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Home » Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa: Lift the Head

Submitted by on March 8, 2020 – 2:19 pmNo Comment | 1,436 views

G-d instructed Moses to collect a half silver shekel from each Jew for the Tabernacle’s building fund. Before allocating the shekels to the Tabernacle, Moses was told to take a census of the people by counting the shekels. The Torah seems to describe this census awkwardly. Rather than saying count the Jewish people, the Torah says, “lift the head of the Jews as they are counted.”[1] How would Moses lift their head?

This becomes even more confusing when we consider the following Midrash. “As you will lift their head today when you tell them about the half-shekel so should you lift their head each year as they read about the half-shekel.”[2] Why must Moses lift our heads each year as we read about the shekels?

Three Meanings
Pekudei, the Hebrew word that the Torah uses for counting, has multiple meanings. It means commandments, it means memory, and it means counting.[3] Let’s talk about memory. Remembering someone can be good or bad depending on the context. For example, if you remember that you owe someone money, it is good for him. If you remember that he owes you money, it is bad for him.

The same applies to the Jews. When G-d forgave the Jews for worshipping the Golden Calf, He pledged to exact their punishment slowly over time. “On the day that I remember, I shall remember them.”[4] Our sages put it like this. On the day that I remember them for the punishment of other sins, I will remember to punish them a little extra for this sin. In this context, to be remembered means to be punished.

This reminds me of Yankel, who stopped coming to Shull after his ninetieth birthday. When the Rabbi called to ask why he wasn’t coming, Yankel replied: “All my friends have died, and I am still alive. G-d must have forgotten about me and I don’t want to remind him.”

On the other hand, just before Joseph’s passing, he assured his descendants that G-d would redeem them from Egypt. His words were, “remember, G-d will remember you.”[5] Indeed, when Moses arrived in Egypt, the Jews recognized him as the redeemer because he relayed G-d’s words, “remember, I have remembered you.”[6] So sometimes, it is a good thing to be remembered by G-d.

It depends on us. If we are meritorious, we are remembered by G-d for reward and redemption. If we lack merit, being remembered can lead to punishment and exile.

The link between memory, commandments, and counting, the three meanings of Pekudei, is now clear to us. If we fulfill the commandments, we will be meritorious and will thus be remembered for good. And how do we bring the people to a state of merit? By counting them, the third meaning of the word Pekudei.

It is not just the count, but the method by which we are counted. Rather than counting the people directly, Moses counted the shekels that they donated. Shekel is an interesting word. In Hebrew, it is a silver coin. It Aramaic, it means to take. This is an odd phrase since the Jews gave shekels, they didn’t take shekels, so how do we interpret the word take?

The answer is that before we can begin to build merit, we must first take ourselves away—tear ourselves away from the mindset of indulgence and pleasure. If we want to stand up and be counted before G-d, we must make a choice. We must diminish our focus on self indulgence and increase our focus on G-d.

We are now able to fuse the three meanings of the word pekudei and the Aramaic meaning of the word shekel. Before we can be counted before G-d, which entails a commitment to His commandments and being remembered for the good, we must first take ourselves away from the mindset of indulgence. If my purpose in life is pleasure, I will never rise above myself. If I want to dedicate myself to G-d, I must rise above the vagaries of indulgence and pleasure.

Lift the Head
We now achieve a new understanding of lifting the head. An animal’s head faces downward toward the earth. A human’s head faces forward and upward toward the heavens. Sometimes we are like animals and sometimes we are like humans. If like animals, we focus our attention on earthliness—material pleasures and indulgences, we must lift our heads—shift our focus from earthliness (material pleasures and indulgences) to heavenliness (G-d).

Here is one way of doing it: Ask yourself, which is the most important moment of your day, is it the moment that brings you the most pleasure or the moment that brings you the most meaning? If you answer that question, you have defined the direction of your head. It tells you whether you live for pleasure or for purpose.

The Talmud says, “a prisoner can’t free himself.”[7] If we are immersed in materialism and self-indulgence, it is difficult to tear ourselves away. Thus, we require the assistance of Moses, a leader whose head is focused constantly on heaven, to wrest us away from earth. Hence, G-d instructed Moses to lift our heads.

It is, however, important to remember that though Moses can guide, mentor, and direct us, he can’t lift us. Only we can do the lifting. The lifting is heavy, which is why we require the assistance and encouragement of our Moses, our spiritual leaders. But once that guidance is rendered, the rest is up to us. We must make the choice to take ourselves to task and realign our priorities.

This can’t be accomplished in a day; it is a lifelong endeavor. Therefore, it is not enough that Moses helped us lift our head when we were first counted. Each year, we are counted again, and G-d remembers us again. The question of whether He remembers us for the good or for the bad is determined by how we live our lives. Just because we managed to lift our head last year, doesn’t mean it hasn’t dropped back down a little. Moses must come and help us lift it again.

Our sages taught that at this time of year, the Rabbis would do three things, they would collect the shekels, uproot forbidden plants from private gardens, and pave the roads.[8] Each of these carries a symbolic message. First, we must shekeltake ourselves away from selfish priorities. Then we can uproot the negative traits and habits that take root in the twin gardens of our heart and our conduct. Once that is accomplished, we can pave the road for the lifelong journey that this effort entails.[9]

[1] Exodus 30:12.

[2] Midrash Tanchuma, chapter three.

[3] Exodus 32:34. Psalms 19:9. Exodus 30:12.

[4] Exodus 32:34.

[5] Genesis 50:24.

[6] Exodus 3:16. See also Shemot Rabbah 3:8.

[7] Talmud, Berachot 5b.

[8] Mishnah Shekalim 1:1.

[9] This essay is based on Chidushei Harim on Exodus 30:12.