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Lift Up Your Head!

A large portion of this week’s parshah can be pretty hard to read. We don’t like being reminded of where we went wrong. At least I know that I don’t – and apparently whoever divided the daily aliyos seems to have agreed since they divided it so disproportionately, making sure that the entire story of the Egel (the sin of the golden calf) ends up being read by a Kohen or Levi whose tribe was not involved in the sin so as not to embarrass a Yisroel by making him recount it.

In a talk delivered on Shabbos Parshas Ki Sisa 5751 (1991) the Lubavitcher Rebbe posed the following question: If most of the events recorded in this parshah are so ignominious how did it end up with a name like Ki Sisa? The possuk reads “כִּ֣י תִשָּׂ֞א אֶת־רֹ֥אשׁ בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֘” which means, “when you count the heads of the children of Israel,” but the word for count here “תשא,” actually translates more accurately as “raise.”

The Rebbe taught us many times that the name of the parshah reflects on the whole parshah, meaning that the words “when you raise” are connected to this shameful episode in our history that makes up the bulk of the parshah just as much as the more esoteric and uplifting portions that come at the end.

One might be tempted to explain this contradictory name by referring to the well-known phrase, “מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין” – “In the place where those who have repented stand, even the totally righteous are not able to stand.” Once we got past the Chet Ha’Egel, we had to mend our relationship with G-d and thereby became closer than before with a faith that had been worked on and through. In fact, the second set of luchos (tablets) that Moshe brings down at the end of the parshah are said to be associated with this level of ba’al teshuvah, while the first set brought – and smashed – at the beginning are associated with the level of tzaddik.

However, the Rebbe says, that the explanation of ירידה לצורך עליה – a descent to bring about an ascent – doesn’t fit with the simple meaning of the possuk. This possuk is stated before the events of the golden calf, and moreover, specifies raising the heads of the Jewish people. There’s something more being said here. Every Jew is born with an inherited level of faith that is so to speak, raised above the head – unconscious and unthinking. We are “believers, the children of believers,” and when push truly comes to shove, even those of us who appear to be distant in practice, won’t renounce Hashem.

I remember once hearing a first-hand account of a Holocaust survivor, describing the day that the Nazis ימ"ש rounded up the people of his town. He described a certain Jewish family of brothers, known to be irreligious, and not just irreligious, but coarse and unrefined, certainly not the “cream of the crop”. And yet, he said he could never forget how, when the Nazi unrolled a holy sefer torah on the ground using his bayonet to force the Jews to walk on it, one of the brothers stood still, refusing, flung open his jacket and pointed to his chest, “You can shoot me if you want! But I won’t desecrate the Torah!”

We’ve all got that capacity within us. It’s an inheritance from Avraham Avinu that can never be destroyed. And it’s a level of self-sacrifice that transcends intellect, rising above the head. However, the level of inherent faith isn’t always readily apparent, and besides, we don’t want to have to go through terrible sins to get there. We want this level of faith to be something that’s always available. Ki Sisa is when the head itself is raised up to this level, when we use our intellect and learning to achieve this same level of faith where we completely affirm our total faith in G-d and renounce all other gods (which means anything people worship) before Him. It’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s very important. The “Jewish head” is Torah study. We have to increase in our Torah study and internalize, not only every positive commandment, but every negative commandment, renewing our commitment to Hashem as we study each mitzvah. We have to work hard to tap into our hidden quality of self-sacrifice through our Torah learning, especially the study of Chassidus, transforming our hidden reserves of faith into our everyday faith and “raise the heads of the children of Israel.”

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