What Connects the Eigel to the Machatzit Hashekel?
Opening With the Machazit Hashekel
Parshat Ki Tisa focuses mainly on the chet ha’egel and its aftermath. It is thus surprising that the parsha begins with a topic that seems so unrelated— the command to collect the machatzit hashekel. Why is this the beginning of the parsha that focuses on the chet ha’egel? A better understanding of both the chet ha’egel and the collection of the machatzit hashekel can help answer this question.
The Significance of the Chet Ha’egel
The chet ha’egel is one of the seminal sins of the Jewish people. In fact, even after “forgiving” them for it, Hashem tells the Jewish people that He will continue punishing them for the sin in the future. Rashi explains punishment for the chet ha’egel is included in the punishment for every future sin.
The chet ha’egel is not only the root of all future sins, it also continues the first one — that of Adam and Chavah. The Zohar explains that the zuhama (filth) that became part of humanity after Adam’s sin (and was later removed at ma’amad Har Sinai) returned after the chet ha’egel, illustrating the connection between these two sins. There are also many connections between the chet ha’egel and the chet hameraglim. What is the relationship between these sins?
Sins Rooted in Low Self-Esteem
When examining the leadup to the chet ha’egel, a major question stands out. Fearing that Moshe will not return, the people approach Aharon and request that he create a graven image to replace Moshe. Why ask Aharon to create a graven image? Why not ask, instead, for Aharon himself to take over for Moshe?
Rav Yechezkel Weinfeld Shlit”a explains that the answer seems to lie in the words the Jewish people say to Aharon. “Make us a god who will lead us, because we do not know what happened to Moshe, the (hu)man who took us up from Mitzrayim.” Why do they mention the fact that Moshe was a human? Their words express their what they fear. Moshe’s disappearance caused them to lose, not just faith in Moshe, but faith in man — all men. In replacing Moshe, they sought a safe alternative, something that would not die or disappear on them — a lifeless image instead of a mortal man.
Adam and Chavah’s sin was motivated by a similar lack of self-esteem. The nachash told them to eat from the tree so that they could become like G-d. They were not satisfied being mere human beings. Their need to be greater than who they naturally were was so strong that it caused them to violate the one commandment they had received. The chet ha’meraglim, too, was about low self-esteem. As they themselves admitted, “vanehi b’eineinu k’chagavim, v’chein hayinu b’eineihem” — they saw themselves like grasshoppers in the eyes of others because they saw themselves as grasshoppers. The negativity with which they saw themselves caused them to see everything around them — including Eretz Yisrael — as negative.
The Value of Man
The lesson of the chet ha’egel, then, is that we must believe in the value of human beings. Rav Tzadok HaKohen writes that “just like people need to believe in Hashem, so they need to believe, afterwards, in themselves.” This explains why Hashem challenged Moshe to himself respond to the heavenly angels who questioned the giving of the holy Torah to mortal man. Only those who believe in their right to own the Torah (despite — or due to — their being human) are worthy of receiving it. The Torah was, of course, given to man; the angels gather to hear us learn it.
We must appreciate the level we can achieve through Torah, as opposed to the lack of self-confidence that led to the chet ha’egel. Similarly, the climax of Tehillim 8 exclaims: “What is Man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him, that You have made him little less than divine and adorned him with glory and majesty!” Hashem created us just a step below Him. There is no need for us to think lowly of ourselves. Man has incredible grandeur and potential.
Fittingly, Parshat Ki Tisa begins by emphasizing this exact idea in its formulation of the commandment to donate the machatzit hashekel. The parsha is named after its second pasuk: “Ki tisa et rosh Bnei Yisrael (raise the heads of Bnei Yisrael).” The Gemara adds the context to this formulation: Moshe asked Hashem, “How do I raise up Bnei Yisrael?” Hashem answered with the words “Ki tisa.” The machatzit hashekel is used to count the Jewish people, reminding us that each one of us counts. Our ability to donate towards and create a Mishkan in which Hashem’s Shechinah will reside is another expression of our value. Elaborating on this, the Ohr Hachaim explains that our appreciation of our personal holiness (and, I would add, our ability to create holiness) should bring us to “raise our heads,” to recognize our value and significance.
This empowering message of the machatzit hashekel aimed to pre-empt, and, ultimately (post-egel), ended up atoning for the low self-esteem that led to the chet ha’egel. Let us internalize this message in a way that inspires us to “keep our chins up” and live up to the great personal potential that the Torah helps us realize.