Ki Tissa – Two Themes

By Rabbi Dovid Markel


The Torah portion of Ki Tisa seemingly contains a paradoxical element.

On one hand it primarily discusses the sin of the Golden Calf – the actual sin, the breaking of The Tablets, and Moshe’s prayers – yet, on the other hand the beginning of the parsha is about an elevation.

The Torah portion commences with the statement (Shemot 30:13): “”When you take a headcount (ki tisa) of the children of Israel according to their numbers.”

While the word “tisa” literally means count, it also means to raise up. Essentially then the verse is conveying a manner in which to elevate the heads – or highest level – of the Jewish People.

Seemingly sin and elevation are two contradictory elements that do not make sense to be found in a singular Torah portion. Additionally, it is ironic that at the same time where the Torah speaks of the greatest elevation for Israel, it discusses their greatest sin.

The Talmud (Berachot 34b) remarks: “In the place where penitents stand even the wholly righteous cannot stand.”

Indeed, when the Jewish People received the second tablets, they were at the level of penitents and therefore were in a sense at higher level than when they received the first tablets.

The Talmud (Megilla 13b) states: “G-d prefaces the remedy before the sickness.” It is therefore understood that the concept expressed in “elevating one’s mind” that is expressed in the beginning of the Torah portion is the remedy to prevent falling into the sin of idolatry.

Raising one’s head through the study of Torah – especially in those areas that discuss G-d’s unity – has the ability to remedy and negate the idea of idolatry.

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 103b) relates about the King of Israel, Yeravam ben Nevat on the verse(I Melachim, 11:29): ” [Now it came to pass at that time] that Yeravam went out of Jerusalem and the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him in the way, and he clad himself with a new garment, and they two were alone in the field.”

“What is meant by ‘with a new garment’? — R. Nachman said: As a new garment: just as a new garment has no defect, so was Jeroboam’s scholarship without defect. Another explanation: A new garment intimates that they expounded new teachings, such as no ear had ever heard before. What is taught by, ‘and they two were alone in the field’? — Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: All other scholars were as the herbs of the field before them.”

Indeed, the Talmud (Ibid, 103b) relates that Yeravam interpreted Torah’s Kohanim in 103 manners. In Kabbala (Rame Mipano, Meah Kishta Ch. 8) it explains that the 103 elucidations correspond to the numerical value of the word עגל, which is as well 103.

In Yeravam’s studies he fixed the sin of the calf through his understanding G-d’s unity. However, Yeravam himself fell into the sin of idolatry and himself offered two calves to idolatry.

Imbedded in this thought is a paradoxical lesson: On one hand a person’s studies negate idolatry, but that same study itself can cause the person to fall into idolatry.

This is similarly expressed regarding the Golden Calf in the Midrash (Tanchuma, Ki Tissa 21) that the sin of The Calf was because Israel wished to make a depiction of the face of the ox that they saw in G-d’s chariot.

While study, and understanding G-d’s unity is important to negate idolatry, it is not enough. A person retains their free choice can falter no matter the depth of their understanding. To truly negate idolatry one must connect to G-d in manner that transcends the mind – “raise the head” to a super-rational level that transcends the mind and express the essential soul connection that an individual has with G-d.

The lesson in our lives is as follows: a person can study the deepest aspects of the Torah in the desire to appreciate G-d’s unity, but it is not enough.

To truly be one with G-d, the *study* of chassidus is not sufficient, a person must work in prayer to connect to G-d with his soul and not merely his mind.

For while the mind is an important tool, it is not the essence of the individual. A person must therefore connect his very essence with G-d.

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