“When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the LORD a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them.” — Exodus 30:12
The Torah portion for this week is Ki Tisa, which means “when you raise up,” from Exodus 30:11—34:35, and the Haftorah is from 1 Kings 18:20–39.
What is the worst thing in the world that could ever happen to a human being? The bottom-line answer is to sin. By sinning, we damage ourselves both in this world and in the eternal world to come. In this week’s Torah portion we read about the horrible sin of the golden calf, committed by the children of Israel just as they were about to receive the Ten Commandments.
So why, of all Torah portions, is this one called Ki Tisa, meaning “when you raise up,” as in “when you raise up the Israelites”? If anything, the theme of this selection is sinking downward!
Let’s back up a minute. You may have noticed that the verse reads: “When you take a census of the Israelites . . .” And this is how both Jews and Christians understand the opening verse to this week’s selection. However, the Jewish sages point out that the literal translation of this verse is: “When you raise up the Israelites . . .” This is no mistake, the sages explain. The use of the term “raise up” provides us with an important insight into the Torah portion, in general and sin, in particular.
Sin, indeed, is the worst thing in the world that can happen to a person. But the best thing in the world that can happen to any human being is repentance.
While we would all prefer to avoid sin altogether, once the inevitable happens – as it says in Ecclesiastes: “There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins” (7:20) – we can choose the ultimate outcome. Either we can remain stuck in our sinful ways and harm ourselves for all eternity, or we can choose repentance and turn our descent into an ascent.
Repentance not only repairs our relationship with God; it enhances it!
Now we can understand why the Torah portion that describes one of the most infamous sins of all times as a “raising up.” The Israelites did repent, and their bond with the Lord was stronger than before. In fact, the day that God finally accepted the repentance of the Israelites and forgave them has become a powerful day for all time.
Today, we call that day Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This day, every year, is an opportune time for people to receive forgiveness and grow exponentially closer to God.
But the power of repentance is available for us every day and at all times. Is there something bogging you down? Climb out of the rut and upward to God. Repent and raise yourself higher. Every fall can keep you down. Or it can inspire you to rise up and stand taller than ever before. The choice is ours to make.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President