For the week ending 19 February 2022 / 18 Adar Alef 5782

Parashat Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Moshe conducts a census by counting each silver half-shekel donated by all men age twenty and over. Moshe is commanded to make a copper laver for the Mishkan. The women donate the necessary metal. The formula of the anointing oil is specified, and Hashem instructs Moshe to use this oil only for dedicating the Mishkan, its vessels and Aharon and his sons. Hashem selects Betzalel and Oholiav as master craftsmen for the Mishkan and its vessels.

The Jewish People are commanded to keep the Shabbat, an eternal sign that Hashem made the world. Moshe receives the two Tablets of Testimony on which are written the Ten Commandments.

The mixed multitude who left Egypt with the Jewish People panic when Moshe's descent seems to be delayed, and so they force Aharon to make a golden calf for them to worship. Aharon stalls, trying to delay them. Hashem tells Moshe to return to the people immediately, threatening to destroy everyone and build a new nation from Moshe. When Moshe sees the camp of idol-worship, he smashes the Tablets and destroys the golden calf. The sons of Levi volunteer to punish the transgressors, executing 3,000 men.

Moshe ascends the mountain again to pray for forgiveness for the people, and Hashem accepts his prayer. Moshe sets up the Mishkan, and Hashem’s clouds of glory return. Moshe asks Hashem to show him the rules by which He conducts the world, but he is granted only a small portion of this request. Hasjem tells Moshe to hew new Tablets, and reveals to him the text of the prayer that will invoke Divine mercy.

Idol worship, intermarriage and the combination of milk and meat are prohibited. The laws of Pesach, the first-born, the first-fruits, Shabbat, Shavuot and Succot are taught. When Moshe descends with the second set of Tablets, his face is luminous as a result of contact with the Divine.


Never Forget

“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their number, every man shall give an atonement for his soul…’” (30:11-12)

Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Rosh HaYeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, suffered from Parkinson’s disease for 28 years. Rabbi Nochum Stillerman visited Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s home shortly after the latter became Rosh Yeshiva and there was a bottle of soda on the table. Wanting to honor his guest, Rav Nosson Tzvi tried to pour his guest a drink. Seeing the great difficulty that this caused him, Reb Nochum said he wasn’t thirsty. “If you don’t want to drink it, that’s your business, but I have to pour my guest a drink,” said Rav Nosson Tzvi.

He tried to lift the bottle and pour the drink, but his hands refused to cooperate. Reb Nochum was so disturbed by the sight of the Rosh Yeshiva struggling to pour a cup of soda that he blurted out: “Rosh Yeshiva, why do you deserve this?”

As soon as those words left his mouth, Reb Nochum wished he could somehow retract them. But it was too late.

“I was wondering the same thing,” replied Rav Nosson Tzvi. “And I think I know the reason,” he added.

He explained: “I love learning. In fact, I love learning so much that I think there’s no way I can learn Torah lishmah (for its own sake) because I enjoy it too much. Maybe I was stricken with this disease as a punishment for not learning Torah lishmah.”

Reb Nochum left the Rosh Yeshiva’s house deeply saddened, and stunned at the possibility that the Rosh Yeshiva’s Parkinson’s could be a punishment.

Twenty years passed, and the Rosh Yeshiva’s condition continued to deteriorate. During the last year of Rav Nosson Tzvi’s life in this world, around Pesach time, Reb Nochum came across a Gemara in the Talmud Yerushalmi, and was so excited by what he saw that he hurried to show it to the Rosh Yeshiva.

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Horayot 3:5) teaches that when Moses ascended to the Heavens and learned Torah there for 40 days and nights, he kept forgetting everything Hashem taught him. At the end of the 40 days, he received the entire Torah as a gift.

“Why?” asks the Talmud Yerushalmi. “So there will be a response to the fools,” answers the Talmud.

“Imagine Moses’ plight,” Reb Nochum said to the Rosh Yeshiva. “He’s in Heaven, learning from Hashem Himself, and each time he walks away for a moment and says, ‘What did I just learn?’ he draws a total blank. It must have been so frustrating.

“Why did Hashem do that to him? So that some unwise people who feel that they can’t learn because they keep forgetting the material will take heart and say, ‘If Moses could forget what he learned and still continue studying Torah, then so can we.’”

Reb Nochum then reminded Rav Nosson Tzvi that 20 years earlier, the Rosh Yeshiva had suggested that his Parkinson’s was a punishment for not learning for its own sake. “Maybe there’s a different reason,” suggested Reb Nochum. “Maybe the Rosh Yeshiva had to suffer from this illness so that in case any of us would say that we can’t learn because we aren’t feeling up to it, we would have the Rosh Yeshiva to look to as proof that one can learn even with a debilitating disease.”

The Rosh Yeshiva kissed Reb Nochum and said, paraphrasing a Gemara, “Akiva, you have comforted me; Akiva, you have comforted me.”

“Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their number, every man shall give an atonement for his soul…’”

The Alshich Hakadosh (1508-1593) interprets this verse homiletically: When you appoint a head, a leader for the Children of Israel, appoint only someone who is prepared to sacrifice himself — kofer nafsho — for the community.

How many of us have shared the crushing feeling of investing years and years into our learning and have trouble remembering what we learned even last week. Rav Nosson Tzvi’s self-sacrifice is an inspiration to us. If he was able to push himself to learn Torah, and at the same time to support the largest Torah institution in the world, what right do we have to complain?

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