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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Ki Sisa

Parashat Ki Sisa

Adar 18, 5780 – March 14, 2020

Torah Reading: Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-36

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Ki Sisa, which is Hebrew for “when you take.” This is a reference to the census that Moshe is commanded to “take” – every man fit to go to war is instructed to contribute half a shekel of silver, for the construction and maintenance of the Tabernacle. What’s interesting about this parashah is that, again, it’s not written in chronological order nor does it present a continuous narrative. We begin with the census and a few additional furnishings for the Tabernacle, such as: the Laver, or basin, in the Tabernacle courtyard; oil used to anoint sacred objects; and, the incense that is offered twice daily on the Golden Altar. Two artisans – Bezalel and Oholiab, who are to build the Tabernacle and its furnishings – are also introduced; and, the commandment to observe Shabbat is repeated to connect the divine aspects of time with the sacred notion of space (i.e. the Tabernacle). Then, the tragic story of the golden calf is recounted, whereby we are told that “Moshe had delayed in descending the mountain” (32:1) and the nation of Israel responded by moving into a frenzy of mass idol worship. This angers G-d, and Moshe pleads on behalf of his people, eventually descending from Sinai with the two Tablets of Testimony. After seeing the calf, and the people dancing around the idol, Moshe smashes the tablets that were engraved with the Ten Commandments, destroys the idol, and punishes those involved in the transgression.[1] There are, of course, consequences for the worship of the golden calf, and the relationship between G-d and his manifestation to the Children of Israel are brought into question. In the final section of the parashah, G-d does restore the covenant with the nation, and Moshe – once more – ascends Sinai to receive a second set of tablets. There, he pleads for forgiveness on behalf of his people, and is granted a vision of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.[2] When Moshe descents Sinai, after being taught the entire Torah anew, we are told that “the skin of his face had become radiant” (34:30) and so he wears a veil, only removing it to speak with G-d and to teach the people. The sin of the golden calf was an egregious error that left a stain on the souls of those present, and further diminished the state of spiritual prominence that had earlier been achieved.

Ki Sisa is also translated as “when you uplift” or “when you raise up” because the half shekel donation to the Tabernacle is considered an atonement for the sin of the golden calf.[3] The literal meaning of the commandment is “when you elevate the heads of the Children of Israel… (Bava Basra10b, Pesikta Zutresa)”[4] suggesting that – in addition to the census – the donation was an act that was designed to uplift, or partially cleanse, the contributor. This elevation is only made necessary after the sin of the golden calf, and so – again – this is an instance that demonstrates the atemporality of Torah. But, with this point aside, we have to ask: Why was this donation – this portion given to Hashem, in Hebrew terumah – not included in Parashat Terumah with all of the material contributions listed for the construction of the Tabernacle? What’s unique about the silver half-shekels that are to become the sockets upon which the walls of the Tabernacle rested (26:19)? Well, there is one way to look at it, which is about how – when an entire nation joins together in a singular cause – the status of the nation is uplifted. That’s basic enough, and it’s a nice way to think about it. A charitable act becomes the foundation upon which the Tabernacle is built; charity, then, becomes an essential building block for the atmosphere – the resting place – of G-d’s presence. But, the central focal point of Ki Sisais the contrast, and the tension, between a material item designed to uplift the nation and a material item that denigrates the sacred and defiles the divine essence of materiality. With this other item, I am (of course) referencing the golden calf – a story, and event, that has long lived in the historical memory of every Jew. The point here is to emphasize the importance of the intention that sits behind the use of materiality. To my knowledge, there’s nothing in the Torah that criticizes wealth, or personal possessions, that are used rightly. That’s the one caveat. In fact, if we think back to Parashat Vayishlach and Jacob’s retrieval of a few earthenware vessels, this was a situation where material objects had spiritual value. The right use of material wealth is also a premise to support the lavish vestments worn by the priests, because those garments are not used for personal gratification or to wield some kind of social power over others. Materiality is not the problem; it’s how it’s used. The Midrash Tanchuma addresses this point, and records that [when Hashem spoke to Moshe about the half-shekel] G-d showed Moshe a coin of fire, which is meant to teach that “money is like fire. [It] can be either beneficial or destructive, depending on how [it’s] used.”[5] And this is exactly what is being presented in the contrast between the half-shekel donation and the scene involving the golden calf.

The whole story, essentially, between the time that Moshe descends from Mt. Sinai to the giving of the half-shekel, is about the appropriate and the misappropriate ways that we express our desires for materiality. We have to remember that the Jews are constructing the Tabernacle from the material wealth that was gathered off the back of slavery in Egypt (12:35-36). And, having come out of Egypt – which is “the Torah’s prime symbol of the gross misuse of material possessions”[6]– the Jews still had to shed themselves of their desire to worship, what we would call today, the commodity: money, wealth, material property, material ownership. “Even though Egyptian wealth was at times used for good, feeding many [including the Patriarchs] in times of famine, the Egyptian relationship to wealth obstructs the awareness that G-d is the predominant power in the world. Rebbe Natan of Breslov [to use as an example] sees Egypt as the heart of materialism, pervaded by a lust for money so intense it became idol worship.”[7] In this same respect, the symbolic theme behind the golden calf is that the material becomes one’s G-d. The material becomes an end unto itself, because it becomes the main objective. And it becomes the main objective because it enhances a particular type of power in the world of materiality – through the acquisition and worship of things, a kind of control is achieved. The whole reason the world is in such an environmental mess is because we have tried to manipulate and subdue the earth and the forces of nature. Abraham Heschel writes: “To gain control of the world of space [this is in reference to what is termed ‘technical civilization’, and I will add that materiality is a derivation of space] is certainly one of our tasks. The danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time when the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[8] This also explains why the commandment to observe Shabbat is repeated in this parashah. As Heschel says quite aptly: “The power we attain in the world of space terminates abruptly at the borderline of time. But time is the heart of existence.”[9]


he opposite of the story of the golden calf is where the Israelites give of their material wealth, and this is done with the purpose to create a material dwelling place for Hashemon earth. Through this act, the object of worship is not the material but G-d himself. It’s not that the material is rendered unimportant or irrelevant – the tabernacle is incredibly important, but it’s positioned in a way to transform materiality into something sacred, something higher: a material representation of G-d’s power. In this way, the half-shekel does not just represent the atonement of the people, it’s also the re-sanctification of the material – an un-commodification of the material. Learning how to reinstate the grandeur of sacredness in the material is an important environmental message. It’s about learning how to use materiality in an appropriate way, and for an appropriate purpose. This is what building a sustainable and healthy world is all about. It’s not about commodifying things and turning them into idols and gods. This is an empty kind of worship, and a path that leads to nowhere. Materiality, and the earth, is here so that we can be co-creators with G-d and to create a dwelling place for that reality. Inherently, the material world is a sacred dwelling place for the divine. So, our job is not to idolize and defile the material world, it is to maintain this home, this Tabernacle we call earth – this Tabernacle we call home.

I’d like to leave you with a story, a piece of Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38:13) that is used a lot, but that I really love. And I’ll paraphrase it quickly. It concerns Abraham and his father Terah, who was a worshiper of idols. One time, Terah had to go away, and he left Abraham in charge of his store. A woman came in, carrying a dish of flower and said to Abraham: “This is for you, can you offer it before the idols?” And so, Abraham went back into the shop and took a club in his hands and broke all of the idols and placed the club in the hands of the biggest idol. When his father returned, and he witnessed all of the broken idols in the shop, he asked [his son]: who did all of this? Abraham replied: I can't hide it from you - a woman came carrying a dish of flour and told me to offer it before them. I did, and one of the idols stood up and said 'I will eat it first,' and then another said 'I will eat it first.' The biggest one rose, took a club, and smashed the rest of them. Terah said: what, do you think you can trick me? What do you take me for, a fool! They can't do anything! They have no power! And Abraham said: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?[10]

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: How to use materiality appropriately, the environmental lesson of the golden calf, and reinstating the sacred in the material


Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The sabbath. Macmillan, 1995.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

Siegel, Shimshon Stuart (with research by Rabbi Yonatan Neril). “Parashat Ki Tisa: Material Wealth: The Coin of Fire.” As found on:[5]

Accessed on March 14, 2020

  1. [1]Commentators note that there were three categories of sinners, and therefore three categories of punishments (Yoma 66b). (Scherman, p.599) [2]“Hashem passed before him and proclaimed: Hashem, Hashem, G-d, Compassionate and Gracious, Slow to Anger, and Abundant in Kindness and Truth; Preserver of Kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of Iniquity, Willful Sin, and Error, and Who Cleanses.” (34:6) [3]In 30:12 we read: “Every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them.” [4]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.484 [5]Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.485 [6]Siegel, “Parashat Ki Tisa: Material Wealth: The Coin of Fire.” [7]Siegel, “Parashat Ki Tisa: Material Wealth: The Coin of Fire.” [8] Heschel, The sabbath, p.3 [9] Heschel, The sabbath, p.3 [10]All of this text is paraphrased and/or copied from:

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