The Threat from Within – Ki Tisa
Our parsha begins with the מחצית השקל. The Mefarshim say that the מחצית השקל was atonement for חטא העגל. Why half a shekel? The passuk says-
וַיַּרְא הָעָם כִּי בֹשֵׁשׁ מֹשֶׁה לָרֶדֶת מִן הָהָר וכו' (שמות ל, א)
The word בֹשֵׁשׁ is interpreted as six hours, i.e Moshe was supposedly six hours “late”. Six hours into the day is half a day - therefore half a shekel. Also the shekel was עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה. Half a shekel is 10 gerah, symbolic of Moshe breaking the Luchot with עשרת הדברות.
In order to conceptualize the enormity of the calamity of חטא העגל, we need to view it in the context of חטא אדם הראשון. In a previous shiur I described in detail exactly what comprised the sin of the עץ הדעת and the fact that it was the “prototype” sin, containing many sub-sins – עבודה זרה, גילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים. A short few hours after creating Adam and giving him only one commandment, he sinned and thus destroyed HKB”H’s perfect Creation.
To repair the damage of חטא אדם הראשון, took 2448 years, the Avot and Am Yisrael descending into exile in Egypt for 400 years and finally culminating with Matan Torah. At Har Sinai, Am Yisrael, by saying נעשה ונשמע completed the tikkun and the world reverted back 2448 years to before the sin. Am Yisrael had witnessed untold supernatural miracles, in Egypt, on the Red Sea and on Har Sinai. We were on the level of angels!
Chazal say that the purpose of creating the world was exactly for this. That is why during the Creation it says יום הששי and not יום ששי, like the other days – יום שני, יום שלישי וכו', because it was referring to the sixth day – the sixth of Sivan, when the Torah was given on Har Sinai.
And then disaster! A short time after Matan Torah, Am Yisrael incredibly, and defying all logic, repeated the sin of Adam Harishon – עבודה זרה by worshipping the egel, גילוי עריות when they arose early לצחק, to conduct an orgy and שפיכות דמים when they killed Chur (and, some Mefarshim say, also the שבעים זקנים). They had destroyed the Creation, all over again! Appropriately HKB”H vowed to destroy Am Yisrael and to reseed them from Moshe Rabbeinu. It was only because Moshe Rabbeinu pleaded with HKB”H and showed how such a thing would cause a cataclysmic chilul Hashem, did HKB”H relent.
How could such a thing have happened? Am Yisrael were compared to angels. They saw the Shechina face to face on Yam Suf and again on Har Sinai, they saw it באספקלריא המאירה – clearly without any filters! How is it possible to descend in such a brief time from that enormous height to such a pit of licentiousness?
So obviously there were dark forces at work here that are beyond our understanding. The ספרי הסוד say that at the time of Creation there were angels who objected to the creation of Adam Harishon and subsequently sabotaged him in Gan Eden. Similarly at Har Sinai, these same angels objected to giving Am Yisrael the Torah and again worked to sabotage them. Chazal say that 40 days after Moshe ascended Har Sinai to get the Luchot, the מלאך המוות pulled out all the stops and showed Am Yisrael a vision of Moshe’s coffin floating in the air, indicating he was dead. I prefer not to pursue this direction, as these are affairs of angels and beyond our human understanding. Instead we will concentrate in this shiur on the פשט according to Chazal and the Mefarshim.
There are two main schools of thought regarding חטא העגל. The first is brought by the Zohar Hakadosh and subsequently by most of the Mefarshim, including Rashi etc. that Am Yisrael did not participate in the sin and it was ALL the erev rav.
The Zohar (בראשית קכא) goes into great detail describing what comprised the erev rav - נפילים, גבורים, ענקים, רפאים ועמלקים , that they were גילגולי נשמות of fallen angels and the קליפות of Adam Harishon from זוהמת הנחש and were in fact descendants of the Egyptians that Yosef forced to perform brit milah to merit receiving food during the 7 years of famine (ילקוט ראובני שמות). Elsewhere (כי תשא נו) the Zohar says that the erev rav were all the חרטומים in Egypt, who saw that Moshe’s “magic” was stronger than theirs and thus wanted to convert (the Zohar probably means that the חרטומים were gilgulim of those he previously mentioned in Breishit). There are other opinions who the erev rav were, for example the Ba’al Haturim, Alsheich etc. who say that the erev rav were Egyptians that Pharaoh sent deliberately to serve as a 5th column.
The Midrash (מכילתא בא, פרשה יד; ילקוט שמעוני רמז רט) brings different views as to their numbers – 1.2 million, 2.4 million or 2.6 million (compared to 600,000 of Am Yisrael). The Zohar Hakadosh (פנחס תסט) says that the erev rav, after they converted, married wives from the tribe of Shimon and had children with them.
The basis of this view - that the entire sin was committed by the erev rav - is from the passuk –
וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֶךְ רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם (שמות לב,ז)
עַמְּךָ - ”your” people, not My people - meaning the erev rav that Moshe allowed to tag along, without first consulting with Hashem and against His advice.
The problem with this opinion is that if it was only the erev rav, then why did HKB”H want to destroy all of Am Yisrael? Why did Moshe and the Levi’im killing the 3,000 worshippers of the egel not suffice?
The second school of thought (אור החיים שמות לב, יא) says that indeed the active participants were only the erev rav, however Am Yisrael should have protested and prevented this from happening and since they didn’t, they were complicit in the sin.
There are two problems with this second opinion. Firstly, from the numbers above, we see that Am Yisrael were outnumbered at least 2:1 by the erev rav, so how can a minority stand up to a violent majority? (they killed Chur). However, the second and more important question on this opinion is from the passuk –
..... עִבְרוּ וָשׁוּבוּ מִשַּׁעַר לָשַׁעַר בַּמַּחֲנֶה וְהִרְגוּ אִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו וְאִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת קְרֹבוֹ (שמות לב, כז).
If it was the erev rav, then why does it say אחיו, רעהו, קרובו? This passuk seems to indicate that is was not the erev rav who were killed by the Levi’im but Am Yisrael themselves.
There are many, many different perushim on the tragic debacle of חטא העגל and similarly many perushim that offer answers to the above discrepancies. However, in this shiur I would like to focus on one incredible perush that takes a completely different direction to the mainstream views of the Zohar and the Or Hachayim above.
HaRav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch zt”l (שמות לב כה) says that the erev rav were not a mixture of people from other nations at all, but a small minority within Am Yisrael, people who were lax in their Torah observance and resentful of any and every restriction the Torah imposed on the personal “freedoms” they enjoyed in their previous existence of עבודה זרה in Egypt. This was reflected by them saying זָכַרְנוּ אֶת הַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר נֹאכַל בְּמִצְרַיִם חִנָּם (במדבר יא, ה), the word חִנָּם meaning “free” from mitzvot (Rashi, quoting the Sifri).
רש"ר הירש does not bring any sources to support his view, but we can find hints to it in the psukkim. For example, the gematriya of וְגַם עֵרֶב רַב עָלָה אִתָּם (שמות יב, לח) is "מתוך בני ישראל".
Following this principle, I would like to develop the theme further. Let us explore more deeply who this group of people were. They were not the רשעים who perished during מכת חושך. Those who died during the plague of darkness were originally part of Am Yisrael, slaves, who had completely assimilated and lost any affiliation with their nation and heritage - to such a degree that they wanted to remain in Egypt and not be redeemed. According to רש"ר הירש the erev rav who left Egypt with Am Yisrael, were different to those. They were part of Am Yisrael, they felt an affiliation to Am Yisrael and they believed in HKB”H. They brought the Korban Pesach in Egypt and did Brit Milah and were present at Har Sinai when Am Yisrael received the Torah. They said נעשה ונשמע! They accepted the עשרת הדברות on Har Sinai!
So what set them apart from the rest of Am Yisrael? Chazal say (שבת פח, א) that when HKB”H gave Am Yisrael the Torah on Har Sinai, He dangled Har Sinai over their heads שכפה הקב"ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית and threatened them, “Either you accept the Torah or I drop the mountain on you!” If Am Yisrael said נעשה ונשמע then why was that necessary? Chazal say that Am Yisrael said נעשה ונשמע to the תורה שבכתב but in order to get them to also accept the תורה שבעל פה Hashem had to threaten them at Har Sinai, they did not accept it willingly (only many centuries later in Shushan, during the story of Purim, did Am Yisrael willingly accept the תורה שבעל פה as it says – קיימו וקבלו and how do we know that it was willingly, because they accepted additional mitzvot that constitute part of תורה שבעל פה out of simcha - ימי משתה ושמחה).
If we look back at the sequence of events from leaving Egypt, when did this group of erev rav rear their heads for the first time and start complaining? It happened in Marah, where “the water was bitter and undrinkable”. Chazal tell us that at Marah, Am Yisrael were given, in addition to the שבע מצוות בני נח, which they had been obligated to until then, three additional mitzvot – שבת, כיבוד אב ואם ודינים. This triggered complaints from the erev rav. They were happy to be be affiliated with Am Yisrael as long as nobody interfered with their personal freedom. As soon as Moshe started piling on more obligations that “restricted” their personal freedom, they reared their heads – it was a bitter pill they could not swallow. This is what started it all.
Later when they came to Midbar Sin, Moshe told Am Yisrael that they were about to receive the Torah (more “restrictions”) and again – complaints from the erev rav remembering the “fleshpots of Egypt etc.” We see a pattern emerging – every time more and more of the Torah was given, the erev rav became more and more resentful and rebellious.
Then came Matan Torah. These erev rav, the small minority of Am Yisrael, could not help but get caught up in the awesome power of Matan Torah and hearing the עשרת הדברות from HKB”H Himself. And it wasn’t so bad – the Ten Commandments were basically what they were already obliged to keep, the שבע מצוות בני נח plus three others, which they already had to “swallow” in Marah. But then Moshe says –“That’s not all” and he goes up for 40 days and 40 nights to receive the entire Torah (written and oral).
40 days and nights the erev rav were seething and hatching a plot. Their resentment had reached boiling point. There was no way that they were going to allow Moshe to return with hundreds and thousands more restrictions on what they could do and what they couldn’t. They deliberately misinterpreted Moshe’s return date. Moshe had left explicit instructions – “In my absence Aharon and Chur are in charge”. But the erev rav had an agenda and it didn’t include listening to Aharon and Chur. Chur told them to wait and so they killed him! If they really thought Moshe was dead and they loved Moshe so much, what should they have been doing? They should have been sitting shiva! But no, they knew Moshe was going to return when he said he would, he had only ever told them the truth. So they implemented the plot they had been hatching for weeks – to sabotage Moshe’s return with the Torah. How do you sabotage such a thing, by arousing HKB”H’s anger against Am Yisrael, by breaking the Luchot, by leaving things the way they were!
So they killed Chur and they forced Aharon to make an egel that they would use to worship עבודה זרה like they did in Egypt, with no restrictions, liberalism, freedom of expression, איש באמונתו יחיה, nobody is going to tell me what to do in my own home! Aharon tried to delay them, but they would not be delayed. If they really loved Moshe and the thought of losing him and having nothing to replace him was so disastrous for them, what would it have hurt to wait a few hours to see how things developed? But they could not wait a few more hours, because they knew that in a few more hours Moshe would return as he said. So they got up extra early that morning and they pulled out all the stops and the thing deteriorated into a full scale orgy fest, just like it was in Egypt when they were worshipping עבודה זרה.
And the plan actually worked. Moshe returned and he broke the Luchot.
But the erev rav lacked understanding of what came next. They thought they could preserve their reality and way of life without restrictions, like it was when they were serving עבודה זרה back in Egypt, that they could have the best of both worlds – not be slaves to Pharaoh and not be “slaves” to HKB”H either, to be free as a nation to do as they wished. But that conflicted with HKB”H’s intention for creating the world, to give Am Yisrael the Torah so they could be a light unto the nations and serve HKB”H - without that the world had no reason to exist! So HKB”H forgave Am Yisrael and He wiped out the erev rav, first the 3000 who actively took part in the egel and later gradually during the 40 years in the Midbar. When Am Yisrael crossed over the Jordan River into Eretz Yisrael with Yehoshua, the erev rav was no more.
What about Aharon? Why did he not stop them? Yes they had killed Chur and if he did not go along with them they would have killed him next. But some things are worth sacrificing your life for, not serving עבודה זרה is one of them. Why did Aharon not sacrifice himself על קידוש ה' like Chur? So there are perushim that Aharon didn’t want them to kill him because it would be אם יהרג במקדש ה' כהן ונביא, something that there could be no takana for, no teshuva.
However, I believe there was a different reason and that it was the same reason that the rest of Am Yisrael did not protest and prevent the erev rav from doing what they were doing - because both Aharon and Am Yisrael wanted the erev rav to vanish from the scene of history. If Aharon, who was the navi before Moshe, had been the one selected to lead Am Yisrael out of Egypt, there would have been no erev rav tagging along. It was Moshe who decided to accept the erev rav, thinking he could sway them and bring them into the fold and that it would cause an enormous kiddush Hashem. Hashem tried to dissuade him because He knew that they would never change. Aharon had no sympathies for the erev rav, like Moshe did. Neither did Am Yisrael, who had reached the level of angels – they didn’t want the erev rav messing things up for them repeatedly, complaining, getting Moshe to do things he normally wouldn’t do, thus preventing him from entering Eretz Yisrael. Am Yisrael wanted the erev rav gone …. and they succeeded – 3000 of them were killed by the Levi’im and the rest died in the Midbar.
So why were Aharon and Am Yisrael held accountable for חטא העגל? - because it caused such a terrible chilul Hashem. The nations around could not distinguish between one part of Am Yisrael and another (the erev rav) – to them it was the same Am Yisrael. By allowing the erev rav to go ahead and worship the egel, Am Yisrael caused a chilul Hashem amongst the nations. This was Moshe’s טענה when he pleaded with HKB”H to forgive them – “How can you cure the sin of chilul Hashem with an even bigger chilul Hashem by wiping Am Yisrael out?”
So HKB”H forgave, both Am Yisrael and Aharon. He gave them a Mishkan and made Aharon the Kohen Gadol to show the entire world that He had forgiven them. The Mishkan and all its parts atoned for the חטא העגל. For example, the Lechem Hapanim - שני עשרנים יהיה החלה האחת in gematriya is שני לחת אבנים כראשנים (מאיר פנים, פרק טו). But the chilul Hashem caused by the חטא העגל will not be fully repaired until the גאולה. It, together with the sin of the brothers selling Yosef, will be something that the nations repeatedly throw in our faces throughout history.
This is a terrifying perush because it means that we, Am Yisrael are the cause of our own downfall. The worst things that have happened to us in history have been the result of events caused by a threat from within. There are two threats and they are the erev rav and וישמן ישרן ויבעט. The gematriya of "וגם ערב רב עלה אתם" is the same as "וישמן ישרן ויבעט" - they are flip sides of the same coin. One the one side – not relinquishing and dragging the darkness of galut together with us as we are redeemed (ערב רב in gematriya is יהודי גלות) and on the other side - finally freeing ourselves from the shackles of the erev rav and the galut, but becoming too complacent and forgetting HKB”H and our purpose.
This scenario happened after יציאת מצרים and when Am Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael with Yehoshua. Even more terrifying – it is happening right now, all over again. On the one hand we are still shackled by the mentality and culture of galut and on the other hand we have grown “fat” and “complacent” and are not addressing our purpose as a nation, the reason HKB”H chose us as His people. It is the same coin with the same two sides, as it was 3324 years ago.
Perhaps this is why parshat Ki Tisa begins with מחצית השקל, as a reminder to us to be constantly mindful of both halves (sides) of the coin and to take care not to fall into the trap of either side, but rather to all act together, not as halves, but as one whole with a single purpose and destiny - to be מתקן עולם by serving HKB”H according to the Torah in its entirety (both שבכתב and שבעל פה).