‘Cashing in Your Chips’ Parashat Ki Tisa – Parah 5780

Moses spends 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai studying the Torah in preparation for teaching it to the Jewish People. At the end of 40 days, G-d gives Moses two tablets and sends him on his merry way. When Moses gets to the bottom of the mountain, he sees the Jewish People dancing around a Golden Calf. In his rage, he shatters the tablets. It takes another 40 days for Moses to convince G-d not to destroy His people. Eventually, Moses successfully sways G-d and he prepares to receive the Torah, this time for good.

G-d tells Moses [Shemot 34:1] “Carve for yourself (pesol lecha) two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”. Rashi, the most famous of the medieval commentators, who lived in France in the eleventh century, is puzzled by the use of the word “lecha” – “for yourself”. Rashi is most likely looking back at G-d’s order to Abraham to [Bereishit 12:1] “Go forth (lech lecha) from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. Rashi comments that G-d promised Abraham that his move to Canaan would be “lecha” – “for yourself”, meaning that Abraham would personally benefit from the move. How would Moses personally benefit by hewing the two tablets?

Rashi answers that the Hebrew word “pesol”, translated above as “carve”, also alludes to the word “pesolet”, meaning “waste”. According to Rashi, the two tablets were hewn from blocks of pure sapphire. G-d was promising Moses that the chips left over from hewing the words of the Ten Commandments into the sapphire blocks would belong to him personally. Moreover, it just so happened that the sapphire blocks were buried in a quarry located just below his tent. Rashi concludes “It was from this that Moses became so rich”[1]. Boy, did Moses pick the right place to pitch his tent. Location, location, location. In all seriousness, what would have happened had the sapphire mine been located under someone else’s tent? Would Moses have split the proceeds? Further, why is Rashi so concerned that Moses have a nest egg? What difference does it make if he is rich or poor? Weren’t many of our Rabbis destitute[2]? And yet, they still merited teaching Torah to the masses.

It turns out that attaining wealth does come with certain religious benefits. The Talmud in Tractate Nedarim [38a] enumerates a list of prerequisite characteristics that a person must possess in order for the Divine Presence to rest upon him, that is to say, in order to attain prophecy. One of these characteristics is wealth. The source for this requirement is the “carve yourself” verse. According to the Talmud, it was critical that Moses “cash in his chips” so that he could serve as a conduit between G-d and man. But why should material wealth be a prerequisite for prophecy? One answer is that material wealth removes man’s dependence on his fellow man for support, encouraging him to depend only upon G-d. Rabbi Isaac Abarbanel, who lived in Portugal, Spain, and Italy[3] in the late fifteenth century, takes a different direction. In his commentary on “The Guide to the Perplexed”, he explains that wealth is not a prerequisite for prophecy, but, rather, it is an observation that prophecy seems to assist in acquiring wealth. Prophets, perhaps as a result of being the objects of “G-d’s attention”, so to speak, tend to become blessed with prosperity and financial success. A lake house and a Ferrari are some of the perks of being a prophet.

Rabbi Jacob Emden, who lived in Germany in the eighteenth century, takes another path altogether. Rabbi Emden writes in “Hagahot Ve’Chidushim” that wealth is not always measured in dollars and cents. The Talmud in Tractate Nedarim is not referring to material wealth, but to knowledge. That is to say, in order for a person to attain prophecy, he must accrue vast amounts of knowledge. Let’s continue further down this path. I suggest that not only is “wealth” not always synonymous with money, but that the equivalence between “wealth” and “knowledge” is reserved specifically for wealth that comes from sapphire shavings.

Let me explain. We learnt in an earlier lesson[4] how the Jewish People somehow knew that they were going to receive the Torah soon after they left Egypt. I remember learning as a child that the source for the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot is to commemorate how the Jewish People were so eager to receive the Torah that they counted each day from the Exodus until the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. What was their source? How were they so sure that they were going to receive the Torah? We showed that a source can be found in the “Covenant of the Parts” (Brit Bein Ha’Betarim) that G-d made with Abraham. G-d tells Abraham how his children will be slaves in a strange land and that they will endure slavery and duress for four hundred years. G-d promises that when they eventually leave, they will do so [Bereishit 15:14] “with great wealth”. Most of the medieval commentators assert that this refers to the gold and silver that the Jewish People took from the Egyptians immediately before their departure. This explanation is not without its difficulties. First, the Torah explicitly mentions that Abraham was already exceedingly wealthy. So were Isaac and Jacob. So why should Abraham be excited about this promise of “great(er) wealth”? Further, why didn’t Abraham appeal to G-d to rescind His decree as he did so many other times? It must mean that Abraham felt that the slavery and suffering that his children would undergo was necessary and that the end would justify the means. But how can any sum of money compensate for what happened in Egypt? Children were thrown into the river. Babies were mixed into cement to make buildings. The Egyptian exile reduced Jewish People both physically and spiritually to the point that had they been reduced any further, they would have ceased to exist. Can anyone put a price tag on this? We suggested that the “great wealth” that G-d had promised Abraham’s descendants was the Torah. Receiving the Torah is the only gift that could justify what the Jewish People endured in Egypt. Abraham understood that before his descendants could receive their “great wealth”, they needed to be forged into one nation, with a common past and a common destiny.

If the Torah itself is considered “great wealth”, what added benefit can be gained from sapphire chips? To address this question, we require some background. In the commandment to wear tzitzit, fringes on the corners of our garments, the Torah commands us to [Bemidbar 15:38] “attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner”. This blue fringe, called “techelet”, is coloured with dye made from secretions of the Murex Trunculus snail. Why is it important that one of the fringes of the tzitzit be coloured specifically blue? The Talmud in Tractate Sotah [17a] answers “It is because techelet is similar in its colour to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Glory, as it is stated [Shemot 24:10]: “They saw the G-d of Israel; and there was under His feet a paved work of sapphire stone and the like of the very heaven for clearness”. The blue of the techelet triggers a chain reaction that gradually directs a person’s attention to G-dliness. Why does this process consist of three steps (Sea to Sky to Throne of Glory)? Why not cut out the middleman and just say that the techelet is similar to the Throne of Glory? Because the path to understanding G-d is a tortuous one. It must be traversed carefully and gradually. Unless you happen to be Moses. His understanding of G-d was unparalleled. Moses spoke to G-d [Shemot 33:11] “face to face, as one man speaks to another”. Only Moses could take the jump from techelet directly to the Throne of Glory. And so only Moses could cash in the sapphire chips. The chips, and all of the “knowledge” that they encompassed, were valuable only to Moses. To anybody else they would have been “waste”.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5780

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and David ben Chaya.

[1] Simple calculations show that if the tablets were made of pure sapphire that sells for about $1600 per carat, then each tablet was worth about two billion dollars. That makes for quite a fortune in sapphire chips.

[2] See, for instance, the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [28a] that chastises Rabbi Gamliel for not being aware of the difficulty Torah scholars have in making a living.

[3] The Abarbanel fled from Portugal in 1483 after a putsch, fled from Spain in 1492 after all Jews were expelled, and fled from Naples in 1495 when the king he befriended was overthrown by the French.

[4] Beshalach 5762

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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