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Ki Sisa

Zeh Yitnu: Kol HaOver Al HaPkudim


During their sojourn in the desert, several census counts were made of the Jews. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Sisa, we read of G-d’s instruction to Moshe (Moses) that, in taking such a census, the Jews should not be counted directly. Instead, each person contributed a half-shekel coin as, one by one, they filed past the census takers. These coins were then tallied to yield the census.

The relevant verse reads, “This is what they shall give: all who pass by the census takers [shall give] half a shekel of the holy shekel; the shekel is twenty geira [a unit of currency]; half a shekel is the offering to G-d.”

The Torah stipulates that (as we would expect for such a census to work) each person was to contribute exactly the same amount. A half-shekel was thus the uniform contribution of every Jew, rich or poor.

In addition to its plain meaning, the above can be understood metaphorically as a reference to the “lowest common denominator” expected of every Jewish person in his or her service of G-d.

***“Her Husband Is Known at the Gates”: Love and Fear of G-d Are Heavenly Gifts

It is written, “Her husband is known at the gates.” Because the Hebrew word for “gates” is similar to that for “allotment, assessment” this verse is often the object of a play on words by which it can be understood as meaning, “Her [the Jewish people’s] Husband—G-d—is known to any given person according to the amount of effort he or she expends and the capacity of his or her soul.” Jewish mysticism associates the concept of a husband with transmission of influence, and that of a wife, with receiving that influence. The point, for our present purposes, is that since G-d is said to be the Husband of the Jewish people—the source of everything we receive—we should recognize that anything we have comes from Him. This is not limited to material possessions, but includes whatever we possess in the spiritual sense as well: any true love for G-d or fear of G-d which one may possess is actually granted us from Above, as a gift from Heaven. It is a gift bestowed upon each person in proportion to the degree of effort he or she expends in seeking out and preparing for these gifts, through love and fear of G-d, as well as Torah study and mitzvah observance. These four factors are considered gateways to knowledge of G-d, and are what is meant by “Her Husband is known at the gates”—i.e., in accordance with the degree to which the person has traversed these four gateways. They correspond to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, G-d’s unpronounceable name.

Yet this requires explanation, for it seems incompatible with the notion of free will: there must surely be some sense in which love and fear of G-d may be viewed as a person’s own accomplishments, which they have achieved after making the choice to devote themselves to G-d and to develop those feelings for Him. How can it be said that whatever love and fear of G-d one possesses are Heavenly gifts?

***Two Kinds of Love

The answer lies in the opening verses of the Shema prayer, “Hear, O Israel, G-d is our L-rd, G-d is One. And you shall love G-d your L-rd….” The Hebrew word meaning, “and you shall love” is susceptible (as in English) of two meanings: that you should love—that is, as a command—or that you will love—that is, as a prediction.

The command to love G-d implies that we do in fact have the ability to develop love for ourselves; this is what we are being commanded to do. The prediction that we will love G-d, on the other hand, refers to a type of love that comes of itself, a love bestowed upon us from Above. The Torah is saying that we may eventually have this kind of love, but it will not be a result of our direct effort; that is why the command form does not apply. (Although it is bestowed by G-d in recognition of our effort, this type of love cannot be reached solely by human effort. Rather, G-d sees how hard we are trying and helps us out from Above.)

***Love that Results from Contemplation of G-d’s Unity

The first kind of love, which we develop ourselves, is the product of contemplation and reflection. We must understand and realize that, in all seven heavens and the four directions of the compass, G-d is One with a perfect, all-encompassing unity: just as before the universe was created there was nothing else but Him, so also now is there literally nothing else but Him—there has been no change whatsoever from before creation.

This is a profound thought indeed, and is frequently expounded in Chassidic literature. While a full understanding of the concept is beyond mortal grasp, we can at least come to appreciate something approximating it, in accordance with the principle that (since G-d created humanity in His image) by reflecting upon our own makeup, we can understand something of G-d’s (so to speak).

A person’s thoughts are, quite literally, one with that person; they have no existence outside him or her. It is only when one actually speaks that a thought seems to take on more of a separate existence, as it is now expressed to the outside world in words. However, in truth, words are themselves meaningless unless they do express some idea, some thought—otherwise they are not words at all, but sounds. Even as expressed in words, it is the underlying thought that counts; the thought is what makes a word, a word. Words may thus be viewed as nothing at all in relation to the thought they express; there is literally no such thing as a word without a thought, a meaning.

Before creation, all the worlds—physical and spiritual—were entirely one with G-d, as a person’s thoughts are one with that person. There was literally nothing else. Creating the universe was similar to a person expressing his thought in words, as it is in fact written, “By the word of G-d were the heavens created, and by the breath of His mouth, etc.” Therefore, even now, as “words,” the universe and all its worlds have no true existence in relation to the “thought” of G-d that underlies and indeed, continually renews their existence. There is truly nothing whatsoever but G-d.

What is more, all the above is from our limited, human perspective. To us, it appears as though the universe exists (an appearance which is totally false), but that is because we cannot perceive things from G-d’s perspective. The best we can do in appreciating the unity of G-d, therefore, is to comprehend the manner in which words are nothing in relation to the thought that animates them, for we can relate to the idea explained above, i.e., that words, which are outside of a person, are actually nothing in relation to that person. But in reality—that is, as things are from G-d’s own perspective—even His “words” are not separate from Him: absolutely nothing is separate from Him. From G-d’s perspective, the reason the universe is as naught before Him is not due to any subtle comparison between words and thoughts or to any other intellectual exercise. Rather, the universe is as naught before G-d because it just is—really and truly, in the simplest sense, and that’s that!

Furthermore, as explained elsewhere, the universe is not uniform in the degree of spirituality revealed therein. There is an entire hierarchy of spiritual progression by which this physical world ultimately came into being: at the top of the hierarchy is the most sublime spiritual realm, in which a great deal of G-dliness is manifest; below that, in progressively lower stages, exist spiritual realms wherein the underlying spirituality is more and more concealed; until finally, here in our world, G-d is totally concealed from our perception. At each step of the way in this progression, the lower world is the expression of the one immediately higher that itself, in the same way that words express, and are nothing in relation to, thought. So, in fact, all the above is multiplied endlessly if we consider our world in relation to G-d: not only are we nothing in relation to Him, we are even nothing in relation to the spiritual world immediately higher than us on the hierarchy of creation (known in Hebrew as the seder hishtalshelus), which in turn is nothing in relation to its own immediately superior world, ad infinitum.

That is the meaning of the expression, “No thought can grasp You at all.” Even the most inconceivably sublime of spiritual realms, at the very pinnacle of the seder hishtalshelus, the hierarchy of all creation—even such realms as are considered “thought” in comparison with relatively lower realms—cannot grasp G-d at all, for He is utterly beyond “thought.” He is called “hidden of all things hidden” and “concealed of all things concealed,” for, even from those sublime spiritual levels that are themselves hidden and concealed from everything else, G-d is hidden and concealed.

***Making Havayah Our Elokim

Now, as stated above, the verse, “And you shall love G-d your L-rd with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”—in its sense as a command—refers to the kind of love that can be aroused and developed through intellectual contemplation. Specifically, one should contemplate all that we have been saying about the true unity of G-d, to the point that this brings one to a genuine love and yearning to be one with G-d as well. In Hebrew, the phrase “G-d your L-rd” uses the Divine names “Havayah, your Elokim.” The name Havayah signifies G-d as He is in Himself, from His own perspective, as it were, before Whom all is revealed as absolutely naught. Elokim signifies G-d as He is perceptible to us created beings, from whom the truth of G-d’s all-encompassing unity is concealed. The inner significance of this wording is that we should attain a level of love for G-d at which we perceive Havayah as our Elokim “with all [our] heart and with all [our] soul and with all [our] might.”

Torah sources associate the above verse with such a degree of love for G-d as involves self-sacrifice, offering up one’s very existence to Him. As a practical matter, this means that all the vehicles by which one’s soul expresses itself—that is, thought, speech, and action, hinted at by the words, “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might”—should be as naught (batel) before G-d (who, as explained above, transcends even “thought”), since thought, speech, and action only apply to worldly matters, and, as we have seen, worldly matters are illusory and false: only G-d truly exists. In this context, then, loving G-d “with all your soul”—giving up one’s soul for G-d—means total negation of one’s thought, speech, and action in deference to Him.

However, it is impossible to render one’s thoughts totally blank. Accordingly, one should engage them, as well as one’s speech and actions, exclusively as vehicles for the expression of G-d’s Will, through the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvos—for Torah and mitzvos also transcend the level of thought. For thought is not as lofty a level as intellect itself, and the Torah is said to stem from G-d’s very intellect (again, anthropomorphically speaking), as the Kabbalah teaches, “The Torah comes from [G-d’s] Wisdom [Chochmah].”

Even though the Torah and mitzvos as we know them are clothed in worldly form, such as laws of what is forbidden and what is permitted, and expressed through physical objects like coins for charity, and so on, this does not alter their essential character as G-d’s very “intellect.” Chassidic philosophy frequently uses an analogy to hair in making this point. The hair on one’s head grows outward through miniscule openings and has so little of the body’s life force in it that one can cut hair without feeling pain. This is in sharp contrast to what is on the other side of those tiny holes: the brain, which is the very center of the body’s vitality. Viewing the hair of one’s head as though it had pushed through the barrier of one’s skull and were a visible, tangible extension of the brain into the outside, hair serves as a metaphor for the way G-d lets unimaginably refined and lofty degrees of holiness find expression even in the lowest places. No one suggests the brain actually contains hair; nevertheless—conceptually—it can be viewed as an extension of the brain outward, as described above. To apply this to the Torah and mitzvos, while it is true that they are thoroughly bound up with this physical world, they “derive from the brain”: the Torah and mitzvos as we know them are nevertheless visible, tangible manifestations to this lowly, “outside” world we live in of the rarified holiness within that deepest and most concealed “brain”: the spiritual level associated with G-d’s Chochmah, or Wisdom.

It is incumbent upon each and every person to reflect well upon all that we have been saying. As explained, such contemplation arouses true love of G-d within a Jewish person, and this contemplation is indeed subject to one’s free will. We can choose to comply with G-d’s wishes and pursue this course of meditation, thereby developing our love for Him; that is the sense in which we are commanded, “You shall love G-d your L-rd.”

***Great Love: The Holy Shekel of Silver

The second type of love for G-d, however, comes to us only after G-d has seen that we are trying our best to achieve a degree of love for Him that humans simply cannot attain. He then rewards us with the Heavenly assistance that lifts us above our mortal limitations and allows us to experience this Great Love (ahavah rabbah) anyway. That is why the verse says “Hear, O Israel”: we only experience the second type of love, ahavah rabbah, if it has been presented to us by G-d, like someone who hears what has been said by another; our own contemplation will not do it.

This is known as “the holy shekel of silver.” The Hebrew word for “silver” is kesef, a term which is etymologically related to the word for “longing,” as in the verse, nichsof nichsafta, “you have greatly longed.” It refers to that Great Love, ahavah rabbah, that comes to each person from Above, in proportion to the degree to which they have affirmatively engaged in worship and practice of mitzvos. (However, the corresponding aspect of worship—refraining from committing any transgression of G-d’s will—is a given: all of us have an equal obligation to do so fully.)

Genesis 23:15 recounts that when Abraham acquired the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite, the purchase price was “four hundred shekels of silver [in currency universally] accepted by merchants.” The Hebrew for “universally accepted by merchants” is over lasocher, an expression associated with encompassing from without, as in the Aramaic term schor schor. It can be understood as an allusion to the negative commandments, which, as just stated, are equally applicable to everyone and associated with that transcendent level of G-dliness known as Sovev Kol Almin. By contrast, the “four hundred shekels of silver” aspect of the purchase price can be understood as an allusion to the positive commandments, since, as just mentioned, the word for “silver” is related to the word for “longing” and hints at the love of G-d granted in proportion to one’s effort in positive mitzvos. Unlike negative mitzvos, which are uniform for everyone, positive mitzvos vary in the degree of enthusiasm and joy with which they are performed. One person may be particularly inspired by this mitzvah, while another may find a different mitzvah more inspiring; even within the same person, one day a mitzvah might be performed with greater zest and pleasure because the person has contemplated the unity of G-d (as discussed earlier) to a greater degree, etc. This concept is alluded to by the four hundred shekels of silver (kesef), because they correspond to the Kabbalistic four hundred worlds of longed-for pleasure (kisufin)—different degrees of G-dly revelation corresponding to the various degrees and types of pleasure in mitzvos—given a person in the world to come.

***Everyone—Even Those Who Have Sinned—Can Worship G-d

That is why the verse tells us “the shekel is twenty geira.” Each of the two types of love we have discussed comprises the ten components (three intellectual and seven emotional) that we find associated with the ten Sefiros and the ten levels of the Jewish soul. Thus, a person who has achieved both kinds of Divine love has ten plus ten, or twenty, levels to his or her shekel, his or her contribution to G-d.

And that is why we are told, “When you take the head [count] of the Children of Israel according to their number, each man shall give the ransom of his soul to G-d.” The wording of this verse makes it possible to understand it also as follows: “When those Jews who are considered the ‘heads’ remember and ascend to their origin,” that is, when the most refined and saintly among the Jews, those who have reached not only the first level of love for G-d, but also the second—the “heads” of the Jewish people—arise, then “they shall contribute the full measure of their soul (all twenty levels of both types of love) to G-d.”

However, since, as we have said, not every person merits to experience the second level of love for G-d—as this requires perfection in abstaining from sin and great effort in performing mitzvos—not everyone can contribute a whole “shekel,” comprising twenty components. Nevertheless, it is within the ability of each and every Jewish person to achieve the first kind of love, since that can be developed by implementing a conscious decision—which it is within the free will of everyone to make—to reflect upon G-d’s unity, as explained at length above. Then, at least he or she will be able to contribute, to give up for G-d, “half a shekel”—the ten components involved with that first level of love.

And this, too, may be understood from the Hebrew wording: “This is what they shall give: all who pass by the census takers…half a shekel is the offering to G-d.” The word for “the census takers” (lit., “the counters”), hapekudim, can also mean “the commandments”; the word for “pass by,” oveir, can also mean “transgress.” Thus, the phrase can be read, “all who have transgressed the commandments.” Even someone who has, G-d forbid, by transgressions prevented him- or herself from reaching the higher degree of love for G-d is not excluded from participation in Divine worship. On the contrary, every Jewish person has the ability to dedicate his or her entire soul, in all its ten levels, to G-d “with all [one’s] heart and with all [one’s] soul and with all [one’s] might,” and thus, “half a shekel is the [uniform] offering to G-d.”

In the discourse in Likkutei Torah on the verse Tachas Asher Lo Avadeta in the Torah portion Ki Savo, reference is made to the end of present discourse. From this we see that the type of joy in worshipping G-d that is said there to be incumbent upon and within the reach of every Jew corresponds to the love for G-d about which we have said the same in this discourse (i.e., that it is incumbent upon and within the reach of every Jew)—the half shekel each person must dedicate to G-d. The second level of joy discussed in that discourse (which only the righteous are said to attain) corresponds to the second half shekel—the higher degree of love for G-d—that only the righteous “heads” of the people are able to experience.

Lo Tov Heyos HaAdam Levado
Mayim Rabim Lo Yuchlu L'Chabos
B'Etzem HaYom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom
Erda Na
Chayei Sara
V'Avraham Zakein Ba Bayamim
Vayachp'ru Avdei Yitzchok
Vayashkeim Lavan Baboker
Vayeavek Ish Imo
VeHinei Anachnu M'Almim Alumim
Ner Chanukah Mitzvah L'Hanicha
Vayigash Eilav Yehudah
Chachlili Einayim Miyayin