June 13, 2024
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The First Aliyah of Ki Tisa: Preparing the Remedy

The first aliyah of Parshat Ki Tisa is not only rather long at 45 pasukim, but it also seems rather out of place. The bulk of Parashat Ki Tisa tells the story of the Egel HaZahav, the sin of the golden calf. The first aliyah, however, continues to deal with aspects of the Mishkan and its upkeep.

The aliyah begins with the instruction that any census of the Jewish people is to be conducted via the half-shekel coin. The annual half-shekel contribution was used for purchasing communal offerings. The aliyah continues by describing the Kiyor, the wash basin, for the Mishkan. The Kiyor was made from copper mirrors contributed by the women of Bnei Yisrael. Next the aliyah details the composition of the anointing oil and incense and identifies the two main artisans overseeing the Mishkan’s construction. The aliyah concludes with the requirement to observe the Shabbos.

Not only should we be asking why this aliyah is not part of the prior parshiot dealing with the Mishkan, but we need to question the aliyah’s internal structure. The last parsha ended with mention of the golden incense altar. Should not this parsha continue on by discussing the composition of the incense itself? Thereafter, the aliyah could address another object in the Mishkan, the Kiyor. This would be followed by the oil for anointing these objects, then the people responsible for their construction, and finally the half-shekel assessment that will be used in part to fund the Mishkan. Why begin with the half shekel?

First let us address why the first aliyah is not part of the prior parsha. If not for the contents of the first aliyah, the parsha would have commenced with a description of the almost unfathomable sin committed by Bnei Yisrael. Rather than begin with Chet HaEgel, we start by continuing to describe aspects of the Mishkan. This reflects the idea found in the Gemara (Megillah 13a) that Hashem does not deliver a blow until after preparing the remedy. The Mishkan’s purpose is to enhance the bond between Hashem and Bnei Yisrael. So, rather than begin by describing an event that drove a wedge between the people and Hashem, we focus on the positive, we focus on the remedial—that which intended to bring us closer to Hashem.

The internal structure, or order, of the first aliyah is intended to provide guidance for coming closer to Hashem by engaging in teshuva. It is famously explained that donating a half shekel rather than a whole shekel teaches that a person cannot be complete until such time as they join in communal efforts. A person has not completed themselves if they are only for themselves. Thus, if we wish to do teshuva, if we want to better ourselves, we should begin by asking how we might help others. This notion of giving of oneself is not only the essence of the half shekel, it is also exemplified by the Kiyor.

The Kiyor was composed of the copper mirrors the women of Bnei Yisrael freely gave to support the Mishkan’s construction. The midrash tells us that Moses was apprehensive about accepting these mirrors. He was uncertain if an object most often associated with vanity should become an integral part of the Mishkan. Hashem, however, told him to accept the gift because these mirrors had been used in Egypt for the holy purpose of perpetuating Bnei Yisrael. Although, while in Egypt the men of Bne Yisrael despaired and did not wish to bring more children into the world, the women never lost faith. They never lost confidence that the Holy One, blessed be He, would eventually bring about salvation. Such notions of self-sacrifice and faith are essential in the teshuva process. The Kiyor, of course, was filled with water. Just as water will wash away physical filth, teshuva will cleanse us of spiritual filth.

A person who reaches beyond themselves, a person who has truly undertaken teshuva, takes on an aspect of “kadosh” just as any object touched by the anointing oil becomes kadosh. Although “kadosh” is generally translated as “holy,” a better translation is: “to be set apart.” A person who is truly repentant has set themselves apart from their former selves. They may have the same physical appearance, but their spiritual character is now different, just as an object touched by the anointing oil as the same physical characteristics but a different spiritual status.

Of course, teshuva must be undertaken without ulterior motive or intent of personal benefit. In many instances the bringer of a korban, or the kohanim, receive a portion of the korban. Not so with incense. Not only does the offering kohen take nothing, but there is no physical manifestation of the offering, there is only the scent. From the incense we can derive a lesson that when serving Hashem we should not act with an expectation of benefit. When we are done we should have nothing tangible. We should simply have the pleasant knowledge, like a pleasant scent, that we have performed Hashem’s will.

Those selected as the chief designers and builders of the Mishkan came from the largest tribe (Betzalel from Yehuda) and from one of the smallest tribes (Oholiav from Dan). From this we can learn that your past does not matter, your status does not matter; all that matters is your willingness to step forward and serve Hashem.

The aliyah concludes with Shabbos. Shabbos is the easiest of the things for us to understand as being a vehicle to bring us closer to Hashem and to help us obtain forgiveness. Indeed, the Midrash Rabbah for Bereshit (XI:2) offers an opinion that although Adam sinned on the sixth day, he was nonetheless not expelled from Gan Eden until the end of Shabbos. The very first Shabbos conveyed comfort and forgiveness, an opportunity to spend another moment in close proximity to the Divine. It is a day when we can pause and contemplate all that Hashem has given us. In so doing we cannot help but make our way back to Him.

Thus we see that before Parshat Ki Tisa describes Chet HaEgel and the nation becoming spiritually lost, it sets out in the first aliyah a roadmap for teshuva, a roadmap to return to Hashem. So it is that at the end of the parsha we have a description, in the sixth aliyah, of how we shall three times a year make a pilgrimage to the house of God, the Beit Hamikdash, and in the seventh aliyah, how Moshe once more returned to Har Sinai and then to us aglow holding the second set of tablets.

May the spirit of Shabbos inspire all to do teshuva sufficient to return the Shechinah to dwell amongst us.


William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU, and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own. 

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