Parashat Ki Tissa

The Coin of Fire

How to rectify material wealth.

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Rebbe Natan of Breslov sees Egypt as the heart of materialism--pervaded by a lust for money so intense it became idol worship. According to the Midrash, Egyptians worshiped the sheep, a symbol of wealth (Exodus Rabbah 11).

Egypt's massive construction projects deified the wealth from which they were built, and the kings and queens whose power ordained their construction. It was this spiritually toxic relationship with property that God wanted the Israelites to leave behind when they departed from Egypt.

Leaving, however, was not enough. God intended that through the Exodus, Israel would create a new paradigm of materialism in the world. Rebbe Natan explains: "Israel was exiled to Egypt in order to purify the wealth from there, because in the wealth… there fell all the [holy] sparks (Likutei Halakhot, Purim, 6:9)."

The Torah does not condemn personal possession, even great wealth, but demands a certain mode of usage. Riches do not exist for their own sake or for the sake of man's ego. Rather, all the abundance of the earth is focused on the implementation of God's will.

The Golden Calf

The elevation of the wealth of Egypt occurred through the construction of the Mishkan, which was built from the donations solicited at the beginning of Parashat Terumah. From a certain perspective, the opulence of the Mishkan and the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, whose lavish clothing was also made from the donated materials, may seem ostentatious and elitist.

But the essence of all of this holy finery is that it originated in Egypt's culture of acquisition and material perversion, and passed through the purifying fires of the hearts of the Children of Israel, who gave willingly, rather than hording the wealth. This transformation returned the idea of wealth to its essential state--as a means through which God's in-dwelling Presence is made manifest in the daily lives of human beings.

However, the rectification of Egypt's wealth did not proceed unhindered. Parashat Ki Tissa climaxes with the tragedy of the Golden Calf, the ultimate example of the Noam Elimelech's destructive fire.

Just as they are poised to affect a worldwide paradigm shift, the Children of Israel stumble. Moses fails to appear in the moment he is expected, and the Israelites panic and demand a tangible representation of God's power.

In contrast to the intricate details of the Mishkan--the viable channel for God's glory--the Golden Calf was made haphazardly, after the people demand no more than, "Make us gods that will go before us!" The people celebrate the Calf, but their worship is empty worship; the golden statue is not a pathway to God.  

Modern-Day Wealth

Unfortunately in our time we often see religious institutions with opulent external structures and well-paid clergy, but do not sense that these places are truly Tabernacles of God. Well-meaning congregants donate to the shul in exchange for a conspicuous honorary plaque, a personal parking spot, or an entire building bearing their name.

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Shimshon Stuart Siegel is studying for rabbinic ordination at the Bat Ayin Yeshiva in the Judean Hills.