זה יתנו כל העבר על הפקדים מחצית השקל בשקל הקדש עשרים גרה השקל מחצית השקל תרומה להשם
“This shall they give – everyone who passes through the census – a half-shekel of the sacred shekel, the shekel is twenty geras, half a shekel as a portion to G-d.” (Shemot 30:13)
This week’s parsha begins with the mitzvah of the half-shekel. The Torah tells us that the process of taking a census of the Jewish people involved the counting the sum of every adult male’s contribution of a half-shekel. One of the reasons behind the counting of half-shekels instead of whole shekels was to show that we are only whole when joined together as the Jewish people.
The Midrash describes a strange occurrence connected to this mitzvah. When G-d commanded Moses to collect the half-shekel, Moses didn’t understand what He meant until He showed him the coin’s image made of fire. What exactly did Moses, our greatest leader, not understand about the half-shekel that he needed clarification? Furthermore, why did G-d show him a coin of fire, rather than a real coin?
Rabbi Yitzchak Mayer Alter, the first rabbi of the Gerrer Chasidic dynasty (1798-1866, Poland), explains that Moses did not understand how such a small sum could have any meaning – neither in the uniting of the Jewish people, nor in effecting any atonement for them (another purpose of the census). G-d showed him a coin made of fire to show him that giving is about the intent, symbolized by the fire, and not the amount. Giving generously but begrudgingly is worth less than giving a little with a real desire to give.
The way we do a mitzvah is as important as the mitzvah itself. As the Sages tell us (Rashi, Sanhedrin 106b), “G-d desires our heart, our passion” – He desires us to do His mitzvot with passion, not out of rote.
A story about Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum (1897-1979, Hungary) illustrates this idea beautifully. He came to the US after the Holocaust and worked tirelessly to re-establish the great Chassidic dynasty that had been decimated by the Nazis. Despite having few disciples in the US, Rabbi Teitelbaum slowly began attracting followers who were drawn to his piety and extraordinary kindness and sensitivity.
When someone comes to a Chassidic rabbi for a blessing, there is a custom to give him charity that will then be distributed to those in need. When people would give money to Rabbi Teitelbaum, he would never look at it to see the amount, but would simply put it into the drawer in front of him. Then when a needy person would come to him, he would take out some money from the drawer and give it to him.
A man once came to Rabbi Teitelbaum and told him of his desperate situation, asking him for a few hundred dollars. The rabbi agreed to help him, but asked him to come back in a few hours. After the man left, Rabbi Teitelbaum called in his assistant and asked for help with an important project. Together they began taking out the crumpled bills from the drawer and straightening them out, one at a time.
After doing nothing but straightening out dollar bills for a quarter of an hour, the assistant became frustrated and pointed out to the rabbi that there was no more value in a flat, neat dollar than there was in a crumpled one.
Rabbi Teitelbaum wouldn’t hear of it. “A mitzvah has to be done with beauty; a mitzvah has to be done with passion.” A crumpled dollar has the same monetary value as a straight dollar, but when someone spends the time to straighten out the bills, his giving preserves the poor person’s dignity and self-respect. Those bills become like the half-shekel made of fire.
Money on Fire
זה יתנו כל העבר על הפקדים מחצית השקל בשקל הקדש
“This is what shall be given by everyone passing by to be counted: half a shekel based on the shekel of the Holy Sanctuary” (Shemot 30:13).
When instructing Moses in the proper method by which to count the Jews, G-d specified that each man was to donate one half-shekel coin. G-d didn’t only tell Moses what it looked like, He actually provided a visual aid. As Rashi said, “[G-d] showed him the likeness of a fiery coin.”
Why did the visual aid need to be a fiery coin rather than an ordinary coin? Chatam Sofer explains that it was not the sum of money that was paramount but the love and fiery passion that motivated the donor. One couldn’t simply donate a half-shekel in a cold, unemotional manner. In order to truly participate in the Tabernacle service, the donation had to be made with a sense of joy and excitement at being able to participate in this wonderful opportunity. Attitude, in this case, was even more important in the eyes of G-d than the donation itself.
This point is illustrated by Yona, the youngest son of a prominent rabbi, who was all alone in the Treblinka concentration camp. His entire family—parents, siblings, wife, and children— had been murdered before his eyes. Yona was weak and emaciated and hung onto life by a thread. Surprisingly, his spirit never wilted. He radiated joy and had a ready smile for every person he would meet. On the rare occasions that he found a few moments to pray or don tefillin, his joy knew no bounds. Others marveled at his ability to remain cheerful and positive. How he performed mitzvot with excitement was completely beyond their comprehension. Yona was an enigma.
One of Yona’s bunkmates, who had long cast off any affiliation to Judaism, demanded to know what right Yona had to smile in the miserable state they were in. Was he oblivious to the pain that he suffered? Was he unaware of the suffering of those around him? Did he actually enjoy the torment he endured at the hands of the accursed Nazis?
Reb Yona said sympathetically, “My dear friend, don’t think for one moment that I am not terribly pained by the loss of my family. I loved each of them more than words can convey. Don’t think that I’m unmindful of your pain or the suffering of the others. It hurts me more than I can bear. But please realize, the Nazis have taken everything from me. They’ve taken my wife and children. They’ve taken my parents. They’ve taken away all of the holy books from which I used to study. They’ve taken away my tallit and tefillin. All I have left with which to serve G-d is joy. Only my love for Him and my enthusiasm for serving Him stills remains with me. Shall I allow them to take that from me as well?”
Although most of us have not, thankfully, suffered on the scale of Yona, we all face painful life circumstances. When challenges and difficulties come our way, we can can find comfort and even joy in our freedom to serve G-d with gladness.
Innovation Turns Disastrous
וישכימו ממחרת ויעלו עולות ויגישו שלמים וישב… לאכול ושתו ויקמו לצחק
“They arose early the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; the people sat to eat and drink and they got up to revel” (Shemot 32:6).
Throughout history there have been many different ideologies touted by their proponents to “change the world” in a significant way. However, few of these ideologies have had any lasting, positive impact. Communism, for example, was originally intended to improve the condition of the poor working class, and the Soviet Union began as a worker’s revolution against the oppressive czars. But over the years, the communist leaders used the system as a means to take advantage of the citizens for their own purposes. Eventually the system collapsed, because the original ideals were forgotten, and the citizens were just as oppressed as before.
This week’s Torah portion tells the tragic story of the Golden Calf. Moses was on Mount Sinai, and the Jewish people expected his return at a certain time. But when they thought— mistakenly — that he was late, they feared he would never come back and that they would be stranded forever in the desert.
The people came up with what, at the time, sounded like an excellent, innovative idea — they would fashion a new intermediary between them and G-d, the Golden Calf. The next morning, however, the people brought sacrifices in front of it, and began to worship it.
How did this happen? How did the people fall so far? Their original idea was not for pagan worship, but to have an intermediary to convey G-d’s instructions. What changed?
Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky explains that even though the original plan may have been pure, albeit misguided, those who followed it twisted the idea to meet their own needs. First they brought burnt offerings, which are completely burned and thus provide no benefit for the one who brings them. This symbolized the original selfless idea of the Golden Calf. Then another group brought peace offerings, in which the person who brings it eats a portion of the offering. This group still valued the idea of having an intermediary, but wanted something for themselves as well.
Eventually, another group came along that ate and drank without subscribing to an intermediary. All they wanted was to celebrate; the Calf was just a means to further their desires. They lost all sense of the original idea; it just became an excuse to do whatever they wanted. Had the nation waited for a clear directive from G-d about what to do without blindly following this new, radical idea, the whole tragedy might have been avoided.
There are many great ideas out there, and some sound truly wonderful. But no matter how well-intentioned they may be, they are the product of a human mind and thus subject to human failings and limitations. These ideas will gradually be reinterpreted or twisted to conform to people’s individual desires. Instead of benefiting society, they can easily end up being detrimental. This is obviously not the case with the values and ideals expressed in the Torah which emanate from Divine wisdom. These values have withstood the test of time— and hold eternal value.
A Stiff-Necked People
ויאמר ה’… ראיתי את העם הזה והנה עם קשה ערף הוא
G-d said to Moses,” I have seen this people, and behold! It is a stiff-necked people.” (Shemot 32:9)
A stiff-necked nation. Throughout the ages, the Jewish people have borne this title with mixed emotions. Indeed, the Torah itself offers conflicting viewpoints on whether our national quality of being “stiff-necked” is cause for praise or condemnation. Even in the immediate aftermath of the Sin of the Golden Calf, this quality evokes differing opinions.
Rashi explains that the term is pejorative: As a nation, the Jewish people “turn the back of their necks” to those who rebuke them and refuse to listen and that brought them to the brink of destruction. Immediately deriding the Jewish people for this trait, G-d threatens to annihilate them and build a new nation from Moses. (Shemot 32: 9 -10) It would appear from here that our national stubbornness is a badge of shame that follows us through all time.
The Medrash, however, describes this quality as one of our greatest praises. According to Rabbi Avin, to this very day, the nations of the world refer to the Jewish nation as a “stiff-necked people,” because of our unwavering devotion to the Torah. (Shemot Rabbos)
Which is true? If being stiff-necked is praiseworthy, why does the Torah mention this quality immediately following the Sin of the Golden Calf? If it is the source of our downfall, why does the Medrash describe this character trait in such positive language?
Rabbi Avigdor Miller (1908 – 2001) explains that Moses called on G-d to forgive the Jewish people precisely because of their stiff-necked stubbornness. He was suggesting that this trait could be directed and harnessed as part of an unswerving loyalty to G-d. Yes, after the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people needed to hear a stinging rebuke of their actions. It was, their stubbornness that led them astray. However, once the Jewish people embraced the Torah, it was this very trait that would allow them to survive all challenges against our way of life.
Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, known as the Klausenberger Rebbe, (1905 – 1994) lost his wife and eleven children in the Holocaust. Yet, even while he was in the concentration camps, he never lost focus on his mission to serve G-d and the Jewish people. A book recounting his life during the war notes that Rabbi Halberstam would study Torah, pray and observe mitzvot – right under the noses of the Nazis.
A survivor named Asher Brenner recalled, “In Auschwitz I was placed into the same group as the Klausenberger Rebbe. He suffered even more than the rest of us because of his stubbornness. He refused to eat non-kosher food. He managed to bring his Tefillin into the camp with him, and he put them on every day. Notwithstanding the great danger, he organized daily minyanim for prayer services. We often forgot about Shabbat but the Rabbi avoided desecrating Shabbat every week and made sure that no one else did the work that was imposed upon him. All this, of course, drew the attention of the Kapos, and they punished him with vicious beatings. Yet Rabbi Halberstam endured the beating without resentment.”
Stubbornness is a powerful trait. However, like any characteristic, it is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. Rather, it is a fact of our existence as a people. The question, both for us as individuals and as part of the Jewish people, is how we will use this powerful trait and what effect it will have on our lives and the lives of the people around us. Whenever we channel this trait into a relentless pursuit of the truth, not only do we tap into our true purpose, but we also earn everlasting praise as the standard-bearers of G-d’s mission for the world. Are we a stiff-necked nation? You bet – and proud of it!
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
There were many vessels used in the service in the Tabernacle, most of which were made from gold. G-d instructed Moses to make a laver — a copper basin with a spout — to be used in the ritual washing of the hands and feet of the priests before they perform their service in the Tabernacle. G-d told Moses that when the priests approach the Tabernacle or come to the altar to offer incense, they must wash their hands and feet. The punishment for not doing so is death (Shemot 30:17-21).
- Since all of the major vessels of the Tabernacle (and later on, the Temple) were made of gold, why might the laver have been made merely of copper?
- As the service was done with the priests’ hands, we can understand the need for them to wash their hands before performing the service. But since their feet were not involved in performing the service, why might G-d require that they, too, be washed?
- The Torah states twice that the punishment for failing to wash is death (Shemot 30:20-21). As this washing was not an official “service” but only a preparation for the actual service, why might its neglect carry such a strict punishment? Further, why might the Torah emphasize it with repetition?
The verse states that when G-d finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, He “gave Moses the two Tablets of Testimony…” (Shemot 31:18) The Medrash comments that during the entire 40 days Moses was on the mountain, he would learn the Torah and immediately forget it. Moses complained to G-d that he had only 40 days to learn the entire Torah, and yet he still knew nothing. In response, at the end of 40 days, G-d gave the Torah to Moses as a gift. (Medrash Rabbah, Shemot 41:6)
1) The term “gift” carries the connotation of something given without being earned or deserved. Given Moses’ diligent efforts to learn the Torah, it would seem more appropriate that he receive the Torah as a well-deserved reward. What is the significance of referring to it as a gift?
2) Since G-d knew throughout the 40 days that Moses would forget his learning, why would He wait so long to give it to Moses as a gift?
Moses was supposed to descend Mt. Sinai exactly 40 days after his ascent. However, the people miscalculated, and Moses had still not arrived when they thought he was due. They gathered around Aaron and said, “Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from Egypt—we do not know what became of him!” Aaron said to them, “Remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons, and daughters, and bring them to me.” Aaron took their jewelry and fashioned it into a golden calf.
- The creation of the golden calf was a supreme act of rebellion and one of the most tragic events in Jewish history. If the people were genuinely rebellious, why would they have consulted with Aaron?
- The fact that the Torah does not attribute any guilt to Aaron indicates that his intentions were pure: he was trying to dissuade the people from following through with this act. Yet when he realized the people’s wicked intentions, instead of confronting them directly he tried to stall them by telling them to collect their jewelry. Why might Aaron have preferred delaying tactics to stop them rather than a direct confrontation?
As upset as he was at seeing the Golden Calf, why would Moses break the Tablets (Shemot 32:19), leaving the Jewish people without them, when he didn’t know if G-d would be willing to give him a second set of Tablets? (Introduction to Shaarei Yosher by Rabbi Shimon Shkop)
The Kli Yakar writes that the donation of the half-shekels effected atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. As those who had taken part in the sin were already dead, why would those who remained still need forgiveness for a sin that they didn’t commit? (Ayeles HaShachar by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
WASH OUT FOR SIN
“And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: ‘And you shall make a copper wash basin and its copper base for washing, and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the Altar, and place water in it.’” Shemot 30:18
A copper wash basin – It was similar to a large container which had spigots from which water poured forth. – Rashi
Wash basin – Why weren’t the instructions to make a wash basin mentioned together with the instructions to fashion all the other Tabernacle vessels in the previous chapters? Because unlike the other vessels whose purpose was to ensure the Divine Presence, the wash basin was only there to assist the kohanim in readying themselves to perform the Tabernacle service. – Sforno, Chizkuni
Wash basin – Why do the instructions for the wash basin follow the instructions to donate a half-shekel to the Tabernacle? The juxtaposition symbolized that water [which would flow from the wash basin] would be withheld from the universe on account of those who pledge to charity, but fail to uphold their pledges. – Baal HaTurim
The Shach (Rabbi Shabsai HaKohen Katz) adds that the reason the two subjects are juxtaposed is to hint to their additional functions. The donated shekalim were used to create the silver sockets upon which the walls of the Tabernacle rested. This atoned for the sin of the golden calf, a result of misappropriated wealth. Similarly, the wash basin was fashioned from the mirrors of the women who refused to partake in this sin. It was used to wash the hands of the kohanim, whose leader, Aaron, had led the Jews in making the calf. In this manner, it also served to atone for this terrible sin and helped purify them to once again carry out the Divine Service.
“G-d said to Moses, ‘Take for yourself spices, stacte, onycha and chelbanuh, spices and pure frankincense. They shall be of equal weight. Make it into incense…’ ” Shemot 30:34, 35
Chelbanuh – A spice with a foul odor, which is called Chelbanuh. Scripture reckons it among the spices of the incense to teach us not to discount the value of including the sinners among the Israelites in our gatherings for fasts and prayers… – Rashi
Why is it important to include the sinners in these prayer services and fasts?
- When the Al-mighty sees the wicked repent thanks to the influence of the righteous, He is more apt to treat us mercifully.– Sifsei Chachomim
- One of the reasons for the creation of the wicked is to enhance the prestige of the righteous. For, even when one sees imperfection in the righteous, he is apt to lose respect for them. When contrasted with the evil-doers, however, he immediately gains a much greater appreciation for them.– Beis Shmuel (Rabbi Shmuel ben Uri Shraga Faibesh)
- The Name of Heaven is greatly sanctified when the evil-doers repent and desire to raise themselves to the level of the righteous. –Prishah
Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Luntshitz) offers a fascinating explanation for the need to include the evil-doers in our prayer gatherings and fasts. A person is not permitted to afflict himself unnecessarily. Therefore, a righteous person should not, by law, be allowed to fast in response to a tragedy or adversity for his righteousness precludes the possibility of his being held accountable for any misfortune. Thus, the only justification for the righteous to fast is to include the less righteous among them so that their fasting will be on their behalf and hence justified.
THE BEST OF INTENTIONS
“When the people saw that Moses was delayed in descending from the mountain, they gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Arise, make us gods that will lead us, for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him.’” Shemot 32:1
For this Moses – Satan showed them a likeness of Moses being carried in the air high in the sky. – Rashi
For this Moses – The image was of Moses being carried on a bier, which led them to believe that he had perished. – Baal HaTurim
For this Moses, the man – They sought to replace Moses their leader with another leader, but they did not consider replacing him with an idol. This can be inferred from the fact that they referred to Moses as “the man,” for they were fully aware that he was not a god, and therefore they did not seek one to replace him. They bowed to the golden calf out of deference, and not because they saw it as a deity. – Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor, Daas Zekeinim
The Beis HaLevi (Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik) explains that their intent was to build a Tabernacle through which they would serve the Al-mighty Who would rest His presence there in their midst, as they would do after the sin of the golden calf. In the absence of Moses, who led and inspired them, they figured that a Tabernacle would be the perfect solution. Their mistake, however, was in believing that they could independently manufacture a means to serve G-d without specific instructions from Him. They did not understand that good intentions alone do not render something a mitzvah. Without a specific command from G-d, the best of intentions can result in tragic consequences. The golden calf, though inspired by noble desires, turned out to be the worst mishap in Jewish history and one for which we are still paying a steep and bitter price.
“And the entire nation removed the gold rings that were in their ears and they brought them to Aharon.” Shemot 32:3
The entire nation – It cannot mean the entire nation literally, because the Tribe of Levi most certainly did not participate in this appalling deed. Rather, it means the majority of the nation which is reckoned as the entire nation. – Lekach Tov
That were in their ears – The women did not participate in this act. Only the men, who sported earrings from their time in Egypt in imitation of their offensive customs, removed those shameful implements and contributed them to this unholy cause. – Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer
Rabbi Isaac of Slonim would contend that although the generation of the Golden Calf committed a very grave sin, we must acknowledge their superiority over our own in one critical factor. They, at least, were prepared to surrender their wealth in the pursuit of a religious identity, however misguided and ineffective the results. Nowadays, most people are all too happy to surrender all connection with G-d in order to pursue greater wealth!
TEARS OF OY
“And Joshua heard the voice of the people rejoicing, and he said to Moses, ‘There is a sound of battle in the camp.’” Shemot 32:17
Rejoicing – Trumpeting. They were blowing horns, rejoicing and laughing. – Rashi
“And Joshua heard the voice of the people crying with joy…” – Targum Yonasan ben Uziel
If they were so happy, why were they crying? Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin zt”l explained that the people had only recently stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai and listened to G-d admonish them to abstain from any form of idol worship. Although they strayed far from His message, His words still rang in their ears and gave them no peace. Try as they might, they could not enjoy their sin to the fullest extent. So it is with all those who come in contact with the message of Torah – even if they later stray, the sweet taste of sin will forever be dampened as a result of the Torah they once encountered.
“And G-d spoke to Moses face to face, as a man would speak to his fellow, and then he would return to the camp. His servant, Joshua son of Nun, a lad, would not depart from within the camp.” Shemot 33:11
Face to face – Unlike other prophets, Moses did not require any sort of intermediary when conversing with the Al-mighty. It was almost as if the Al-mighty descended to meet with Moses and converse with him. – Rabbeinu Bachya
Face to face – He did not fall into a trance and experience G-d only in a vision. Rather, he was fully conscious and aware of his surroundings while conversing with the Al-mighty. – Sforno (Rabbi Ovadia Sforno)
Face to face – Just as two friends converse comfortably and without fear or apprehension, Moses would converse with the Divine Presence without fear or apprehension. – Sifri Zuta
Ohr HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar) understands the words “face to face” in an unusual but inspiring fashion. Their faces were mirrors of one another, so to speak. G-d’s countenance reflected that of Moses when He spoke to him so that if Moses prepared himself intensely to receive the Al-mighty, the level of revelation matched his degree of preparation. If, however, he was inadequately prepared, his level of perception was not as great. Similarly, explains Ohr HaChaim, if a person experiences a passionate desire to connect with the Al-mighty, that is an indication that the Al-mighty feels a special love for that person. If a person finds himself lacking in that regard, it is an indication that he expended a less than adequate effort on his part to build his relationship with the Al-mighty.
Hey, I Never Knew That
The Talmud (Shabbat 118b) says that if the Jewish people would keep “two Sabbaths” they would be redeemed immediately. This is usually understood to mean one Sabbath and then the following Sabbath. However, Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg (Haktav Vehakabalah, Shemot 31:13) explains it quite differently. He notes that in the Torah portion this week the verse states, “You shall keep my Sabbaths” using the plural form, and not “my Sabbath” in singular. He maintains that there are two components to every Sabbath: the cessation from work and weekday activities is one component; spiritual growth, study of Torah, and closeness to G-d comprise the other. This is why the Torah commands us to keep “Sabbaths,” that is, to keep both components of Sabbath every week. He explains that when the Talmud states that if the Jews keep “two Sabbaths,” it doesn’t mean two Sabbaths in a row; rather it means the two components of every Sabbath.
“Six days you shall work and the seventh day will be a Sabbath” (Shemot 31:15). “Six days you shall work and on the seventh you shall rest” (ibid. 34:21). The Mishnah states, “You should love work” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:10), and most commentaries understand this to mean that one should respect and love the opportunity to earn a livelihood through honest labor. Avot D’Rebbe Natan (11:1) goes a little further and writes that just as the Torah is described as being a covenant between G-d and the Jewish people, so too, work, is a covenant. To support the idea that work is holy and is considered to be a mitzvah, the Mishnah (and other commentaries) note that virtually every time the prohibition against work on Shabbat is mentioned in the Torah, as in the Torah portion this week, it is juxtaposed with the obligation to work the other six days of the week (Rabbi Menachem Kasher, Torah Sheleimah,Parshat Yitro, Miluim).
Word of the Week
“Moses said to the people, ‘You have sinned a great sin’ ” (Shemot 32:30). The word for sin used here is חטאה — chata’ah, the root of which is חטא. Some commentaries (Radak, Hirsch) note that the word for “sin” is the same as the word “miss,” as in missing the target, because with every sin a person strays further away from the target and the ultimate goal of life. Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Nefesh Hachaim 1:6) relates חטא — chet to חסר — chaser — deficient, since every sin indicates a spiritual deficiency is some area. Rabbi Hirsch also suggests that the word chet means “to distance from,” because a sin distances the sinner from G-d.
“And on the seventh day [G-d] rested and וינפש—vayinafash” (Shemot 31:17). Targum Onkelos translates the verse as “He stopped and rested,” so that vayinafash means “He rested.” Rashi also understands vayinafash as “rested” and relates it to the word נפש—nefesh—soul, meaning “to restore one’s soul to its vigor by resting.” Similarly, in Modern Hebrew, nofesh means vacation. Sforno explains that vayinafash indicates that G-d added an increase in spirituality to Shabbat by granting an “extra soul—nefesh” on Shabbat. In a similar vein, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch understands the phrase as meaning “He returned (or withdrew) into His spiritual repose (or self).”
INCENSE AND INCENTIVE
Last week’s Torah portion discusses burning incense in the Tabernacle. Is there more to this service than its pleasant aroma?
Incense has had mystical associations throughout the ages. Thick, aromatic smoke has little physical substance, but has a powerful effect on those in its vicinity similar to the way that spiritual things are hidden from the eye, but exert strong influences.
However, some explain (Sefer HaChinuch) that the use of incense in the Tabernacle – and later in history in its culmination, the Holy Temple – was for an entirely different purpose. The incense bestowed an aura of honor and importance upon the Tabernacle by giving those who entered there a feeling of enjoyment, almost like a reward for coming, through aromatic pleasure. An individual’s sense of smell is so sensitive that an aroma can often have a profound effect on him, so much so that it can mentally transport him or her to a different time and place. Sometimes when I enter the lobby of a particular building in New York, the scent reminds me of my visits many years ago to my grandmother, who lived in a New York apartment house. The aromas in the Tabernacle were designed to build a level of majesty and bring the visitor to a heightened state of awe for the Divine Presence that filled the building.
On a practical level, we must recall that a typical day within the Tabernacle was filled with the offering of many animal sacrifices. This procedure entailed their slaughter, the processing of their blood, and the removal of their entrails. The remnants of these animals understandably produced odors, which may have made one’s visit feel less than inspiring. The incense, therefore, not only counteracted the offensive odors, but also produced a highly pleasant ambiance that inspired those that came with the true majesty of this holy structure.
Some identify a moral lesson from the incense (see Maharam Shick). In order to have a positive influence on others, it is necessary to demonstrate pleasantness and to give them a sense of enjoyment from the positive behaviors you hope to inculcate. These principles are the foundation of Jewish education. We train our children by dealing with them warmly and lovingly about the importance of mitzvot (the Torah’s commandments) and showing them how to enjoy the experience. When I’m in the synagogue, I will sometimes give a young child a penny to place in the tzedakkah (charity) box. Upon his return from this mission, I will make it a point of shaking his hand and expressing my happiness about his performing the great mitzvah of helping others who would otherwise not have enough money to buy food or clothing. The pleasant aromas from the Tabernacle became a causative agent for the increase in esteem that one carried for its objectives. Our actions can also be the causative agent to benefit others’ behaviors.
We are told that one who holds a baby boy during the time of his circumcision (sandek) is compared to the individual who ignites the incense in the Temple. The custom is to choose an esteemed relative or rabbi for the honor of holding the baby. According to the above explanation, the reason that he is compared to the one who offers incense is that the sandek makes it easier and more pleasant for the father to proceed with the act of his son’s circumcision, since the father can derive comfort that his tender child is in the care of someone he holds in such high regard. In essence, the sandek serves as the causative agent for the father to perform the circumcision, just as the incense inspired those who walked into the Tabernacle.
We look forward to the time, hopefully in the near future, when we will be inspired to become better Jews by the fragrance of the incense emanating from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Reuven Drucker
The Torah portion this week begins with G-d commanding Moses to count the Jews by their donations of half-shekels. The Talmud (Yoma 22b) and other sources (Nachmanides, Shemot 30:12) understand that there is a prohibition against counting the Jewish people. When students of the Vilna Gaon made aliyah (moved to Israel) and established a community in Tzefat, one of the leaders, Rabbi Israel of Shklov, was asked by a charity organization to supply a head-count of the Jews in Tzefat receiving charity. He asked Rabbi Moshe Sofer if, in light of the prohibition mentioned in the Talmud, this was permitted. Rabbi Sofer (Responsa Chatam Sofer, Kovetz Teshuvos 8) permitted the census, based primarily on the fact Rabbi Shklov was counting the stipends, not the people themselves. The question arose again, when the first national census took place in the State of Israel in 1960. The question was addressed by Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (Responsa Amud Hayemini 13) who permitted the census, because (among other reasons) it was performed for the sake of a mitzvah (the provision of social, medical, and municipal services to the population of Israel) and the count was indirect, as it was based on filling out forms rather than “counting heads.”
“Write down these words…” (Shemot 34:27). Rashi cites the Talmud which explains that only the words in the Torah itself may be written down, but one may not write down the Oral Torah that was also transmitted at Mount Sinai (Gittin 60b). Judah the Prince wrote down the Mishnah as an emergency measure so that the Oral Law would not be forgotten. Is it permitted to write down words of Torah if one is not doing so purely “for the sake of Heaven”? Rabbi Moshe Sofer indeed maintains that one may only write a book of Torah thoughts if one does so with pure intentions, otherwise the author would be transgressing the aforementioned prohibition (Responsa Chatam Sofer OC 208). Other authorities are lenient and maintain that once Judah the Prince permitted the writing of Oral Law it became completely permitted, even if not done purely for the sake of the emergency, or for the sake of Heaven. In addition they note that just as one should study Torah even for non-idealistic reasons, since it will lead to study for the right reasons, so too in recording Torah thoughts in writing we would apply the same principle (Responsa Yechaveh Daat 3:74).
Parsha at a Glance
G-d commanded Moses to take a census of the Jewish people by counting the half-shekel contributions of all males, twenty years old and above. G-d also provided instructions for making the copper basin, where the kohanim washed their hands and feet before officiating in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Moses was told how to make the sacred anointing oil used to consecrate the utensils of the Mishkan and the kohanim themselves. He was also instructed in the preparation of the incense that burned on the golden altar daily.
Betzalel and Oholiav were chosen to supervise all construction of the Mishkan and its utensils, because they were endowed with wisdom and expertise in all the necessary skills. G-d emphasized the importance of Shabbat, warning the people that it should not be desecrated in order to build and furnish the Mishkan. After G-d finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, He gave him the tablets of the Ten Commandments.
The Jewish people erred in calculating the return of Moses from Mount Sinai. Panic-stricken, some of them requested Aaron’s help in selecting an appropriate symbol to replace Moses. Aaron tried to delay them by asking for gold. However, it was immediately collected and thrown into a fire, from which the mass emerged in the shape of a calf. Aaron again tried to stall by declaring a celebration for the next day, by which time Moses would surely have returned, but the celebrants arose early to offer sacrifices.
Upon descending from the mountain, Moses saw the small group of revelers, smashed the tablets, and ground the calf to dust. He approached Aaron and rebuked him for allowing the people to construct the golden calf. Aaron explained that the people were predisposed to bad behavior through their long exposure to Egyptian idolatry, and that he had tried to stall for time.
Moses called from the camp’s entrance, “Whoever is for G-d, join me!” and the tribe of Levi approached him. With their help, Moses executed those who sinned. G-d brought a plague on the people, and scolded them for being stiff-necked. People who wanted to speak with Moses would visit him in the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting), established outside of the camp. Whenever the Cloud of Glory descended, Moses spoke to G-d, and the people prostrated themselves outside of the tent.
Moses returned to Mount Sinai for forty days of prayer, and eventually G-d promised to forgive the Jewish people and lead them Himself into the land of Israel. G-d also assured him that the Jewish people would forever be His treasured nation. Moses’ request to see G-d’s “glory” was only partially fulfilled, as no physical person, even one as great as Moses, has the ability to do so.
Under the command of G-d, Moses carved the second set of tablets of the Ten Commandments. G-d revealed to him His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. He then promised him that if the Jewish people would remove idolatry from the land, they would enter the land of Israel through great miracles. G-d also commanded the dedication of the firstborn of every livestock, and the firstborn son of every Jewish family; the observance of Shabbat and kashrut, etc.
When Moses descended from Mount Sinai, his face was radiant, and he had to wear a mask when speaking to the people. Only when he spoke with G-d did he remove the mask.