How is it possible to prevent being smitten by plague because of a census?
(30,12) “When you count the children of Yisrael according to their numbers, each man shall give a ransom for his soul to Hashem when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.”
The Midrash on parshas Bereishis writes that Hashem consulted the souls of the tzaddikim as to whether the world should be created. I explained elsewhere that the explanation of this Midrash is that the death of a Tzaddik atones for the sins of the generations, and the existence of the world depends on this. That is, the world was created only for the Torah, but the Torah could not have been given unless the tzaddikim had accepted upon themselves to atone for the sins of the generation, because only then the world can continue to exist. This is taught in a Midrash, that Avrohom Avinu, after having been informed that the offerings in the Beis Hamikdash will atone for the sinners, asked: That is good as long as the Beis Hamikdash exists, but what about when it does not exist? Hashem responded: Behold, I will take from among you a Tzaddik. See there in the Midrash. Therefore, Hashem consulted the souls of the tzaddikim. If they will accept upon themselves to be an atonement for the sins of the generation and thereby make possible the existence of the world, then He will create the world. But if they do not agree to this, then He will not create it.
Now, it is clear from our posuk that counting people by number arouses plague, G-d forbid. As the sefer Ma'aseh Hashem explains, counting people by number is one of the things that Chazal teach causes a person’s sins to be examined. Therefore, to remedy this, the tzaddikim should accept upon themselves during the counting to give their lives to atone for the sins of the generation, and thus they can protect the generation.
This is what our posuk is saying here: “When you count the children of Yisrael…each man shall give a ransom”. The word איש (man) signifies a person who is on a lofty level, as Chazal commented on the posuk “and the man, Moshe”. Thus our posuk says that each man, each important and righteous man, shall give a ransom. And what is that ransom? He shall give “his soul to Hashem”, by accepting upon himself to give over his soul for the sake of Hashem, and through this “there will be no plague when they are counted”.
And since you may wonder how can a small number of Yisrael can atone for all of them, the posuk continues “This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel”, to hint that no one from Yisrael is complete, but rather only a half. But by joining to another Jew, they become a whole shekel, which teaches them that they are all one collective soul, and therefore a small number of tzaddikim can atone for all of them.
Does giving to charity affect one’s capital?
(30,15) “The rich shall not increase, and the poor shall not decrease from half a shekel.”
For a rich person half a shekel is a very small amount, but for a poor person it is a lot of money. And so it is possible that a rich person will think to himself that since he is required to give so little relative to his wealth he will become more wealthy. And the poor person might think that since he is giving so much compared to his financial worth he will become poorer. This is like what would happen if everyone paid equal taxes - the wealthy would become wealthier and the poor would become poorer.
But the truth is that one gives a donation to Hashem or a gift to charity, not giving a large amount will not make the giver wealthier, nor will a large amount reduce the person’s monetary worth. On the contrary, the more one gives, the richer he will become, and so anyone who reduces the amount he gives is reducing his wealth.
This is what the posuk is saying, “the rich shall not increase” - he will not increase his money by his giving only a relatively small amount, and “the poor shall not decrease from the half a shekel” - by his giving half a shekel, which for him is a very large amount, he will not decrease his money. Since they have to give this donation to atone for their souls, from a small donation will not come wealth, and from a large donation will not come poverty.
How was the wisdom of Betzalel different from all the other craftsmen?
(31,6) “And I, behold, have appointed with him Oholiov, the son of Achisomoch, of the tribe of Dan; and in the hearts of all that are wise of heart I have put wisdom, and they shall make everything that I have commanded you.”
Chazal taught that when Moshe commanded Betzalel in the making of the Mishkan he told him to make it in the reverse order, telling him to first make the utensils and then the structure of the Mishkan. Betzalel said to him: Perhaps you heard the other way round? Moshe replied to him: You were in the shadow of G-d.
It seems that Chazal learned all this from these posukim about Betzalel. In an earlier posuk Hashem said, “and I have filled him with the spirit of G-d, with wisdom”. He did not have only wisdom so that he was able to understand and make that which Moshe relayed to him from Hashem, but rather he had the spirit of G-d, the knowledge of his maker Himself, so to speak, to make the reverse of that which Moshe had been told. I have already written in my writings that actually Hashem deliberately reversed it when He had told it to Moshe in order that Betzalel would come and reverse the matter. And therefore it says, “and I have filled him with the spirit of G-d, with wisdom” - he will have the knowledge of his Maker, to know more than had been told to Moshe.
But the other craftsmen did not have such an intellect. They had only wisdom to understand what Moshe told them, not the spirit of G-d. Therefore, Hashem said: “and in the hearts of all that are wise of heart, I have put wisdom”, only, “and they shall make everything that I have commanded you”. But they do not have the wisdom of Betzalel to understand more than I have commanded you.
What made Klal Yisrael think that Moshe was late in coming down from the mountain?
(32,1) “And the people saw that Moshe was late in descending from the mountain (מן ההר), and the people gathered against Aharon, and they said to him: Arise, make for us a god who will go before us, because this Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”
Why did the Torah write the seemingly superfluous words “from the mountain” - what difference does it make if he was coming down from the mountain or from some other place? But there is a different way to understand the phrase מן ההר, as we will explain.
Chazal wrote that the posuk 19:17 “And they stood at the foot of the mountain”, teaches that the mountain was uprooted from its place, and inverted over them like a barrel, that is, the mountain was raised up and suspended over them. And since the receiving of the Torah lasted forty days, the mountain was raised up and suspended over them all forty days, in case they did not accept the Torah and then Hashem would drop the mountain onto them. But once the tablets came to the hand of Moshe, the receiving of the Torah was now finished, and they could no longer back out. Thus, on the fortieth day the mountain descended to its original place.
But Moshe Rabbeinu did not descend until the next day, and this created a difficulty for Klal Yisrael. Because as long as they saw that the mountain was still suspended they knew that the receiving of the Torah has not yet concluded. But since the mountain had already descended and returned to its place, it was clear that the receiving of the Torah was completely finished, and so they wondered why Moshe had not yet come down.
This is what the posuk is saying, “And the people saw that Moshe was late in descending more than (מן) the mountain”. That the mountain had already descended to its place, but Moshe had not yet descended, and therefore they wondered, and said: “this Moshe…we do not know what has become of him”.
What does it mean when the Torah says that Hashem goes down to judge the people?
(32,7) “And Hashem said to Moshe: Go, descend, for your people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt have acted corruptly.”
The Midrash teaches that Hashem said to Moshe: Let it not be bad in your eyes that I said "Go, descend", because I have descended many times, as it says in Bereishis 11:5 concerning the Tower of Bavel "and Hashem went down to see the city and the tower" and "come, let us go dowm and confound their speech", and in 18:21 concerning Sodom "I shall go down now and see". It is sufficient for the servant to be like his master. Once Moshe heard this, he said: Surely this means there is no forgiveness for Yisrael. Hashem knew what he was thinking and addressed him in order to appease him. He said to him: Did I not tell you whilst you were at the burning bush what Yisrael will do in the future?
The words of this Midrash need explaining. In particular, how did Moshe deduce from what Hashem had told him that there was no forgiveness for Yisrael. Also, since Hashem knew what Moshe was thinking, why did He say to him that He had already told him what Yisrael was going to do - what is the connection?
But we can explain the Midrash according to the Ramban on parshas Vayeira, who explains that the posuk "I shall go down and see" means that Hashem will go down from the attribute of mercy to the attribute of justice, and then He will see what they are liable to be punished from the side of justice. To explain the words of the Ramban further we can use what the Nezer Hakodesh wrote on parshas Noach, that the four-letter name of Hashem which signifies complete mercy illuminates the upper worlds, whereas the name El-him which signifies the attribute of justice illuminates down below, on the earth. Now, Hashem Himself is merciful, but cursed are the wicked who change the attribute of mercy to the attribute of justice, and Hashem descends, so to speak, from where the name of mercy has dominion, and goes down below where the name El-him rules, to the place of the throne of justice.
Now, I have already explained in my writings that the posuk in parshas Yisro 24;1 "And to Moshe He said: Ascend to Hashem" means that Moshe ascended to the place which the four-letter name illuminates. Because initially it said "and Moshe ascended to G-d (El-him)", that is, the place which is illuminated by the name which signifies the attribute of justice, but afterwards he ascended to a higher level and attained the name of mercy. Thus, Moshe merited also the level of complete mercy, since he was then in the upper world where this name rules. As the commentaries explained on the posuk 6:3 "and I appeared to Avrohom, to Yitzchok, and to Ya'akov as Alm-ghty G-d, but My name Hashem (the four-letter name) I did not make known to them", they not know initially the attribute of the four-letter name, which is complete mercy, only the attribute of the name El-him which is justice.
But then Yisrael sinned, and according to the attribute of mercy they were not liable to be punished, but rather to be forgiven. However, Hashem was going to punish them from the side of justice, and He knew that Moshe would not understand why Hashem was punishing them because Moshe was at that time holding by the attribute of mercy which does not teach about punishment. Therefore, Hashem said to him: "Go, descend", from the place of the attribute of mercy to the place which the name of justice illuminates. Then he would understand that Yisrael are liable to be destroyed according to the side of justice.
And Hashem continued and said to him that he should not be angry at His commanding him to descend from his level where he had merited to attain the name of mercy and go down below. Because Yisrael had sinned so grieviously that they had changed the attribute of mercy to the attribute of justice, and Hashem had descended from the throne of mercy and sat on the throne of justice, as He had done many times before. And since it is sufficient for a servant to be like his master, let it not be bad in his eyes that he too should descend from his current level.
When Moshe saw that Yisrael had sinned so grieviously that they had changed the attribute of mercy to the attribute of justice, he thought that they would not be forgiven, since now they will be judged according to the side of justice. But Hashem knew what Moshe was thinking, and was concerned that if Moshe thought that there was no possibilty of forgiveness then would despair of praying for them, and then, G-d forbid, there would indeed be no forgiveness. Therefore, Hashem gave him an opening in order that he would pray for them, and said to him that He had already told him that Yisrael were going to make the golden calf. The meaning of this hint is as the Midrash goes on to teach, that Moshe argued before Hashem: Surely when You took them out from the land of Egypt You already knew that they were destined to make the golden calf, and even so You took them out from the land of Egypt. If so, You can not be angry with them.
But Moshe did not mention this argument at this time because he forgot it. Therefore, Hashem came to remind him, and said to him that He had already told him that they were going to make the calf. Once Moshe heard this he immediately began to pray for Yisrael "Why, Hashem, should Your anger be kindled against Your people whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt?". Because You already knew then that they were going to make the calf, and even so You took them out from there, with this taken into account. Therefore, there is no justification for destroying them.