Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Tipping the Scales
This week's parsha, Ki Sisa, begins with the mitzvah of the machtzis
ha-shekel, the half shekel which was to be given by each Jew in place
of a census. "Everyone who passes through the count shall give a
half shekel. [And this half shekel shall serve] as an atonement for
your souls..." Why were the Jews to give exactly a half shekel - why
not a whole one? And in what way does this serve as an atonement?
Also, the wording, "Everyone who passes through a count," is
Today (Friday) is the yohrtzeit of the holy tzaddik the Rebbe R'
Elimelech of Liezensk zt"l. While the Rebbe R' Elimelech was
renowned throughout shtetlech of Poland, Russia, and Hungary for
his true piety and the wondrous miracles he wrought, he was also
famous for his anavah (humility). Indeed, as we often find, humility
is seen among the truly great, while arrogance and pride are the lot
of those who have so little to be proud of. The Gemara expresses it
such: An empty container - with only one coin inside - makes far more
noise than a pushke full of money!
It is told that a student of the Rebbe R' Elimelech once met up with
a man who was a staunch opponent of chassidus. Upon hearing that
there stood before him a student of one of the infamous "Rebbes,"
this misguided Jew decided he would have a little fun at the Rebbe's
"Tell me - you say you are a talmid (student) of the world renowned
Rebbe R' Elimelech?"
"Yes, I am," he said proudly.
"Why, it's an honour. I would like you to tell me something of the
greatness of your 'Rebbe.' After all, I make use of his sefer all the
time!" The talmid blushed.
"Yes, it's true. Would you like to see?" With this, the man stood up
from his chair, and lifted the cushion upon which he sat. Beneath it
lay the sefer Noam Elimelech. "Why - I've never found any other sefer
which gives me such 'backing' and 'support' as your Rebbe's sefer! A
true metziah! Now, be so good, and tell me more about your
"My holy Rebbe, the Rebbe R' Elimelech," stuttered the talmid, "was
so great, that had you placed him under your cushion instead of his
sefer - he would have been equally still. Indeed, he was so humble
and unassuming that I imagine he would have felt that he belonged
When petitioners used to come to R' Elimelech zt"l, seeking his
prayers and blessings, he used to say to his disciples: "Do you know
why these people always come to me? It's not because I'm great, nor
because my prayers have any special power. I'll tell you why: Chazal
(our Sages) say that every person should imagine as if all the world's
inhabitants stood upon a scale which weighed their deeds, and that
the scale was exactly balanced, so that if, G-d forbid, one sins, he will
tip the scales and bring suffering and calamity to the world.
"Now, the fine and upstanding people who come to me all find
themselves in difficult and onerous situations. Some are lacking in
parnassah (making a living). Others, may Hashem protect us, are
sick. Still others have marital problems, or can't find a befitting
spouse for their son or daughter. But they know the truth: They are
pure minded and righteous people - it is certainly not they who have
tipped the scales and brought these problems to the world. So they
ask themselves, 'Who could it be that is at fault for all our suffering?
Who is the sinner that keeps tipping the scales?' And they come to
the only logical conclusion: It's me!
"Thus, they come to me, and tell me of their pain and tzures, not
because they hope I'll pray for them, but rather because they hope I'll
be aroused to do teshuvah (repentance) after hearing all of their
suffering - and realizing that I'm at fault!"
Such a self-critical view may at first glance seem extreme. To us, it
may almost seem comical that one so holy and righteous could truly
believe he is at fault for the suffering of others. If, however, we
examine the words of our Sages, we will see that it is not so far
fetched. We all have the responsibility to pray for the well being of our
contemporaries, and the wherewithal to influence the world in a
One who, G-d forbid, killed someone by accident, is obligated by the
Torah to exile himself to one of the Arei Miklat (cities of refuge) in
atonement for his accidental yet careless sin. There he must dwell,
away from his home, until the death of the Kohen Gadol (High
Priest). Once the reigning High Priest dies, he is permitted to leave
the city of refuge and return to his home. The Talmud says that the
mother of the High Priest used to bring food and drink to the exiled,
in hope that in appreciation, they would refrain from praying that their
son (the High Priest) die, so that they may return home sooner.
Yet let's say they would pray for the High Priests death - would their
prayers be accepted? In the view of our Sages, yes. To some extent,
the High Priest is at fault for the tragedy that befell the dead man and
his accidental killer. For perhaps had the High Priest prayed harder
for the safety and well being of his nation, such a misfortune may
never have happened. Were the exiled Jew wish for his death, there
is concern that his prayers may indeed be accepted.
"Everyone who passes through the census... " 'Passing through'
("oveir") in Hebrew is another way of saying one who transgresses.
'The count' ("pekudim") is another way of saying the commandments.
"One who has a desire to transgress the commandments... He shall
give a half-shekel," shekel in Hebrew also means to weigh. Let the
potential sinner realize that the world is constantly being weighed, and
we each have the power to tip the scales for good or for bad. "This
will be an atonement for your souls."
While we'd like to believe that our choice between good and bad is
a very personal one, and effects no one but ourselves, this alas is not
the truth. Perhaps, when we are tempted, if we remember that "the
entire world rests on our shoulders," and it is within our power to
bring suffering and pain, or healing and blessing, then we'll choose
our paths a little more carefully.
Have a good Shabbos.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.