Parshas Ki Sisa: From Justice to Mercy

This week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Sisa, opens with the following words: And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַה’, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם – When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their counts, every man shall give an atonement for his soul to Hashem, when counting them, and there will be no plague among them when counting them; זֶה יִתְּנוּ, כָּל-הָעֹבֵר עַל-הַפְּקֻדִים–מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל, בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ – this is what they shall give – everyone who passes among the counted – half of the shekel, by the holy shekel… (Shemos 30:11-13). 

What was the donation of the half-shekel used for?  וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת-כֶּסֶף הַכִּפֻּרִים, מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְנָתַתָּ אֹתוֹ, עַל-עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד; וְהָיָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי ה’, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם – And you shall take the silver of the atonements from the Children of Israel and give it for the work of the Tent of Meeting; and it shall be a remembrance before Hashem for the Children of Israel, to atone for your souls (ibid, v.16).

Rashi (to 30:15) teaches that the silver contributions were used for the work, and construction, of the Mishkan.  Hence, in a society where the nation had no one to give to, for everyone was sustained by water from the well, sufficient food from the heavenly manna, and protection from the Clouds of Glory – in a society where everyone was Divinely provided for – how would the people learn to give; which is the the essence and foundation of Jewish society and community? 

They would give a form of tzedaka to the building of the Mishkan.  From here, the people would learn that to be a Jew means to give of ourselves to causes greater than ourselves, and to others who may lack what we are blessed to have. 

R’ Shalom Rosner writes, “The Vilna Gaon (d.1797) points out that the trop (cantillation notes) on the word וְנָתְנוּ, they shall give, is the kadma ve’azla, which teaches us a valuable lesson.  The Gemara (Shabbos 151b) records that Rav Chiya used to instruct his wife, ‘When a poor person comes collecting, make sure to give him food quickly, even before he asks, so that he will treat our children in kind.’  Rav Chiya’s wife was troubled by his comment.  ‘Why are you cursing me?’ she replied, ‘our children don’t need handouts!’  Rav Chiya responded that a person’s financial status is never certain and is always subject to change.  In one generation, a family may be wealthy or poor, but in the next generation, or a few later, they may be in the opposite state.

“Financial status is a galgal chozer, a wheel of fortune.  That, says the Vilna Gaon, is what the word וְנָתְנוּ, they shall give, alludes to.  The kadma ve’azla tells us to preemptively give tzedaka

[Kadma means to progress or advance and its shape is leaning forward.  Azla means ‘going away’, and it leans backwards; it is often the end of the phrase ‘Kadma ve’Azla‘.  Hence, the trop over וְנָתְנוּ, they shall give, is Kadma ve’Azla.  We learn from here: Kadma – If we want to progress and advance, we must lean forward towards others, preemptively giving to them.  Ve’Azla, which will keep poverty away from us.]

Continues R’ Rosner, “Interestingly, the word וְנָתְנוּ is a palindrome, reading the same way backwards and forwards – financial status goes around and around, just like a wheel of fortune.

“Later, the Vilna Gaon, like many other commentaries, asks why the Bnei Yisrael were commanded to contribute only a half a shekel per person instead of a whole shekel.  Many point out that it symbolizes the unity that must exist within Klal Yisrael – (that each person is only half of a whole, and when we come together, by giving) we complete each other.

“The Vilna Gaon, however, has a different explanation (as to what we learn from the fact that everyone only gives a מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל, a half shekel).  The Gemara tells us that giving tzedaka merits one to be spared from a decree of death.  It is interesting to note that this idea is contained within the structure of the word for half – מַחֲצִית.

מַ חֲ צִ י ת – the middle letter of this word is tzaddi, צִ, which stands for tzedaka.  The letters closest to the middle are ches and yud, חֲ and י, which spell chai – life.  The outermost, farthest letters are mem and taf, מַ ת, which spell meis – death.  Thus (we see from here that) tzedaka gives life and keeps away death” (Shalom Rav, p.443-444).

As we have just celebrated the festive day of Purim, with its unique mitzvah of matanos le’evyonim (gifts to the poor), and we approach the Yomtov of Pesach, when communities collect kimcha d’Pischa (lit. ‘flour for Pesach’, donations for the poor), let us keep the mitzvah of the מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל in mind.  When it comes to giving, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַה, we must always strive to be forward facing, so that the wheel of fortune turns in our favor, as it saves us from death.

Moreover, as our communities face uncertain times with the spread of the coronavirus, Hashem yishmor v’yerachem, let us remember that ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזירה – repentance, prayer and charity erase the evil decree.

In the merit of our being forward facing and doing for others, may the RS”O be “forward facing”, ke’vi’yachol, and preemptively do for us.

הַשְׁקִיפָה֩ מִמְּע֨וֹן קָדְשְׁךָ֜ מִן־הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבָרֵ֤ךְ אֶֽת־עַמְּךָ֙ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְאֵת֙ הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָתַ֖תָּה לָ֑נוּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּ֙עְתָּ֙ לַאֲבֹתֵ֔ינוּ אֶ֛רֶץ זָבַ֥ת חָלָ֖ב וּדְבָֽשׁ – Gaze down from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless Your nation, Israel, and the land that that You have given us, like You swore to our fathers, the land flowing with milk and honey (Devarim 26:15).  About this verse, Rashi (to Bereishis 18:16) teaches: הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ, שֶׁגָּדוֹל כֹּחַ מַתְּנוֹת עֲנִיִּים שֶׁהוֹפֵך מִדַּת הָרֹגֶז לְרַחֲמִים – Gaze down from Your holy abode: How great is the power of giving gifts to the poor (mitzvas tzedaka), for it overturns G-d’s middah of Justice and Anger to that of Mercy, Divine Compassion.

As we move from Adar to Nissan, let us merit that the simcha of Adar will herald the redemption of Nissan, and may the yeshua (salvation) and refuah (healing) be immediate and in our days.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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