כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל
When you take the census of the people of Israel
It states in the Midrash: When the Holy One Blessed Be He taught Moses the section “כי תשא” Moses was perplexed. The Holy One Blessed Be He therefore showed him a fiery coin beneath the throne of glory and said “זה יתנו” (this they shall give), a coin like this they shall give.
Our master explained the meaning of this Midrash in the name of his father the gaon (R. Avraham Glasner, 1826-77). What Moses found perplexing about this section was how it could be that a person gains atonement for his soul by giving charity? Do not all those who transgress the commandments) say that they can atone for their sins by giving charity: for what does the Eternal require of any person but to do kindness? Yet here the Scripture supports them, as it is written “כל העבר על הפּקדים” (whoever transgresses the commandments), i.e., as the holy Zohar explains, whoever transgresses the commandments of the Torah should give half a shekel, and his sin will be removed and his guilt forgiven. This is what perplexed Moses.
The answer is that charity does indeed atone for our sins, but only if the coin that is given is purified sevenfold from any trace of prohibition [i.e., like that shown to Moses], so that the donor’s wealth is not the result of any violation of the Torah like robbery, interest, oppression, desecration of the Sabbath or the Festivals, working of the land on the Sabbatical or Jubilee years, plowing the land with an ox and a donkey together, planting two kinds of seed together (כִּלְאַיִם), or similar prohibitions. But if a person’s wealth is untainted by any of these impurities, then his gift of a half-shekel will go up with favor before Blessed One to expunge his earlier transgressions. If, however, in acquiring his wealth, a person has not been careful to avoid all these transgressions, so that his money is itself polluted by some transgression, then even if he does charity and kindness with that money and may even receive a reward for his good deeds, he will nevertheless not be protected against the punishment that is due him for his transgressions. And perhaps this is the metaphorical meaning of the verse (Deuteronomy 16:20) “Justice, only justice, shall you pursue” (צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף). By way of a coin that you acquired according to the laws of the Torah shall you seek to perform acts of kindness.
וַיתן אל משה ככלתו לדבר אתו
And he gave to Moses, when he finished talking with him.
Rashi comments: The word “ככלתו” is written without a “ו after the “ל” to intimate that the Torah was given over to Moses as a gift, just as a bride is given over to the groom [i.e., “ויתן אל משה ככלתו” (He gave Moses a gift as if he were His bride)], for in the brief time that Moses was on the mountain he was unable to learn the Torah in its entirety.
Rashi’s comment is based on the statement of R. Johanan (Nedarim 38a) that Moses had been studying the Torah, but kept forgetting it, until the Almighty gave it to him as a gift, as it is written “ויתן אל משה ככלתו לדבר אתוֹ”.
Our master derived a great lesson from the words of the Sages and revealed their deeper meaning. For the Almighty gave us two Torot: the Written Torah given to Moses dictated word for word in its entirety by the Almighty (באצבע אלקים) and the Oral Torah that the Eternal transmitted orally by the Eternal to Moses. Now the multitude of the laws contained within the Oral Torah is limitless; its length is longer than the earth and its width wider than the oceans. No man is capable of comprehending it in its entirety. And even if a man raised himself upon a cloud so that his head reached the heavens, his intellect could not fully comprehend all these laws or enumerate their multitudes.
The words of the Sages now emerge like a rock, confirmed seven times over. For, at first, the Eternal wanted to teach Moses the entire Torah — each and every law and all the statutes together as a unit, without any omissions. And the Almighty wished to seal it off, so that it would be impossible, either for Moses or the Sages of later generations, to originate anything new beyond that which had been received at Sinai. However, even Moses, the mightiest of the shepherds and the lord of the prophets, could not bear such a burden, the laws being too numerous for him to retain in his mind and keep continuously in his memory. Moses therefore kept studying — and forgetting — the Torah until the Almighty gave it to him as a gift, by giving to Moses, along with the Torah, the rules of inference, i.e., the thirteen hermeneutic rules by which laws may be derived from the Torah, and with a few additional laws that were also transmitted to Moshe at Sinai [i.e., הלכות למשה מסיני]. It was through these rules that Moses could interpret the Torah and bend it as he desired when he wished either to bring near or to push away, just as R. Joshua exclaimed when he rose up to argue with R. Eliezer (Bava Metzia 59b), “אין משגיחין בבת קול כי לא בשמים היא” (we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, for the Torah is not in heaven). Rather the Torah is ours to do with as a person does with his own property. So, when the Torah was given to Moses as a gift, it was only by means of the thirteen hermeneutic rules that he was enabled to comprehend the Torah in its entirety. And understand this lesson well, for these are the words of the living God.
עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו כּי זה משה האישׁ אשר העלנו מארץ מצרים לֹא ידענו מה היה לוֹ
Make us gods, which shall go before us; and as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him.
See what we have written in פרשת תרומה in the name of our master, and we have an opportunity here to explain further. In the early generations, when people walked in darkness rather than light, it was the practice of all nations to worship their kings and their rulers as gods, because the people, seeing their leaders as educated and wise, concluded that their leaders could not be ordinary people. So Hiram, king of Tyre, in his towering conceit, said (Ezekiel 28:2) “מושב אלהים ישבת” (I sit in the seat of God). And likewise Pharaoh said, “לי יארי ואני עשיתני” (my river is my own and I have made it for myself). So, they led their barbarous peoples to believe in their divinity, as they alone possessed knowledge and wisdom, which they kept to themselves and withheld from their peoples. The kings wanted their peoples to continue to dwell in darkness so that they could do as they pleased to them.
But Moses our teacher did not conduct himself in this way with our ancestors. For he appeared to them as an ordinary person, and he said to them: “I am a man and not a god.” Moses very much wanted that all Israel, as one person, obey all the commandments of the Torah given at the mountain from the midst of fire and that they all study in order to know the Eternal, so that the entire nation would be holy. The Scripture therefore says (Deuteronomy 33:4) “תורה צוה לנו משה מורשה קהלת יעקב” (Moses commanded us a Torah, the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob) to show that Moses wanted all to have an equal share in the Torah, so that no one might raise himself above his brethren, and so that all the people should be priests. Thus, the Eternal commanded them through Moses (Exodus 19:6): “ואתם תהיו לי ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדושׁ” (And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation). Did not Moses say (Numbers 11:29): “ומי יתן כל עם ה’ נביאים” (would that all the Lord’s people were prophets)?
However, our ancestors in the desert did not understand, for they were a nation void of counsel (כי גוי אבד עצות המה). They rebelled against counsel and wisdom, because they were idolaters (as it appears that the fish of the swamp enjoy the muddy waters and despise the fresh waters of a rushing stream). They therefore gave precedence to “נעשה” before “נשמע” as we explained above (פרשת תרומה), refusing to see that a wise person is above a simpleton. And what they meant by saying “make us a god who shall go before us” was that they wanted to be led, like all the nations around them, by a leader who would be a god and would go before them so that they, without knowledge or understanding, could just follow blindly.
That is why they said “כי זה משה האיש” (For this Moses, the man) who would lead us, who says that he is a man like any other man, “לא ידענו מה היה לוֹ” (we know not what is become of him). Why would he lead us like an ordinary person, and why would he not want to raise himself up above us to be a god unto us?