Ki Tisa  and Im Tisa

If we stop and think about it, the opening verses of Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30: 11-13) don’t quite add up.

  • The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
  • “When you take the sum (כי תשא את ראש) of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.
  • This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Lord.
  • What possible connection can there be between taking a census and atonement for one’s soul?; between counting heads and thwarting a nationwide plague? Is anyone else disturbed by this bizarre and seemingly capricious connection? Or is it just me?

    Can it be that our understanding of the word “תשא” as meaning “to take the sum” is wrong, and that it means something else entirely?

    Is it merely a coincidence that the identical word “תשא” reappears a bit later, indeed in the very same aliyah, yet with an entirely different meaning – “to forgive”?

    Can there be any connection between the “atonement” and thwarted “plague” in Chapter 30 – which clearly imply forgiveness – and the forgiveness of the Israelites for the sin of the golden calf demanded by Moses of G-d in Chapter 32? And, if indeed this is so, can it be that the “תשא” in “כי תשא” in fact means forgiveness just as it does with “אם תשא” in 32:32 — if, in fact, it means forgiveness altogether?

     Chapter 32

    1. And Moses returned to the Lord and said: “Please! This people has committed a grave sin. They have made themselves a god of gold.
    1. And now, if You forgive (אם תשא) their sin; But if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written.”

    It seems highly unlikely that the appearance of the identical word “תשא” twice in the same parsha is merely a coincidental homonym.

    As we know, our tradition posits that chronology in the Torah can be haphazard; אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה.

    So I would like to suggest a radically different take on Exodus 30:12. As I see it, the census instructions in 30:11-13 were dictated AFTER the sin of the golden calf, not before it.

    Now it all begins to make sense. Clearly there is a connection between taking the census, atonement and averting a plague.

    G-d has ordered a census after the decimation and slaughter that followed the sin of the golden calf.   The Israelites are indeed in need of atonement and deserving of a plague. The census count with its attendant half-shekel fee brings closure to this sorry chapter. The gold that had been given for the calf is now mitigated by the coin given for the head count. The plague that should have destroyed the entire camp has been averted, and it is time for a fresh start.

    But there is more that occurs in this fraught episode of the golden calf. There is a subtle role reversal, or role sharing, between G-d and Moses. At first it is G-d who desires to wipe out the Israelites, and it is Moses in 32:32 who insists that G-d forgive them.

    G-d acquiesces to Moses but not without first visiting limited destruction in the Israelite camp:

     Then the Lord struck the people with a plague (ויגוף), because they had made the calf that Aaron had made. (32:35),

    Note that the word “ויגוף” is the same as the word “נגף” which appears in 30:12, (then there will be no נגף)

    Hence while G-d has heeded Moses’ plea to spare the Israelite nation, G-d still exacts a measure of punishment via a plague that he visits upon His People.

    It appears now that decision regarding the fate of the Children of Israel is shared somewhat between G-d and Moses. G-d and Moses alternate in their wrath and in their forbearance. And I would suggest that the word “תשא” means neither to count nor to forgive, but rather to “forbear” – a sort of mid point between total destruction and full forgiveness (which linguistically makes sense as the root of תשא means “to bear”). It implies a willingness to tolerate the evil that was done, but hardly goes so far as to grant full forgiveness. Hence the need to mitigate the blemish of the golden calf through periodic census counts. Through these censuses we, as a People, are reminded of the sin of the calf — both the stain on our record and the gift of forbearance by both G-d and Moses.

    Having said this, let us now re-visit verse 30:12:

    The word “כי” has several possible meanings. It can mean “when”, “if” and “because”. I would suggest that the “כי” in “כי תשא” means because, i.e. because you forbear.

    After the sin of the calf, and after Moses has interceded on behalf of the Israelites – despite his own uncontrollable rage – G-d commands him (30:12):

    Because your forbear (כי תשא) the head of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one (i.e. each head) give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.

    Now it all makes sense. First Moses challenges G-d to forbear the Israelites’ sin; אם תשא (And now if You will forbear) their sin, and if not please erase me from the book You have written” (32:32). And only then G-d passes the baton to Moses and leaves it for him to make the final decision.

    And so, Moses having overcome his own wrath and chosen to be forbearing, G-d tells him; because you have chosen to be forbearing, I demand a head count that is covenantal in nature, which would mitigate the punishment that was actually warranted through a gift of a half shekel that will serve as a recurring reminder of this terrible, and essentially unforgivable, chapter.