As usual, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, Exodus 30.11 – 34.35,[i] has much more in it than can be covered in a page and a half. I would encourage you to spend some time reading this week’s parasha to see what Hashem might emphasize to you. For me, the beginning verses strike the first cord,
“When you tally the sum of Bnei-Yisrael by numbering them, then every man must pay a ransom for his soul to Adonai when you count them, so that no plague will fall on them.” (Exodus 30.12)
This “sum” seems to have two purposes: first is to guarantee the running of the Mishkan; second, which seems a little suspicious, is to protect against plagues. Was Israel to “pay the Almighty” protection money? This verse does apply to the half-shekel tax, more on this in a moment, but “there is also a darker image here based on the threat of a plague and divine displeasure if they do not all submit to this census.”[ii] Maybe, the words of Rav Shaul, will make this a little more palatable.
“Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto [Messiah], that we might be justified by faith.” (Galatians 3.24, KJV)
Often it is difficult for parents to get their children to obey the rules without giving them consequences for their disobedience. It is possible to understand the “ransom” in Ex. 30:12 in such a context, as a teaching tool. The newly built Mishkan was going to need upkeep that would go beyond the daily offerings, and this is one way to provide for its maintenance. Non-payment of the ransom results in plagues or pestilence. This does not mean that a plague or pestilence will automatically happen if one did not pay this amount, but it does issue a warning and put a caution into the people’s minds as a reason to pay the “ransom,” even if one was not able to utilize the Mishkan very often. What makes this seem even more plausible, is the amount that was to be given, a half shekel. It was to be paid by every male, rich or poor, the same for everyone. It has been said that “In Moses’s time coins were unknown, and a half-shekel was a small lump of silver, unstamped, weighing probably about 110 grains. The ransom of a soul was doubtless made thus light in order that the payment might not be felt practically as a burthen by any.”[iii] It is not the amount that is important, it is the obedience. Remember what Bnei Yisrael said at the base of Mount Sinai when Moshe told them the words of the covenant, ““All the words which Adonai has spoken, we will do” (Exodus 24.3) not some of the words or the words we agree with, or even the ones we understand the reason for – but all the words “we will do.”
This Shabbat is another special Shabbat, Shabbat Parah, Numbers 19:1-22, that is observed before Shabbat HaChodesh Nissan, in preparation for celebrating the Passover. The reading from Numbers 19 deals with the parah adumah, the red heifer, as well as the ceremony required to insure that one is ritually clean in order to approach the Mishkan, specifically so as to be able to celebrate the Passover. The ceremony requires the ashes of the red heifer, pure water, and hyssop for the cleansing process. The hyssop is used for applying the water and ashes, much like the hyssop was used to apply the blood to the doorposts that first Passover in Egypt.
The special Haftarah reading for Shabbat Parah is Ezekiel 36.16-38 in which we read the LORD’s words to errant Israel concerning a time of restoration,
“For I will take you from the nations, gather you out of all the countries and bring you back to your own land. Then, I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean from all your uncleanness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart. I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the stony heart from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Ruach within you. Then I will cause you to walk in My laws, so you will keep My rulings and do them. Then you will live in the land that I gave to your fathers. You will be My people and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36.24-28)
In another section of this week’s parasha, we read about Israel’s transgression concerning the “golden calf.” The dust had not even settled upon the tablets that the LORD wrote by His finger (Exodus 31.18), and Bnei Yisrael was already slipping into idolatry. However, the compassion expressed by Hashem in Ezekiel, was first expressed in this week’s parasha when the LORD’s glory passed before Moshe and He said,
ה׳, ה׳, אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֹ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃ שמות ל.6-7
“Adonai, Adonai, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, showing mercy to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means leaving the guilty unpunished, but bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34.6-7)
There is no question that there are consequences for disobedience, as with the potentially of a plague (Exodus 30.12). But tempered with that, is the LORD’s desire to be gracious and merciful. Notice, He says “showing mercy to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means leaving the guilty unpunished, but bringing the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” Look at the comparison, compassion and forgiveness to a thousand generations, judgment to only three or four. In comparison, His compassion and mercy substantially outweighs His judgment and discipline. It is this reality that caused the psalmist to sing,
If You, Adonai, kept a record of iniquities—my Lord, who could stand? For with You there is forgiveness, so You may be revered. I wait for Adonai, my soul waits, and in His word I hope. (Psalm 130.3-5)
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[ii] Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews and Mark W. Chavalas. IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. IVP Academic, Westmont, 2000. Electronic text hypertexted and prepared by OakTree Software, Inc. Version 2.1. on Exodus 30.12