Our individual and collective responsibilities


This week’s parashah, Ki Tisa, takes us on a roller-coaster of high highs and low lows as it moves through a series of vignettes depicting the ongoing revelation at Sinai.

The parashah begins with Moses at Sinai’s peak, receiving instructions from God about how to take a census of the Israelite people. In order to be counted, every Israelite over the age of 20 must contribute half a shekel as an “atonement-offering” and in service of the sanctuary that they will construct together.

God tells Moses in no uncertain terms: “The rich are not to pay-more and the poor are not to pay-less than half a shekel when giving the contribution of YHWH, to atone for (L’khaper al nafshoteichem) your lives.”

The census that God instructs Moses to follow requires equal buy-in from each participant. That is all well and good, but why would the Israelites need to atone for their lives in the middle of the revelation narrative?

The parashah answers this question for us two chapters later, as the focus of the scene shifts from Moses and God at the top of the mountain to the Israelites camped at its base.

After more than a month of waiting for Moses to return to them, the Israelites’ mounting anxiety has become intolerable. Still well-schooled in, and most comfortable with, the worship practices of the Egyptians they’d only just left behind, the Israelites pool their gold together and use it to create an idol that they can pray to, a concrete and quick-fix way to comfort their fears.

Before he has any reason to suspect that the Israelites have turned towards idolatry in his absence, Moses is equipped by God with a system for spiritual repair accessible to every member of the community.

R. Hayyim ben Moshe ibn Attar, a Moroccan Kabbalist and Talmudist (18th century), suggests that the census that opens our parashah was offered to the Israelites through Moses because, “there was a need not only to count heads, but each person subject to the census had to contribute a half-shekel in order to atone for his share in that sin.”

Whether he knows it or not, Moses is entirely prepared for a situation just like the one that he encounters when he returns to the Israelite camp.

But when he finally makes his way down the mountain, with the sacred stone tablets in hand, Moses’ mind is not on the shekel system for offering atonement.

When he is confronted by the sounds and sights of the Israelites dancing around and worshiping the idol that they constructed, he’s overtaken by anger and frustration. In his outrage, Moses shatters the God-given tablets at the mountain’s base. He then makes his great disappointment, frustration and anger known to the Israelites; he destroys the calf and doles out a wave of severe punishments to his people before returning to God.

Even though Moses technically knew that he had a whole system for atonement and accountability written out in his very hands, his emotions overpower his ability to adhere to God’s strange new teachings. Finding himself not so unlike the very Israelites he’s rebuking, Moses shatters God’s first hand-hewn covenant, and thus implicates himself in the episode as well.

Turning away from his people, Moses wearily faces another trek up the mountain to tell God what’s transpired.

What do we do with this strange progression of scenes? Why the up and down, back and forth, acknowledgment and aspiration back to back? Why include this moment when so much seems literally and spiritually broken in the midst of our most sacred moment of revelation and transformation as a people?

Ki Tisa is a parashah of rupture and repair that dances between the individual and the collective, past and present, the pieces and the whole. We learn from the vignettes in Ki Tisa that we must actively buy into the larger project of taking care of one another, and that each of us is responsible for holding the broken pieces of our collective shortcomings together.

We are reminded of the importance of recognizing the ways in which our (often contextually valid and completely understandable!) emotional reactions to our circumstances can lead us away from the lives we actually want to be living, personally and collectively. We are reminded that the missteps, the broken shards, the outbursts and the many treks up and down the mountain are also Torah, that these too are crucial parts of our sacred story to be carried with us into whatever iteration of collective, covenantal freedom we learn to build together.

This Shabbat Shekalim, we’re called to consider the sacred weight, freedom and privilege of accountability. We’re called, each of us and all of us, to pick up our broken pieces and to take ownership of the times when we let our anxieties lead us to the comfort of quick fixes and away from our communal goals and values.

We’re called to consider the material and spiritual richness that comes from a genuine collective buy-in, of the possibilities that emerge when each and every member of a community is counted with equal value – and counted on for an equal share of responsibility.

The spiritual energy of this Shabbat is one that holds space for an unflinching acknowledgment of what has been, with an unwavering investment and faith in what still might be.

On Shabbat Shekalim, may we merit the blessing of finding it within ourselves to hold this dual space, and to channel it towards sacred offerings to the sanctuaries we might yet make of this world together.

RABBI HEATHER SHORE, of Providence, is Director of Community Engagement, Tzedek Box.