Parshas Ki Sisa is a roller-coaster of a parsha, containing both spiritual highs and lows for Bnei Yisrael. The most famous event found in this week’s parsha is the spiritual low of the Eigel Hazahav, the Golden Calf, an event whose aftershocks are still felt nowadays. Each and every negative event that happens to us can be in some way ascribed to the events of the Eigel. Another well-known event in this week’s parsha is the collection of the Machatzis Hashekel, the half Shekel, which was used to count the members of Bnei Yisrael. The coins were subsequently used in the construction of the Mishkan, making it that every Jew was a piece of the holiest part of the world.
I saw an interesting medrash this week that discusses these two episodes. The medrash points out that the two stories share a word which is the key to both the triumph of Bnei Yisrael by the Shekalim and their downfall by the Eigel. By the Shekalim the pasuk writes, “זֶ֣ה | יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָֽעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַֽחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ” “This shall they give—everyone who passes through the census—a half shekel of the sacred shekel” (Shemos 30:13). And by the Eigel, the pasuk says, “וַיֹּֽאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם | עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה | משֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֨נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ” “And they (the nation) said to him (Aharon), ‘Rise up, make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the lands of Egypt—we don’t know what became of him” (32:1). The common word, “זֶה”, is responsible for both their rise and fall in both of these stories. What is the meaning behind this?
Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky explains like this. Whenever the word זֶה is used, it means that you completely understand what you are dealing with, so much so that it’s as if you could point at it and say “זֶה! This is it!” Perhaps the most famous example of this idea is by Krias Yam Suf when the nation said “זה א-לי ואנוהו”; the hand of Hashem was so clearly visible in the miracles taking place at the time that the entire nation completely understood that they were being saved in a supernatural manner. However, we see that it can also be a sign of a lack of respect.
Moshe Rabbeinu reached levels that no one had reached before him and no one has reached since. He was able to speak to Hashem face to face, a manner that no human being could even physically survive, let alone be worthy of experiencing. But after just a few months of having him as their leader, this group of people felt that they understood Moshe completely. They exclaimed “זֶה!”, they were capable of pointing out everything Moshe was with a finger. If that was true, then of course they could expect to create a replacement for him, the Eigel, on their own. After all, Moshe was simply a man like everyone and anyone else! This of course was not true. It wasn’t even that they didn’t appreciate what Moshe had done for them, they just didn’t attempt to comprehend the specialness of their leader. Their attitude towards Moshe was why they created an idol and became the ultimate reason behind their downfall.
However, the collection of the half shekel was exactly the opposite. Reb Yaakov quotes the Ramban that whenever a new ruler took control of a nation, he would have coins minted in his honor. As the currency would last past his reign, it would provide a lasting symbol of his rule after his passing. The Shekel coin was an invention of Moshe’s, which he created as a symbol of his new leadership over Bnei Yisrael. With his leadership came the gift and the authority of the Torah to the nation as well. By referring to this coin with זֶ֣ה, they were showing that they full understood, respected, and appreciated the role of the Torah in their lives.
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