In parashatKi Sisa this week, God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelites, with the count to be made by having every adult man pay a half-shekel. “The wealthy shall not increase and the destitute shall not decrease from half a shekel.” The money is to be used for the work of building the Mishkan (Tablernacle) and will be a remembrance before God to atone for the souls of the Israelites.
What a profound lesson. In the eyes of God, everyone is of equal importance. Where participation is required, as in the census, the measure is the same for the wealthy and the poor. Furthermore, the census is taken with half-shekels to say that a person alone is incomplete. Each of us is required to do our part, and the success of the entire community depends upon each of us.
Ki Sisa also contains the lowest moment of our Jewish history – the Sin of the Golden Calf, the Chet Ha’Egel. Forty days before, at Mount Sinai, God gave the people the Ten Commandments, then reminds the people of His commandment not to create gods of silver and gold. The people reach such a level of spirituality that they have the gift of prophecy. Then, Moses ascends the mountain and leaves Aaron and Hur in charge. God spends the next weeks teaching Moses the Torah.
While Moses is away on the mountain, the people become afraid that he will not return. They have come to rely on Moses to intercede with God, and they are afraid to be without a leader. They call upon Aaron to “Make us a god that will go before us” in place of Moses. Aaron has the people give him gold, he throws it into the fire, “and this calf emerged.” Then, about 3,000 people worshiped the idol.
Here we have another profound lesson. Sometimes, people lose faith in what they know is right. When that happens, their leaders must help them regain their faith. This can be very difficult. The Midrash (our traditional history) teaches us that Hur tried to stop the people, and they killed him. Perhaps Aaron helped create the calf because he was afraid that the people would kill him, as well. It might be that Aaron would have been successful in convincing the 3,000 idol-worshipers not to commit this sin. Maybe if Aaron had opposed the idea of an idol, the rest of the people would have supported him and stopped the 3,000. In the end, the 3,000 were killed.
These two incidents – the census and the Chet Ha’Egel – remind me that whether we are rich or poor, whether we are recognized as a leader or not, each of us has an important part to play in the community. Sometimes even our leaders can be confused about what they should do. It is up to each of us to tell our leaders what we think is right, to help them make the right decision.
© Nelson R. Block 2014