March 14, 2017
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1061, Ki Sisa, Parsha Thought


One of the most troubling events in all of Jewish history is recorded in this week’s parsha, Ki Sisa. It is the sorry saga of the Golden Calf. In Moshe’s absence, combined with a miscalculation of the time he was supposed to have returned from Mount Sinai, the Jewish people constructed and worshipped a Golden Calf.

How were they possibly able to atone for this terrible transgression?

The answer is provided for in the beginning of this week’s parsha: Each man should contribute a Half-Shekel.

Why a Half-Shekel? We can understand how giving charity can elicit G-d’s compassion for us just as we have shown compassion to others. But, why should the giving of half of a Shekel bring about atonement for such a terrible transgression?

Several approaches have been given to explain the significance of the Half-Shekel:

One explanation is that the Half-Shekel underscores our dependence on G-d. We must always recognize that we are only a half of an entity and without G-d’s intervention in our lives, the other half, we cannot accomplish anything.

A similar explanation on the emphasis of the Half-Shekel highlights the need for Jewish unity; without support from our fellow Jews we are only half.

We also know the Talmudic tradition that the Half-Shekel was given in anticipation of Haman’s decree to annihilate the Jewish people. His argument was that they are a fragmented and divisive people. The giving of the Half shekel centuries earlier dispelled that argument and demonstrated the inherent unity of the Jewish people.

However, these approaches do not directly connect the theme of half to the sin of the Golden Calf. What is the connection of a Half-Shekel to the sin of the Golden Calf?


One approach can be found in the Midrash which states that the creation of the Golden Calf started at noon (half of the day), the time they had erroneously predicted that Moshe should have returned. The Midrash states that because the Jewish people sinned at half of the day they were commanded to give a Half Shekel.

However, this explanation seems to leave more questions open than it answers.

First, why would giving a Half Shekel atone for the sin of constructing a Golden Calf?

Second, why did the Torah pick such a tangential and marginal fact, that the sin occurred at half day, to require giving only a half-shekel?

Third, why is the time they sinned important? Did it really make a difference whether they sinned early in the morning, late at night, or at mid-day?


One explanation is that the half day is not only an indication of the time in which they sinned but also their state of mind.

Daylight is a metaphor for clarity. And, in our context, it is a sign of moral clarity. Sinning at half of the day means that their moral clarity was clouded.

However, this raises a new question. If half-day is a sign of a lack of moral clarity, then why didn’t it happen at night when there is no daylight whatsoever?

The question is even more significant when we consider the magnitude of the sin of the Golden Calf. It wasn’t comparable to their infantile complaining about water. Here they created the very antithesis of the Second Commandant: not to have any other g-ds. It was as brazen a violation and act of unfaithfulness as one could have imagined.

How then could we call this sin just “half-day” clarity? It is the nadir of night and darkness!

In truth, Rashi quotes the Talmudic tradition that the Satan created darkness and confusion. If so, why highlight the fact that it was mid-day? We should be accentuating the fact that it was at a time shrouded in darkness and utter confusion?



To understand the dynamics of this “half-day” sin we must first understand how it was possible for the people to have sinned so egregiously just 40 days after G-d revealed Himself to each and every individual Jew? How does a person who is so flooded with G-dly daylight make a 180-degree reversal?

Imagine a normal, decent moral person suddenly having an urge to go out and kill people. That individual would have recognized that something has gone awry. Any normal person would realize that he or she is experiencing a serious brain chemical imbalance and look for help. Why didn’t they look for some guidance from Aharon and Chur, the people Moshe deputized to settle all their questions? Why didn’t they think of consulting with them?

The truth is that they consulted with Chur but they didn’t like his response. When he told them to desist from going forward with their plan, they killed him. Aharon, we are told, was concerned that if he stood in their way they would kill him too, and for the sin of killing the High Priest they would never be forgiven.

So this actually magnifies the question. How could it be that they sinned so egregiously without realizing that there was something wrong with their thought patterns?


The answer lies in another Midrashic commentary stating that the Satan created a mirage and showed them Moshe’s lifeless body. When they realized that Moshe was gone forever, they looked for a replacement.

They did not decide to violate G-d’s commandments. On the contrary, they were convinced that they had a G-d given obligation to create a replacement for Moshe. They further reasoned that the fact that Moshe never returned was a sign from on High that his brand of leadership was not appropriate for this new generation. Moshe, they conceded, was great enough to lead them out of Egypt and bring them to Mount Sinai. But now, they believed, Moshe had risen to a higher world and was no longer qualified to be their earthly leader.

After all, they reasoned, every generation has its own leader who is uniquely suited for that particular generation. And now, leadership appeared to have passed from Moshe to a Golden Calf.

But why a Golden Calf?

Ironically, here too, they used their belief in Divine Providence to conclude that the right replacement for Moshe was a Golden Calf.

This premise is based on another Midrashic source that says that G-d appeared with His angels at Mt. Sinai, and prominent among the angels was the “Face of an Ox” mentioned in the Book of Yechezkel as part of G-d’s Chariot. In other words, in their “half-baked” minds, G-d was showing them what to do in the absence of Moshe; create a down-to-earth image and representation of the celestial Face of the Ox to guide them into the future.

In their distorted way of thinking they believed that they were actually doing the right thing, which is why they murdered Chur. The people considered him to be a threat to what they perceived was the Divinely ordained new-world-order, with a new set of priorities.

To them, creating the Golden Calf was not an act of the night; it was daylight.

This then is the meaning of half-day. Night is a symbol of outright rebellion. Day is a symbol of total receptivity to G-d’s will. However, a half-measure of day indicates doing evil under the guise that it is G-d’s will.

The giving of the Half-Shekel alerts us to moral hazard when we find spiritual rationalizations to our behaviors. While it seems that it is broad daylight, it is actually the Satan shrouding us in darkness and confusion.


The truth is that mid-day is the point when the light of the sun is directly over us and represents its strongest influence.

It is the time of day G-d took the Jewish people out of Egypt.

In the Messianic Age, the sin of the Golden Calf will be transformed into the powerful light of day, associated with Half-Day.

But as we stand on the threshold of that positive manifestation of the Half-Day, the challenge for us is to avoid rationalizing half-baked spiritual values.

Translating the above into contemporary terms, we must remain vigilant and dismiss any suggestion that our Moshe, as well as our internal Moshe, is gone and we now need a new brand of Moshe, a new type of leadership that will steer us in a different direction. We must not follow the generation of the Golden Calf and convince ourselves that we must look for another force that is more in touch with the “new realities” of life.

The greatest danger occurs when we begin to rationalize these changes and try to convince ourselves that what we want is actually G-d’s will.

When we dispel the notion that Moshe is gone, in whichever form that takes, we are replicating the Half-Shekel, the force that gets us out of Galus, the seeds of which were planted with the sin of the Golden Calf.


In the realm of Torah hints, half of the numerical value of the word shekel is the same as the word ma’akeh, a parapet, a fence built on a roof to prevent falling off. It is also the gematria of the word adir-mighty. This word, which is applied to G-d, is also applied to Moshiach in the book of Yirmiyahu (30: 21) as interpreted by the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b).

We prepare for the Final Redemption by recognizing the pitfalls of the half-day syndrome by building a figurative fence so that we don’t fall off our high perch the way the creators of the Golden Calf did, coming off their high perch of Sinai. In doing so, we will be ready for the time when G-d, the Adir-Mighty One, will be fully revealed in this month of Adar, which is related to the word Adir, through the leadership of Moshiach, who is also called Adir.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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