling Moshe to take a census of B’nei Yisrael. Hashem said to Moshe, “Every man from twenty years and up shall give a half shekel as an atonement for his soul when counting them. They shall give machatzit hashekel—half a shekel… the wealthy shall not give more, and the poor man shall not give less.”

According to Chazal, Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire and said to him “Zeh yitnu⸺This you shall give.” Rashi explains that Hashem showed the half-shekel under the Kiseh Hakavod—Hashem’s throne in a ball of fire to teach us that money is very similar to fire. Fire, like money, can be good, but it can also be very harmful. Fire can heat our homes and cook our food, but if we use fire in the wrong way, it becomes a destructive force that can burn everything. Money can be good when it’s used to help people and support Torah causes, but it can also be very destructive. Money has been known to cause conflicts that break up families and destroy business partnerships. Statistics even show that most divorces are a result of financial issues. Even lottery winners lose their winnings within a few years, and sometimes they lose their lives!

In Hebrew the word machatzit is spelled with the letters mem, chet, tzadi, yud, taf. The middle letter is a tzadi, which stands for tzedakah—charity. The two middle letters that surround the tzadi are chet and yud, which spell chai—life. The outer letters are mem and taf, which spell met—death. The word machatzit teaches that when you give charity, you will have life; but if you don’t, it may lead to the opposite, chas veshalom. As the passuk says, “Tzedaka tatzil mimavet — charity saves from death!”

The question is asked, why half a shekel and not a whole? One reason is because each Jew on his own is incomplete, like half of something. All of B’nei Yisrael need to unite, because only then are we one whole. “Kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh — all Jews are responsible for one another!”

The Golden Calf

Moshe Rabbenu had gone up on Har Sinai to receive the tablets. B’nei Yisrael waited eagerly for forty days for their leader to come back. But they miscalculated the time that Moshe was supposed to return and were in a panic that he was late. After just six hours, they approached Aharon to make a golden calf as an intermediary between them and Hashem to replace Moshe.

According to a Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (7a), Aharon saw that B’nei Yisrael had killed his nephew Chur for protesting the golden calf. Aharon calculated that if he would protest and they would kill him too, then they would be in violation of the sin of killing a kohen and a navi in Hashem’s Mishkan, for which they would not be able to do teshuvah. He figured that it would be better to let them build the golden calf, and they could repent.

He tried to drag the process out as much as possible, to stall for time until Moshe returned. Aharon told them “Bring me your wives’ gold jewels.” Aharon assumed correctly that the wives would be reluctant to give up their jewelry, especially for creating a golden calf. For refusing to participate in the golden calf, the women were granted every Rosh Chodesh as a personal holiday, when it’s customary for women to refrain from work and housework.

Don’t Make Decisions When Panicking

How could a nation who was at such a high level, after being saved by Hashem with open miracles and reaching the pinnacle of receiving the Torah, stoop to such a low level where they could erect an idol in the form of the golden calf?

The answer is anxiety. According to Rav Chaim Schmuelevitz, once the people began to worry and had become anxious, the Satan was able to find their weak spot and attack. Rabbi Twersky says that the lesson is not to make any important decisions when you’re in a worried state of mind. B’nei Yisrael let their fears and anxieties take hold of them, and they lost the faith that everything is in Hashem’s control.

Tearing Up the Contract

Moshe finally descended from Har Sinai with the two sapphire tablets in his hands, which were the handiwork of Hashem. The very manner in which the tablets were inscribed were testimony to their Divine origin, because the letters could be read from either side. Additionally, the Hebrew word for “engraved” is charut. According to our rabbis, it can also be read cherut, which means “freedom,” to teach us that the only person who is truly free is one who engages in the study of Torah (Pirke Avot 6:2).

When Moshe reached the bottom of the mountain, he saw with his own eyes how B’nei Yisrael had made a golden calf and begun to worship it. In his anger, he threw down the tablets and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.

Why did Moshe have to shatter the tablets? Chazal explained that breaking the tablets was like tearing up B’nei Yisrael’s ketuvah with Hashem, which actually saved them. B’nei Yisrael was like Hashem’s bride, and making the golden calf was being unfaithful to Him. Because they were unfaithful to Hashem, they deserved to be destroyed. Moshe saved them by throwing down the tablets or tearing up the contract between B’nei Yisrael and Hashem. If there was no contract, they couldn’t have violated it! Although a sin, it was not the ultimate sin, so they were still able to do teshuvah.

The Torah goes on to elaborate, “The Tablets were G-d’s handiwork, and the script was the script of G-d, engraved on the tablets (32:16).” Rabbi Frand points out that when Moshe received the tablets from Hashem, the passuk simply stated “Hashem gave the two Tablets of Testimony, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of G-d (31:18).” Why doesn’t the Torah say much when the tablets were given to Moshe, but then it elaborates when Moshe destroyed them? Rabbi Frand answers that when we have something that’s precious to us, we don’t always appreciate it until we lose it.


In the aftermath of chet ha’egel, Hashem referred to B’nei Yisrael as “Am kesheh oref—a stiff-necked people” in three separate pesukim (32:9, 33:3, 33:5) as His reason to destroy them and make a new nation from Moshe. The term is not one of endearment, it implies the stubbornness of the Jewish people is what led to the sin of the golden calf. However, a chapter later, Moshe uses this same term in his defense of B’nei Yisrael, when he tried to convince Hashem to spare them. “If I have found favor in Your eyes my Master, let my Master go among us, ki am kesheh oref hu—because it is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sins (34:9).” How could a trait that Hashem used as a reason for the sin possibly be used as the reason Moshe begs for the nation’s forgiveness?

Rabbi Scheinbaum explains this in his book Peninim on the Torah. Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, Shlita, clarifies that Moshe turned to Hashem, and said, “Ribono Shel Olam, You are reprimanding the nation because of their stiff-necked nature. Is this really a negative trait? Is this a reason to find them guilty? If anything, this very trait is what distinguishes the Jewish people from the rest of the world.”

‘Stiff-necked’ indicates that they have a backbone, an ability to withstand outside pressure and numerous difficult challenges to their faith. Every nation caved in under various challenges. When any of the others were under the slightest pressure, they wavered and resorted to a swarm of other beliefs, including Islam and Christianity. Why? Because they had no backbone. They were not stiff-necked; they were weak!

Moshe really said, “It’s true, the nation sinned gravely against You. But, because of their strong, stiff-necked nature, they will not only repent, but cling to You, and never renege on their commitment to Hashem.”

Traits are not inherently bad or good. They are just traits; the key is how they are implemented. Moshe turned stubbornness into something that could be used for good things, like clinging to Hashem and staying true to our word when we accepted His Torah.

Shlomo Werdiger, a businessman with intense yirat shamayim—fear of G-d, relates a time that he was showing a secular family around his office.

Usually, the children would be mesmerized by the design of sports apparel. This family had a son who asked a million questions, but less about sports, and more about how a Jew in the sports apparel business makes it work. He wanted to know if I went to games like the Super Bowl and when he confirmed that I did, he asked if I ate kosher food. Of course, I told him, recalling some of the different venues and events at which our group was accommodated, in terms of kashrut and other relevant halachot. He was fascinated.

A few weeks later, my secretary put through an unfamiliar caller. I took the phone to hear a man saying that I owed him fifty thousand dollars. I wasn’t sure who was speaking and what he meant, so I waited for him to continue. The man identified himself as Jason and explained that his son came by a few weeks ago asking questions about kosher at different stadiums and games, and now, he has a new fixation. He is becoming a bar mitzvah, and he keeps saying, “Mr. Werdiger had kosher food at the Super Bowl and the World Series and the NBA finals…can’t I at least have a kosher bar mitzvah?” Jason explained that he had tried to make his son happy, and a kosher caterer had charged him fifty thousand dollars more than the alternative. I wasn’t sure how serious Jason was, so I told him that it would be an honor for my family to have a share in this incredible merit. We would cover the costs of the kosher caterer.

He laughed and explained that he was a wealthy man. The venue alone is costing him over a million dollars. After a short pause, he lowered his voice. “I just wanted you to know that my son is having a kosher bar mitzvah-” Here, the man’s voice cracked, “and it will be the first kosher affair in my family in generations.”

Shlomo’s unwavering devotion to Hashem’s commandments helped inspire a change in a whole generation. May we all cling tightly and be stubborn for Hashem’s will like Moshe rabeinu.

Outweighing the Golden Calf

The Rabbis teach us that our holidays are an atonement for chet ha’egel—the sin of the golden calf. Every year we celebrate our holidays of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, for a total of 15 days of Yom Tov. 15 days x 24 hours each day = 360 hours.

B’nei Yisrael miscalculated Moshe’s return from Har Sanai by six hours. There’s a known halachic concept that if a bit of not kosher food would fall into a pot of kosher food, it will become nullified if there is 60 times more kosher food. This halachic concept is called batel beshishim. Similarly, those six “bad” hours would have to be nullified by 60 times the number of “good” hours. 360 hours of holiday / 6 miscalculated hours that led to sin = 60 batel beshishim.

May we remember the lesson of the machatzit hashekel to always feel a closeness to all our fellow Jews and help each other in times of need. May we always have faith in Hashem and not chas veshalom panic and make mistakes as B’nei Yisrael did with the golden calf. May we also use all our traits for good and turn stubbornness from a reason to sin, into a reason to cling to Hashem and never waiver from our faith. Amen!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Amram Sananes, written by Jack Rahmey

Discussion Points:

Have we ever acted when we were in an agitated state of mind? How did that work out?

Did we ever wait until we calmed down, and then act? Was it worth the wait?

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Shella Rachel Bat Sarah

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