Peta Jones Pellach
Teacher and activist in Jerusalem

No Break from Politics

How timely! We read Ki Tisa this Shabbat. If anyone thought that concentrating on the parsha would give them a break from thinking about politics, think again.

Ki Tisa opens with a census of the people. The method of counting is that each individual gives half a shekel. The contribution is supposed to be an atonement of some sort. Much can be said about what we have been doing wrong and will do wrong in the future but at least here, our money was to be put towards a good cause – the upkeep of society and our common needs.

Everyone has to contribute. If we benefit from the resources and support of a society, we also need to contribute to it. One way of contributing is by voting. It is an awesome responsibility.

Commentators ask why the prescribed amount is half a shekel and provide two compelling reasons: first, half a shekel is an amount that everyone can afford and everyone must be counted as an equal member of society – the rich do not count for more in the census; secondly, half represents the need for another half – no-one stands alone and independently; we rely on each other.

These ideas are at the core of my political ideals: equality and interdependence.

We also note that the reason for the census was to know how many men would be available to fight in a “citizens’ army.” Those fighting for Israel were not and are not an elite fighting class, as was the case in many societies. All of Israel is responsible for one another and every able-bodied man who does not have a compelling reason to be excused is part of the army.

The question of universal conscription still plagues us. It is not just about who serves and who finds excuses not to. It is also about the ongoing need for an army and the vision that once we settled the Land, we would manage to bring peace.

The Torah then relates what happens when the people fear that Moses is not returning to them. They know that he is not God but they have a desire and a need for strong human leadership. When there is no leadership, people lose their way. They misunderstand what they need and turn to idolatry. Aharon holds them off for a day – giving Moses enough time to come back down the mountain and re-establish order. However, in the meantime, the men demonstrate that they are willing to give up their personal wealth for an idol.

The desire for strong leadership seems to be in our nature. Israelis today have the same yearning.

When God sees the farce below, He threatens to wipe out the people and start again from Moses. Moses, a true leader, refuses to take any favours. He puts his own life and welfare at risk. He stands up for the people and, while not defending their behaviour, finds the arguments to save them.

If a society feels a lack of leadership, they find a substitute.  True leadership is replaced by something that looks good and feels solid. But that is an illusion. Real leadership not only represents the people but rises above them to model values, ethical behaviour and selflessness.

There is one more theme in the parsha of the Golden Calf which is not apparent unless one does a close reading. When Aharon recommends that the men ask their wives and children for their gold jewellery, the Torah relates that they took their own earrings. In other words, the women did not contribute to the Golden Calf. The Ben Ish Chai says that this is why women were given Rosh Hodesh (the first day of each month) as a holiday – to reward them for avoiding idolatry.

Women have a particular wisdom to offer society. What a shame that in the new Knesset, it is likely that that wisdom will be diminished.

The parsha gives us no rest from politics. As always, the Torah provides us with moral guidance and with timely challenges.

About the Author
A fifth generation Australian, Peta made Aliyah in 2010. She is Senior Fellow of the Kiverstein Institute, Director of Educational Activities for the Elijah Interfaith Institute, secretary of the Jerusalem Rainbow Group for Jewish-Christian Encounter and Dialogue, a co-founder of Praying Together in Jerusalem and a teacher of Torah and Jewish History. She has visited places as exotic as Indonesia and Iceland to participate in and teach inter-religious dialogue. She also broadcasts weekly on SBS radio (Australia) with the latest news from Israel. Her other passions are Scrabble and Israeli folk-dancing.
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