“Ki tisa es rosh Bnei Yisrael lifkudeihem” (Shemos 30:12). The purpose of counting the people in Ki Tisa was not in order to know how many people there were, as was the case in Bamidbar when they were counted for the purpose of apportioning the land of Israel among them. Rather it was in order to charge males 20 years of age and older with certain responsibilities, with a tafkid. There were many responsibilities that were given to them, like going to war, paying taxes, and in particular paying a half a shekel to fund the purchase of the public sacrifices.
The public sacrifices were mainly olos, elevated offerings, the purpose of which was to atone for not performing a mitzvat aseh with all ones heart. Any responsibility we are given, including the mitzvah of giving a half shekel, must be performed with enthusiasm, b’chol perate’ha v’dikdukeha v’kavonoseha v’taryag mitzvos ha’teluyim ba, in all its details, implications and intentions as well as the 613 commandments that are dependent upon it. If one performs a mitzvah half-heartedly, one requires atonement in the form of a korban olah. The half shekel is in recognition of the fact that we are human and we will never fulfill a mitzvah with the total concentration and enthusiasm it deserves. Our minds are preoccupied with daily living and survival, and we often fulfill the mitzvot absent-mindedly and half-heartedly. For this we need the kofer nefesh, the atonement that the korban olah affords us. The half shekel also warns us against complacency. We should be aware that whatever we do is never perfect or complete and there is always room for improvement.
“V’ata kach lecha besamim rosh, mor-deror… – [Hashem said to Moshe.] take for yourself choice spices” (30:23) and mix them with 12 lugim measures of oil to produce the shemen ha’mishcah, the oil of anointment. Why does the Torah specify that this is for you, Moshe?
The Targum tells us that the words mor-deror in Aramaic mean meira dachya, which Chazal (Chullin 139b) tell us is a reference to Mordechai. What is the connection between Mordechai and the shemen ha’mishcah?
The shemen ha’mishcah was made by human hands, from oil and spices. Even though the oil was absorbed by the dry spices and the mixture was boiled to produce the shemen ha’mishcah, thus evaporating the oil, and even though this same oil was used to anoint the vessels of the Mishkan and kings and priests for generations to come, the oil always remained the same measure of 12 lugim and was never depleted (30:31 and Rashi there; Kerisos 5b and Horeyos 11b.) The shemen ha’mishcah did not drop out of the heavens like the mannah. It was a miracle produced out of everyday ingredients prepared by human hands, but it was a miracle nevertheless, through which one could discern the hand of G-d in the background.
Therein lies the connection with Mordechai. The events of Purim were, on the face of it, man-made. Esther arrived at the palace of Achashverosh about five years before the incidents recalled in the Megillah, and as queen she intervened on behalf of the Jews. The name of G-d as the source of the miracle of Purim is not mentioned in the Megillah. In contrast to the era of Moshe when the miracles were clear for all to see, here they were hidden and, like the shemen ha’mishcah, could be attributed to natural forces. But Mordechai taught us that there is such a phenomenon called a neis nistar, a hidden miracle where G-d works behind the scenes and pulls the strings – meitzitz min ha’charakim, He peers through the cracks (Shir Hashirim 2:9).
Furthermore, without Mordechai, the legacy of Moshe, of “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe,” would have disappeared. The Jews were doing well in Persia. Achashverosh afforded them equal rights and even invited them to his banquet. They did not need the Torah any longer to survive, and were doing just fine without it. They were ready to trigger the escape clause of moda’ah raba l’oraysa, and abandon the Torah which had been forced upon them at Sinai.
But the events of Purim showed them that the Torah of Moshe is here to stay. Moderchai showed them that human events, choreographed by G-d in the background, make it clear that the Jew cannot survive without adherence to the Torah. All of a sudden, out of the blue, a crazy anti-Semite like Haman emerges with a final solution of l’hashmid la’harog u’l’abeid, to annihilate the Jews. And out of this seemingly human scenario, the Jew realizes that G-d is behind these earthly events and that the only formula for survival is “kiyemu vekiblu hayehudim aleihem ma sh’kiblu kvar,” (Shabbos 88a) that the Jews had to reaffirm their allegiance to the Torah of Moshe in order to survive physically and spiritually. They had to waive the escape clause of moda’ah raba l’oraysa (see Gemara there) and remain loyal to the Torah of Moshe.
“Vayifen va’yered Moshe min ha’har u’shnei luchos ha’edus b’yado, luchos kesuvim mi’shnei evreihem mi’zeh u’mizeh hem kesuvim” (32:15). The letters were engraved into the two tablets in such a way that they could be read both from the front and from the back. Nevertheless, Chazal tell us (Shabbos 104a) that when you looked at the back of the tablets, the words did not appear from right to left like they did when reading from the front of the tablets, but they appeared from left to right. That means that the letters on the back could still be deciphered, but only with difficulty and it would take longer to read them than it would have taken if somehow, miraculously, they would have appeared on the back from right to left as well.
We know that the letter samech and the letter mem sofi, which were cut out of the stone, remained suspended in the air without dropping out (Shabbos 104a, Rashi to Shemos 32:15). If G-d could perform that miracle with respect to these two letters, surely He could have performed another miracle and made all the words engraved on the Luchos readable from right to left on the back as well as on the front?
He didn’t do that for a reason. He wanted to impress upon us that even if the laws of the Torah are as difficult to keep as it is to read Hebrew from left to right and even if we live in a society which considers the laws of the Torah as alien to their culture as we consider Hebrew words written from left to right alien to our culture, we must still abide by the words of the Torah. We cannot opt out of the Torah because it contains laws that seemingly cannot apply to a modern society. Thus even though the modern financial world charges interest on loans, we may not. Even though at times it was almost impossible to hold down a job without working on Shabbos, we still were not permitted to do so. And there is no shortage of examples that illustrate how the Torah and its do’s and don’ts are counter intuitive to the culture of the countries that host us in the diaspora. Yet, despite the difficulty and inconvenience of swimming against the current of the times, we must persist and remain loyal to the words of the Torah, even though they seem as difficult to keep as reading Hebrew from left to right.
According to Chazal (Megillah 15a) this was the question that Esther asked Mordechai when she saw him walking the streets in sackcloth and when she saw the Jews of Shushan praying and fasting and mourning. She ordered one of the king’s servants to go to Mordechai to ask him “ma zeh, v’al ma zeh,” what this was all about and why it was happening (Esther 4:5). She asked Mordechai, Perhaps the Jews have transgressed the five books of the Torah, about which it says “mi’zeh u’mizeh hem kesuvim,” on this side and on this side they are written.
Esther was pointing out that the source of the troubles befalling the Jews was that they wanted to accept the invitation of Achashverosh to become Persians and drop their allegiance to the Torah. They wanted to give in to the temptation of dropping laws that seemingly made life more difficult for them and were alien to Persian culture. And so, said Esther, it was time to reaffirm their allegiance to the eternal laws of the Torah even though the environment in which they lived made them unfashionable.
“Vayar ha’am ki boshesh Moshe la’redes min ha’har –the people saw that Moshe was late coming down the mountain” (32:1). There was a miscommunication between Moshe and the people. Moshe told them when he ascended the mountain on the seventh day of Sivan that he would return forty days later within the first six hours of the day. That was an ambiguous message because if one counts the forty days from the same day he ascended, he would be expected to return before midday on the sixteenth day of Tamuz. But if you count the forty days from the day following his ascent, he would be expected to return on the seventeenth day of Tamuz. The Jews interpreted the count to mean that Moshe would come one day earlier, on the sixteenth of Tamuz. They were eager to trigger the escape clause of moda’ah raba l’oraysa and drop the religion of the Torah. Moshe assumed that they would resolve the ambiguity in favor of his returning on the seventeenth of Tamuz and remain loyal to the Torah.