A LEADER’S RANSOM
Counting heads is the subject of the opening section of this week’s portion.
The Hebrew literally means “When you take the head of the Children of Israel” – an instruction about taking a census.
Look at the word “rosh” (as head) in a different sense and it means a head of the community. In that sense it tells the people what to look for in a leader. The criterion is “kofer nafsho“, literally “a ransom for himself”.
In the context of the census it tells us that every citizen has to pay a poll tax, and from the number of such payments we calculate how many people there are.
In relation to a leader it denotes his preparedness to be “a ransom“, the bearer of responsibility for his community. A leader who keeps aloof from the people and never emerges from his office not only is unaware of what is happening around him but is an administrator but no leader.
The Talmud makes this point in relation to Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Joshua. When Rabban Gamliel visited Rabbi Joshua he was surprised to see how black his house walls were since he worked as a charcoal maker. Rabbi Joshua said,
“Woe to the generation whose leader you are, since you have no idea of how the sages live!” (B’rachot 27b/28a).
DIVINE SPIRIT IN ART
The sidra introduces us to the names of B’tzalel and Oholiav. They were the ones who designed and created the sanctuary in the wilderness. Experts at their trade, their skills brought distinction to the tabernacle. Without them, the Israelite camp would have been much poorer. They both deserve “hakkarat ha-tov“, acknowledgement and appreciation.
But isn’t the Torah being more than necessarily generous when it records that God had filled B’tzalel with “ru’ach Elokim“, the divine spirit? One can imagine the use of such words in relation to a great thinker, teacher, prophet, preacher or poet – but here it is an artist, architect and artisan who is being described so magnanimously.
The explanation must be that there is a spirit of the Divine in all cultural creators, artists, musicians and craftsmen, even mathematicians and scientists. That is, if their principle is not art for art’s sake but art for goodness’ sake.
It is reported that Cynthia Ozick was asked what made Jewish art, music or literature Jewish, and she is said to have answered, “It has a liturgical quality“. The liturgical quality is what is meant by the Divine spirit in art.
PASSION FOR THE CAUSE
The Rebbe of Slonim was not at all put out by the verse that describes the people wanting a golden calf and promising donations to cover the cost.
“Weren’t they sinners?”
he was asked.
“Certainly,” replied the Rebbe, “but see what good points they had. Even when planning to commit a sin, they were moved by passion for a cause; even when planning an idol, they were actuated by generosity and a spirit of sacrifice!”
MONEY & GODS
Moses was on Mount Sinai. He left Aaron and Hur in charge of the Israelite camp (Ex. 24:14). It was a difficult moment. Moses had hardly left before there was a crisis. The people had given up on him, and on God. They wanted a god they could see.
The resultant drama is vividly depicted by rabbinic tradition, which assessed the role of each of the main participants.
It says Hur adamantly refused to co-operate. The people were livid. They turned on him and put him to death. (The rabbis derived this from the fact that Hur’s name disappeared from the Biblical story after this episode).
The reward for his loyalty to God was that his grandson, B’tzalel, was appointed as the architect of the Tabernacle, and a later descendant, King Solomon, built the Temple (Ex. R. 48, Sanh. 7a, Sot. 11b).
Aaron was also not inclined to go along with the people’s wishes. But then he decided to co-operate after all, and the rabbis had to exert themselves to find excuses for him. They said that when he saw Hur’s remains lying there he feared that he too would be murdered.
In addition, his love for Israel was so great that he was willing to commit a sin himself rather than risk the people compounding their guilt with a second murder (Ex. R. 41, Sanh. 7a).
However, he tried very hard to play for time in the hope that Moses would return before any act of idolatry occurred. This is why he asked them to bring him their jewellery and ornaments, expecting that they would hesitate. However, when they came forward with the jewellery he had no way out and then constructed the Golden Calf.
In some passages, the rabbis place all the blame on the Israelites.
“What a fickle people!”,
“One day they give silver and gold for the Divine sanctuary, and the next day they do likewise for a Golden Calf!”
(Centuries later, the chassidic sage, Rabbi Yitzchak of Slonim said,
“The generation of the wilderness gave up silver and gold to make a god; our generation gives up God to make silver and gold”. Comment is superfluous.)
In other passages, the rabbis try to minimise the people’s sin. As Rashi points out, when the calf was ready the dancing around it was accompanied by the words, “These are your (not ‘our’) gods, O Israel!”, which sounds like outsiders speaking.
It was not Israel that took the initiative, conclude the sages, but the mixed multitude that came up out of Egypt with them. The mixed multitude could not understand the Jewish idea of a God who is invisible and intangible, and at the first opportunity schemed against Aaron and led Israel astray.