WHO IS A GOOD JEW?
This is the accepted translation of the opening words of the sidra:
“When you take a count of the Children of Israel according to their number, each one shall pay a ransom for his soul.”
The message seems to be that every soldier enrolled in an army is a potential taker of life, and therefore must ask for atonement before the fighting begins.
A radically different translation is offered by the Or P’nei Moshe:
“If you would raise the standard of the Children of Israel with their defects, each one must work on his own soul.”
There is a recurrent debate on the question, “What is a Jew?” Equally important is the question, “What is a good Jew?” And the alternative approach to the commencement of the sidra helps in the search for an answer. For normally people offer you the “but” answer… “I don’t go to shule – but I am a good Jew.” “I don’t keep kosher, but I am a good Jew.” “I don’t give to Israel (or to charity or to education), but I am a good Jew.” The idea seems to be, “How much of Judaism can I be and still be a good Jew?”
But there is a much better, worthier, more significant way of looking at the “good Jew” issue: the good Jew is the one who is prepared to “work on his own soul”. We judge whether you are a good Jew not by what you leave out of Judaism but by how hard you work on being Jewish. A good Jew is someone trying to become a better Jew.
HALF A SHEKEL.
Ki Tissa commences with the law of the half shekel. People were counted by means of their half-shekel contributions. The number of half-shekels signified how many Israelites there were. Fair enough, but why a half shekel and not a full one?
The rabbis saw this as a lesson which the Almighty taught to Moses. It showed that were two sides to life, the material and the spiritual. Half the day was for material pursuits, half for spiritual striving.
God gave the example. He was both immanent and transcendent, both within and beyond the physical world. Human beings had to devote themselves to tilling and tending the earthly world, but not to the exclusion of spiritual concerns… and vice-versa: no-one had right to disdain the earthly realm and seek spirituality without material concerns.
OHOLIAV BEN ACHISAMACH
Let us look at Oholiav ben Achisamach of the tribe of Dan (Ex. 31:6), the colleague of the Tabernacle’s master craftsman, B’tzalel. There is not much about him in rabbinic writing, which seems to indicate that he did not appeal to the imagination or arouse the admiration (or displeasure) of the sages to an important degree, but the Biblical text gives us at least a modicum of information.
His name seems to mean “tent (tabernacle) of my father” or possibly “master tent-maker”, understanding “av” (“father”) as founder, leader or master (e.g. Gen. 4:20, which calls Yaval “the father of those who dwell in tents and have cattle”, and Gen. 4:21, where his brother Yuval is “the father of those who handle the harp and pipe”).
Oholiav was clearly a talented person – “an engraver and a clever workman, and an embroiderer in blue, in purple, in scarlet and fine linen” (Ex. 38:23). Like his leader B’tzalel, but unlike many others whose abilities are more limited, he was not only a good worker himself but was able to teach others (Ex. 35:34 and Ibn Ezra on Ex. 36:1).
The text implies that like the others who were employed in building the Tabernacle, Oholiav was “wise-hearted”, and the rabbinic sages comment that God implants wisdom in the hearts of those who are already wise-hearted (Ber. 55a). Samson Raphael Hirsch remarks, “Jewish truth knows nothing of that miracle of God which suddenly makes the simpleton of yesterday into the wise and inspired genius, the man of God of today” (Commentary on Gen. 31:6).
It seems that Oholiav’s connection with the tribe of Dan was more than accidental, since centuries later when the Temple was built, King Solomon also utilised people from that tribe as expert craftsmen: “And King Solomon sent and fetched Hiram out of Tyre (who) was filled with wisdom and understanding and skill to work all works in brass” (I Kings 7:13-14). Though Hiram’s father was from the tribe of Naphtali, his mother was from the tribe of Dan (II Chron. 2:13).
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.