Ki Tisa (When You Take)
Exodus 30:11–34:35; 1 Kings 18:1–39; 2 Corinthians 3:1–18
“Then the Lord said to Moses, “When you take [ki tisa] a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom [kopher] for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.” (Exodus 30:11–12)
Last week in Parasha Tetzaveh, God commanded the Israelites to bring olive oil for the Menorah in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). He also instructed that sacred garments be made for the Cohanim (priests). The portion concluded with instructions for constructing the Incense Altar, which sat in front of the curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies.
This week, in Parasha Ki Tisa, Moses is commanded to take a census of Bnei Yisrael (Sons of Israel). To prevent a plague from coming on them, every male older than 20 is to contribute exactly half a shekel of silver as a census tax to the Sanctuary.
Unlike the freewill offering (terumah) that was to be taken for the construction of the Tabernacle, the half-shekel census tax, was obligatory and to be contributed by rich and poor alike.
That half-shekel tax was to be an atonement or ransom for the soul: “Receive the atonement [kippurim] money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the Tent of Meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the LORD, making atonement [kaphar] for your lives.” (Exodus 30:16)
This is considered the ultimate manifestation of equality. It reveals that every soul, regardless of status, is of equal value, equally in danger, and equally in need of ransom.
This ransom is perhaps necessary because taking a census was often associated with preparing for war—the spilling of blood. (2 Samuel 24:1–2)
Whereas some may celebrate the death and defeat of an enemy, God’s requirement that Israel pay a ransom for their own souls during the census process perhaps shows how very seriously God considers the taking of human life.
Although the census tax makes an atonement for the soul, no one can purchase their own eternal redemption with silver or gold:
“No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them—the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough.” (Psalm 49:7–8)
Only the blood sacrifice of Yeshua HaMashiach (the Messiah) can provide eternal atonement for our souls:
“Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” (Hebrews 9:12)
The annual donation of the half-shekel continued for 1,424 years, although it was interrupted by Nebuchadnezzar, whose army destroyed the first Holy Temple.
Nehemiah (Nechemia) reintroduced the collection of the half-shekel in preparation for the rebuilding of the Holy Temple.
The coin was collected during the Hebrew month of Adar at collection stations in Israel and abroad.
The Roman Emperor, Hadrian, banned it in AD 135 since it symbolized the Jewish people’s sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Amazingly, now that we are back in our Land, production of the ceremonial half-shekel began on March 23, 1997 (Adar II 14, 5757).
Since 1980, the shekel has been the currency of the modern state of Israel and the shekel and half-shekel are used as coins in everyday life in Israel.
Hidden Righteousness in the Machatzit Shekel
The Hebrew term for the half-shekel that was paid as a ransom during the census is machatzit shekel (מחצית שקל).
When we examine the Hebrew letters of machatzit in a Jewish process for uncovering hidden or deeper messages in the Torah, we discover that machatzit hints (remez) at the One who would give His life as a ransom for us all.
- The first letter, Mem (מ), and the fifth letter, Tav (ת), form the word met (מת), meaning dead. (מחצית)
- The second letter, Chet (ח) and the fourth letter Yud (י) form the word chai (חי), which means alive or life. (מחצית)
- The third and middle letter, Tsadi(צ), is often pronounced as tzaddik, meaning righteousness. It can also represent tzedakah (צדקה), which is charity. (מחצית)
So let’s put the message of the Hebrew word machatzit all together.
Righteousness (tzedakah), which includes deeds of charity, is in the center of the word life (chai). Tzedakah, then, is the glue that keeps life together.
The idea of a righteous life separating the letters of the word dead (met), implies that righteousness delivers us from death.
The Book of Proverbs states this plainly: “Treasures of wickedness profit nothing, but righteousness [tzedakah] delivers from death.” (Proverbs 10:2)
Furthermore, this word—machatzit—implies that God hears the intercession of a righteous person on behalf of those who are caught in sin.
“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16)
Indeed, in Parasha Ki Tisa, Moses intercedes on behalf of the Israelites several times, averting certain judgment for the sin of the golden calf.
The righteous payment of the machatzit shekel atoned for or ransomed the souls of the Jewish People. But it was only temporary and specifically for that purpose.
The Good News, however, is that Yeshua’s righteous life has brought eternal atonement for those who follow Him.
Since He lived an entirely righteous life, death could not hold Him when He paid the price for our sins on the Roman execution stake. Because of that He has healed us, bringing us from death (met) to life (chai) .
“He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Moreover, in Him, we are made righteous.
“For He made Him who knew no sin, to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Since tzedakah not only means righteousness but also charity, generosity to the poor is something we should take very seriously.
“The righteous give without sparing.” (Proverbs 21:26)
It is evident throughout Scripture that God takes notice of people’s giving, especially to the poor and needy.
Generosity is a source of blessing to the poor and to ourselves: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.” (Proverbs 22:9)
The Sin of the Golden Calf
Parasha Ki Tisa records the sin of the golden calf (cheit ha’eigel), which is linked to the catastrophic end of the generation who died in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land.
The people, who were concerned because Moses seemed to be on the mountain too long, asked Aaron to make them a god they could see and follow.
“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’” (Exodus 32:1)
Even though God had told Moses what was happening below, when he came down the mountain and saw them dancing in wild debauchery around the calf made of gold, he smashed the sacred stone tablets which had been written with the finger of God.
The smashing of the two tablets is often attributed to Moses’ anger; however, the 12th century Jewish Bible commentator and Talmudist Rashbam claims that at the sight of the Israelite’s grievous sin, Moses lost all his strength, unable to bear their heavy burden.
According to Rashbam, it was not due to anger that he broke the tablets of the law, but due to the disappointment, despair, and disillusionment he felt with the people he had brought out of Egypt.
In ancient times in this region, the breaking of tablets was a custom symbolizing the annulment of a contract; therefore, by breaking the stone tablets, Moses may have been destroying the “marriage contract” between the groom (God) and His bride (Israel).
In fact, Jewish custom still uses the verb shavar (to break) in reference to the breaking of a marriage contract (shoveret ketubah).
This is not to be confused with the Jewish custom of breaking a glass at the wedding ceremony, which symbolizes the destruction of the Temple. Nor is this to be connected in any way with the custom in some cultures of breaking dishes at a wedding.
It may seem incredible that the same people who, just six weeks earlier, had responded to the giving of the Torah with awe and reverence, shouting na’aseh v’nishma (we will do and we will listen), were now worshiping at the feet of an idol.
Although we tend to wonder how the Israelites could have fallen into this sin, perhaps there is a lesson here about our own generation.
Chassidic sage Rabbi Yitzchak of Slonim commented that while the Israelites “enthusiastically gave up their silver and gold to make a god; our generation gives up God to make silver and gold.”
But how could these people, who had witnessed such supernatural miracles to deliver them from Egypt, now worship the work of a man’s hands?
Granted, Moses stayed a long time on the mountain, but was this enough justification for their spiritual adultery?
Sometimes, we think that God has forgotten us or is taking too long or that He is too late to act.
“How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
We know that the God of the Universe exists outside the limitations of time and space, and yet we sometimes wonder why He has not yet intervened in human history or even in our own personal circumstances.
When it seems that this is the case, we must not fall into fear. God is never late.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the famous Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland, blames the Israelites’ sin of idolatry on fear: a frightened nation feels the need for a visible manifestation to assure them of God’s presence.
However, God does not take idolatry lightly and His wrath is against them, but Moses pleads for mercy on their behalf.
In doing so, Moses identifies so completely with the people that he says, “If you are going to forgive them [im tisa], then do so; if not, then wipe me also from Your book.” (Exodus 32:32)
This echoes the opening words of this Parasha—ki tisa et rosh, which means literally, when you lift up the head, an idiom for taking a head-count or census.
Used in a different context, however, tisa can mean to forgive or pardon; thus Moses is using a Hebrew play on words in an attempt to save the children of Israel from the wrath of God that may come upon their heads.
But what book is Moses referring to? It is likely the Book of Life, in which our names are written by God to inherit eternal life.
In fact, God declares in the verse after Moses’ plea that anyone who sins may be blotted out of His book:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me I will blot out of My book.” (Exodus 32:33)
The Book of Life is also mentioned near the very end of the Brit Chadashah (New Testament): “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:15)
While sin causes us to be separated from God and our names blotted from His book, those who follow Yeshua may rejoice that their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life forever: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Yeshua the Messiah our Lord.” (Romans 6:23; Revelation 13:8)