March 2, 2015
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #964, Ki Sisa, Machatzis HaShekel, Moshiach & Geula, Parsha Thought

One of Jewish history’s most significant and tragic events was the creation and worshipping of a Golden Calf, just 40 short days after we received the Torah at Sinai. Because of the severity of this transgression, the Torah records G-d’s threat: “I have observed this people and look! They are a stiff-necked people. Now leave Me alone, and My anger will be kindled against them and I will annihilate them.”


Moses, the faithful shepherd of the Jewish people, steps in and pleads for them: “Why, O G-d, should Your anger be kindled against Your people… Withdraw from the heat of Your anger…” The Torah concludes with G-d “acceding” to Moses’ pleas.

Yet, in a subsequent verse, Moses returns to G-d and states:

“Please! This people has committed a terrible sin… Now, if You forgive their sin (then well and good) but if not, please erase me from Your book, which You have written.”

Why would Moses, the defender of Israel, ready himself to be erased from G-d’s book, say, “This people has committed a terrible sin.” Didn’t that magnify their transgression? A defense lawyer seeks out weakness in the case of the prosecution, yet here Moses uses harsher language than G-d:

G-d uses the term “stiff-necked” and states, “They have abandoned the way which I commanded them.” Harsh as they are, these words sound far more benign than Moses’ stark statement: “This people has committed a terrible sin.”


The Or HaChayim addresses this matter directly. It demonstrates that Moses’ words actually constituted a highly effective defense of the sinners. The following is an adaptation of Or HaChayim’s approach, with additional Chassidic insights and commentary:

The Zohar wonders, how could a person who possesses a soul, a veritable part of G-d, commit a transgression? It is counterintuitive and irrational.

The answer to this vexing question is recorded in the Talmud:

“A person does not transgress unless a spirit of foolishness enters him.”

The Tanya explains that if left to simple logic and common sense, we would never do anything contrary to G-d’s will. To the soul, committing even the minutest sin is tantamount to betraying one’s belief in G-d. Sinning is a rejection of G-d. From the vantage point of an unobstructed soul that is impossible.


The only rationale for the irrational commission of sins is that a spirit of foolishness enters our consciousness and convinces us that a “small” sin does not truly and seriously affect our relationship with G-d. That is a foolish, irrational conclusion.

Now, there certainly are people who have rarely or never been exposed to their own soul’s G-dly energy or to G-dly lifestyles, i.e., a life of commitment to Torah and its commandments. A Jew raised in a secular environment and who has been denied the opportunity to experience G-dly light through Torah study, prayer and Mitzvah observance is understandably incapable of grasping the severity of transgression.

However, when it comes to Jews who have been exposed to and internalized the single most dramatic, unprecedented and unparalleled manifestation of G-d’s presence, there is absolutely no way that he or she can be a sane human being while sinning.

Could a person, awake and with eyes wide open in broad daylight, look straight at an approaching menace and then deny that it is there? If that were to happen, how would we diagnose that individual? We would say that he or she is suffering from a delusional mental disorder or in a debilitating state of denial or total shock.


Let us now return to the wording of Moses’ statement to G-d, focusing on the literal translation of his words:

“Please! This people chata [have been deficient], cha’ta’ah g’dola [severely deficient].”

The Hebrew word for sin, cheit, does not mean “sin” in this context. Instead, it means a lack of something, a defect or deficit.

Moses was not indicting his people for their great transgression. Rather, he was defending them, asserting that the transgression was not entirely their fault. Moses asked how it was possible for a nation, so blessed with the greatest spiritual treasures, to commit such a heinous crime? How could a people, who witnessed G-d’s hand splitting the Red Sea and then experienced G-d’s essence as revealed at Sinai, turn against Him? How could a people so rich in blessings and miracles from G-d, through His servant Moses, go against G-d’s most essential command - not to have other gods - and so blithely repudiate everything Moses had taught them? How can a nation lifted so high fall so low?

These were the questions underlying Moses’ successful defense of the Jewish nation at that time.

Moses provided the answers to these rhetorical questions himself. “G-d, please recognize that these people have lost their minds; a spirit of foolishness has entered into them and perverted their way of thinking. They can only be suffering from temporary insanity or spiritual amnesia.”


How could an otherwise spiritually sophisticated nation, whose hearts were purified through the Sinai experience, suddenly degenerate into utter depravity? The only possible answer is that G-d Himself caused this temporary insanity.

This approach drastically minimizes the degree of culpability of the Jewish people. It is rooted in the Talmud, which states that the Jewish people of that generation were perfectly incapable of committing that sin. The only reason it happened was to demonstrate the power of T’shuva. It was a profound lesson: an entire nation can be rehabilitated through repentance and return to G-d even after so precipitous a fall.


What did the Jewish people do to atone for their temporary relapse into idolatry?

The opening statements of this week’s parsha refer to their contribution of the Half-Shekel to make amends.

How could such a paltry payment atone for such a colossal sin? And if their transgression really was a symptom of temporary insanity, how would parting with a half-shekel bring them back to their senses?

An answer is given in a 20th century work, Even Shlomo. The Half-Shekel symbolized the half-baked mindset of the sinner. The sinner’s intellectual powers had to have been severely compromised. If not, how could they have done the most irrational thing and gone against their very source of life and sustenance? When a sinner recognizes that he or she is lacking and suffers from a spirit of foolishness, he or she starts on the way to recovery.


Although the Jewish people suffered from this mental lapse, it was only for a short time. With their construction of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary in the desert, G-d’s presence and a concomitant state of sanity were restored. This healthy state of affairs continued as long as we lived in our Holy Land and our Bais HaMikdash stood intact.

The advent of Galus changed everything. One of the symptoms of exile is the loss of sanity. We may be able to function as rational beings in all other aspects, but when it comes to our spiritual lives we degenerate into this state of irrationality. We fail to see the light of Torah and Mitzvos and the harm we bring down upon ourselves by constructing our own figurative Golden Calves.

The ultimate cure for this protracted condition, of course, will come at the end of exile, with the coming of Moshiach and the rebuilding of the third and final Bais HaMikdash.

For now, we must focus on the spiritual ideal of the half-shekel. It suggests the way for us to remove the mental bloc that keeps us blind to truth and rationality.


The Half-Shekel is laden with symbolism. It teaches us the three important lessons that provide the cure for our Galus insanity.

First, we must recognize that we are only half of the equation. The other half is G-d. Focusing and reflecting on this enables us to feel our connection to and utter dependence on Him. The more we reflect on this, the saner we become.

Second, we must also recognize that we are both incomplete without the other. We are likened to a single body comprising disparate limbs and organs. Illness sets in, G-d forbid, when the various components of our bodies think they are independent of each other. More severe illness occurs when the brain is not in touch with the rest of the body. A body in which all of the constituent parts work together harmoniously points to a healthy brain. Jewish unity, as reflected in the Half-Shekel, is a sign that our brain is healthy. Moreover, a healthy brain actually fosters spiritual health.

The third lesson of the Half-Shekel comes from the letters of the word machatzis, which means half. The central letter of this word is the tzaddik- alluding to the righteous person. The letters closest to the tzaddik spell the word chai-life, whereas the letters most distant from the tzaddik spell mes-dead.

The lesson of the closeness of the word chai to tzaddik is that those who try to connect to and bask in the light and warmth of the tzaddik are fully alive. Indeed, the tzaddik is both the head of the Jewish people and its heart. The stronger the connection between the different organs of the body to the brain and heart, the healthier we are.

This is the basis of the Chassidic tradition, rooted in the Talmud and Biblical literature, to follow a Rebbe, a spiritual master. Not only does that closeness help us learn how best to live our lives, it connects our minds to his healthy mind. Whatever mental deficit we may have will be made whole when we are in close proximity to the mind of the tzaddik. Our minds will be working at full capacity with the utmost clarity.

With that clarity, coupled with the preceding two lessons of the Half-Shekel (dependence on G-d and recognizing our organic unity with others), we will be fully prepared for the Final Redemption, the ultimate state of sanity.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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