Parshat Ki Tisa opens with God commanding Moses (Moshe) to take a census of the Children of Israel by collecting a half-shekel coin from each adult. The Midrash says that God showed Moshe a half-shekel coin made of fire and said, “Like this one shall they give.”
The Noam Elimelech explains that money is like fire; it can be used to create, protect and nourish, or it can be used to harm and destroy. The silver half-shekel stands at the opening of our parsha as a warning of the potential dangers of wealth.
Many of the donations for the Mishkan came from the great wealth that the Israelites, following God's command, requested and were given from their Egyptian neighbors as they were preparing to leave slavery. In Biblical times, Egypt, more than any other nation, was noted for its prosperity. The thought of Egypt evoked massive pyramids and palaces, heavily adorned with gold and precious materials. The yearly flooding of the Nile produced fertile soil that was farmed to feed vast populations. Not coincidentally, in the Book of Genesis, both Abraham and Jacob go to Egypt when there is famine in the Land of Israel.
Yet Egypt stands as the Torah's prime symbol of the gross misuse of
material possessions. “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for aid,” the
prophet Isaiah says, “they did not turn to the Holy One of Israel and
they did not seek out HaShem.” Even though Egyptian wealth was at times
used for good, feeding many in times of famine, the Egyptian
relationship to wealth obstructs the awareness that God is the
predominant power in the world.
Rebbe Natan of Breslov sees Egypt as the heart of materialism, pervaded
by a lust for money so intense it became idol worship. According to the
Midrash, Egyptians worshiped the sheep, a symbol of wealth. Egypt's
massive construction projects deified the wealth from which they were
built, and the kings and queens whose power ordained their construction.
It was this spiritually toxic relationship with property that God
wanted the Israelites to leave behind when they departed from Egypt.
Leaving, however, was not enough. God intended that through the Exodus,
Israel would create a new paradigm of materialism in the world. Rebbe
Natan explains in "Likutei Halachot" that “Israel was exiled to Egypt in
order to purify the wealth from there, because in the wealth… there
fell all the [holy] sparks.” The Torah does not condemn personal
possession, even great wealth, but demands a certain mode of usage.
Riches do not exist for their own sake or for the sake of man's ego.
Rather, all the abundance of the earth is focused on the implementation
of God's Will.
The elevation of the wealth of Egypt occurred through the construction
of the Mishkan, which was built from the donations solicited at the
beginning of Parshat Terumah. From a certain perspective, the opulence
of the Mishkan and the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, whose lavish
clothing was also made from the donated materials, may seem ostentatious
and elitist. But the essence of all of this holy finery is that it
originated in Egypt's culture of acquisition and material perversion,
and passed through the purifying fires of the hearts of the Children of
Israel, who gave willingly, rather than hoarding the wealth. This
transformation returned the idea of wealth to its essential state, as a
means through which God's in-dwelling Presence is made manifest in the
daily lives of human beings.
However, the rectification of Egypt's wealth did not proceed unhindered.
Parshat Ki Tisa climaxes with the tragedy of the Golden Calf, the
ultimate example of the Noam Elimelech's destructive fire. Just as they
are poised to affect a worldwide paradigm shift, the Children of Israel
stumble. Moshe fails to appear in the moment he is expected, and the
Israelites panic and demand a tangible representation of God's power. In
contrast to the intricate details of the Mishkan (the viable channel
for God's glory) the Golden Calf was made haphazardly, after the people
demand no more than, “Make us gods that will go before us!” The people
celebrate the Calf, but their worship is empty worship; the golden
statue is not a pathway to God.
Unfortunately in our time, we often see religious institutions with
opulent external structures and well-paid clergy, but do not sense that
these places are truly Tabernacles of God. Well-meaning congregants
donate to the shul in exchange for a conspicuous honorary plaque, a
personal parking spot or an entire building bearing their name.
Yet, as contemporary commentator Dr. Aviva Zornberg points out, the most
precious golden parts of the Mishkan (the Ark and the golden Cherubs
resting on top of it) were not within view of anyone, ever, except for
the Cohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, and to him only through the fog of
incense. In contrast, the Golden Calf, and the orgies that attended it,
stood exposed before all the people. Proper use of material wealth
sanctifies God's name in a way that is modest, practically unseen, and
yet affects the whole world for good.
Today, wealth is portrayed as a gateway to personal fulfillment, power
and status. Consumer products, from cars to clothes to personal
electronics, promote a life that is generally a race for acquisition
rather than a quest for righteousness and communion with God. Overpaid
and misbehaving celebrities have become objects of worship, following
one another to more indulgent levels of extravagance and glamorization,
like the idolized sheep of ancient Egypt. Consumption has become an end
in itself. The conveniences of modern life have freed us to pursue more
consumption, while spiritual and emotional fulfillment are at an
all-time low, as evidenced by the meteoric rise of the self-help and
anti-depressant industries. People are seeking wholeness and healing,
but they are turning towards consumer products and profit-driven media
to find them.
And yet we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt every year at Passover, as if
we were free, without even realizing that the ultimate slavery is not
chains and forced labor, but the deification of wealth and human
achievement. All of Egypt was enslaved to perverse materialism, and it
was for this reason that God decimated the land and sent Israel out with
its wealth. God commands Moshe to collect the half-shekel in the
context of a census. “Ki Tisa,” often translated as “when you count [the
people],” literally means “when you lift.”
The elevation of material possessions elevates each of us when we
dedicate all that we have to the furthering of righteousness in the
world. The Jewish people were born out of the rejection of material
worship, and charged with the mission of transforming the way societies
view wealth. Were we to really embrace this spiritual work, we would
undoubtedly be a light unto the nations, and offer a model for
satisfaction in Divine service over gratification in material excess.Shimshon Stüart Siegel lives in
Boston, Massachusetts and is the director of Impact Boston at Brandeis
University, a service learning program for Jewish teens.