Rising To The Challenge
Sichos in English

Shabbos Parshas Ki Sisa; 16th Day of Adar, 5751

1. The opening verse of Parshas Ki Sisa, "then you will lift up the heads of the children of Israel," is in reference to elevating the Jewish people, and indeed elevating their "heads," their loftiest potential. Nevertheless, this Torah reading goes on to relate the story of the sin of the golden calf, the most serious of all sins, the ultimate source for the exile. How does such a series of events correlate to the theme of Ki Sisa, the elevation of the Jewish people?

It is possible to explain the connection between the two themes as follows: The elevation of the Jewish people to the greatest heights can come about irrespective of a preceding descent to the very lowest depths. Furthermore, the descent is considered a phase in the ascent itself. Every descent is, in essence, for the purpose of ascent, and is capable of bringing one to a level higher than before the descent. It is through the descent of the sin of the golden calf that the Jewish people can reach the heights of Ki Sisa. After the sin of the golden calf, the Jewish people were able to rise to the level of baalei t’shuva, and "In the place where baalei t’shuva stand, even the totally righteous are not able to stand."

This concept is reflected in the advantage possessed by the second tablets (the giving of which is described in our Torah portion) over the first tablets, to the extent that G-d actually thanked Moshe for breaking them. The first tablets were associated with the level of "the righteous," whereas the second tablets were associated with the higher rung of baalei t’shuva.

The principle that an ascent requires a preceding descent requires explanation. The wording of the opening verse, "then you will lift up the heads of the children of Israel," appears to indicate that everything that follows in the Torah reading comes as a result of this elevation. However, the converse, that the elevation comes as a result of the descent of the sin, does not fit the simple meaning of the verses.

Furthermore, the concept that Ki Sisa – the elevation experienced by the Jewish people – is associated with the giving of the second tablets, also raises a question, for it is in Parshas Ki Sisa that the great qualities possessed by the first tablets are mentioned.

These points lead to the following conclusion: The process of the Jewish people’s elevation, Ki Sisa, is incremental. One of these phases involves the first tablets, i.e., the service of the righteous before the sin of the golden calf. After that, we proceed to the golden calf, but here, the intent is not the sin of the golden calf; the focus is on how the golden calf exists in the Torah, which is a high spiritual level, as will be explained. The potential generated by this service brings about – when necessary – the nullification and the transformation of the sin of the golden calf.

As mentioned above, the expression "when you lift up the heads of the children of Israel" indicates that: a) One rises to a level above the "head," i.e., the quality of faith that transcends the intellect. This is an innate characteristic possessed by every Jew. As the Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya, this potential "transcends intellect."

Therefore, even the most simple of the people, including the sinners, will sacrifice their souls for the sanctification of G-d’s Name so that they do not come to deny the existence of the One G-d. This service is carried out without any knowledge or meditation, but rather emanates from a level that transcends knowledge and understanding.

b) The "head" itself is raised to this level. The intellect is raised to the point at which it negates idolatry, not only as an act of faith that transcends intellect, but as an expression of the intellect itself.

Internalizing this quality of faith is an elevation of the Jewish people’s potential. By affirming G-dliness and negating idolatry, not only on a level where intellect does not operate, but within the context of our understanding, idolatry is utterly negated and G-d’s Oneness is affirmed in the most complete manner.

Were this affirmation to be made on the level of faith alone, the possibility would exist that although one believes, one would think differently. On the levels of conduct where "the light of faith" does not shine, G-d’s Oneness would not be affirmed. When this oneness is internalized within the power of intellect, however, it permeates every dimension of our conduct.

The negation of belief in idolatry and the affirmation of G-d’s Oneness also lies at the heart of the Haftora, which describes the confrontation between the prophet Eliyahu and the prophets of Baal Melachim I, Chapter 18. As a result of Eliyahu’s challenge to the prophets of Baal, the failure of the latter to evoke a response from Baal, coupled with G-d’s miraculous wonders – the people proclaimed, G-d is the L-rd, G-d is the L-rd."

This narrative describes a very low spiritual state for the Jewish people, a time in which they were unsure of whom to believe in – Baal or (l’havdil) G-d Himself. Nevertheless, through the confrontation arranged by Eliyahu, the people were able to grasp with their intellect (not just with their power of faith) – that G-d is the L-rd."

In order for a Jew to negate belief in idolatry – not only through the service of t’shuva (which transcends intellect), but also on the level of intellect – it is necessary to "lift up one’s head." A Jew’s "head" refers to his study of the Torah. "Lifting up one’s head" refers to reaching a higher plane of Torah study.

To illustrate this concept: Yerovam ben Nevat is connected with the concept of idol worship. He made not only one golden calf as the Jewish people did in the desert, but two. But despite this descent, his potential was great and he reached a high level of Torah study. Our Sages relate that Achiya HaShiloni could find no fault in Yerovam’s Torah knowledge. Both of them developed new insights into the Torah together. Yerovam was able to understand the teachings of VaYikra on 103 different levels.

Here we see a connection to idol worship, because 103 is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew for "calf" (egel). Thus, in its source, Yerovam’s potential was very high, a height that is connected with the primordial source of "calf," the "face of an ox" which makes up "G-d’s Chariot" in Yechezkel’s mystic vision.

Thus we see a two dimensional process: a very high source, but (to allow for free choice) a potential for descent to the lowest levels, followed by the correction of that descent – and a new ascent. Nevertheless, the descent and the subsequent ascent need not be part of the process of Ki Sisa. Ideally, as the "calf" exists within the Torah, it refers to an elevation of the head, a high level of Torah study that totally negates (not only from the point of view of faith, but also from the perspective of intellect) the possibility of believing in idolatry.

To cite a parallel to this concept: In Hilchos Avodas Kochavim, the Rambam writes:

The worshipers of false gods composed many texts concerning their service, describing what is the essence of their service, what practices are involved, and what are its statutes. The Holy One, blessed be He, commanded us not to read those books at all, nor to think about them or any matters involved with them... This prohibits enquiring about the nature of their service even if one does not serve them.

This prohibition applies only to a common person. A court, however, must know the types of worship practiced by gentiles because an idolater is only stoned to death when we know that he has worshiped a false god in the mode in which it is traditionally worshiped.

Although a common person is forbidden to study the nature of idol worship, a Torah judge is required to study these subjects. Because of his elevated spiritual level, his connection with idol worship helps bring about the nullification of idolatry. Thus, his involvement with such matters is a holy service, the very opposite of idolatry in its usual sense.

Similarly, our Sages praise Yisro’s declaration, "now I know that the G-d, the L-rd, is greater than all the other gods." Because he had served "all the other gods," his statement of awareness of G-d’s existence was all the more powerful, reflecting the transformation of evil into good. This statement represents a complete nullification of idolatry, which, as the Zohar explains, was one of the necessary preparatory steps for the giving of the Torah. Here again idolatry ultimately serves a positive purpose.

In this context, we can explain the place of the narrative of the golden calf within the process of Ki Sisa. Ideally, the nullification of idolatry should be expressed in a manner precluding any connection to such service (the first tablets). If, however, for some reason there is a descent into idolatry, there is the potential for an ascent to a higher level through the service of t’shuva. The sin itself can be transformed into a positive influence (the second tablets).

The latter process, however, must involve a slightly different approach. After the descent of sin, it is impossible to begin directly with the nullification of idolatry by elevating one’s intellectual faculties. Instead, one must first arouse a level that shares no connection to idolatry whatsoever – the essence of the soul, which transcends intellect. Afterwards, the process of Ki Sisa involves having the essence of the soul influence the powers of intellect and emotion. Thus, the negation of the worship of idolatry will come not only from the essence of the soul, but also from our conscious powers.

This is also implied by the verse, "hew out two tablets of stone like the first ones." The second tablets involve not only the arousal of the essence of the soul, but also that – like the service associated with the first tablets – the essence permeate our conscious powers.

This concept is also alluded to in the verse preceding the entire narrative of the sin of the golden calf and the giving of the second tablets: "and He gave to Moshe... the two tablets of the testimony." Our Sages note that the word "luchos" is written in a short form, lacking a Vav, teaching that the right and the left tablets were equal in size and dimensions.

The two tablets correspond to the positive mitzvos – the fundamental dimension of the first five commandments – and the prohibitions – the dimension of the second five commandments. This relates to our Sages’ teaching, "G-d made a single statement; I heard two things." The first two commandments – the belief in the one G-d and the negation of other gods (and similarly the positive and negative dimensions of the Shabbos laws) – were communicated simultaneously, because they share a singleness of purpose.

This emphasizes how even the prohibitions, which warn us to refrain from action, are mitzvos that share the intent of establishing a tzavsa (a connection and bond of unity) between G-d and man, and between Him and the world. This goal is reflected in the potential we are granted to fulfill the prohibitions through positive action; through studying the prohibitions, it is considered as if one actually observes them.

The fundamental aspect of the prohibitions is the form in which they exist in their source. There they represent elevated levels of holiness, as explained above, in regard to the connection between the negation of idolatry and the 103 planes of Torah study. Through emphasizing the source of the prohibitions, a powerful dimension of the light of Torah is revealed. This light shines in all places, even where there are negative forces involved, negating those negative forces and nullifying their influence.

This represents the process of Ki Sisa, the elevation of the Jewish people, and its connection with the first and the second set of tablets. Both sets of tablets share the same aspect of the negation of idolatry and all the negative forces which stem from it, not only from the standpoint of faith, but also from the perspective of intellect. Because of the negative dimensions brought about by the sin of the golden calf, the second tablets also required the arousal of the essence of the soul. However, their ultimate intent is the same, revealing the complete level of service that can be achieved through Torah study, when that Torah study is elevated and enhanced through the service of "lifting up the heads of the children of Israel."

2. A connection can be established between the above concepts and the Purim holiday we have just celebrated. Purim is associated with the service of mesirus nefesh because of the sanctification of G-d’s name, as epitomized by Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman. His example inspired the entire people, as reflected by the verse, "and they told him of Mordechai’s people." Throughout the entire year the Jewish people displayed mesirus nefesh that transcends intellect. And to commemorate this, our celebration on Purim is "ad d’lo yada," above the confines of intellect.

Purim also has an effect on our conscious powers, as reflected in our Sages’ interpretation of the verse, "and the Jewish people had light," referring to the study of the Torah. Even the mitzva of drinking on Purim can be interpreted as becoming involved in the study of the secrets of the Torah, as hinted at in our Sages’ statement, "when wine goes in, the secrets come out." This involves the study of the teachings of Chassidus. And it is through this study that the belief in the potential for other gods is nullified, not only from the perspective of faith, but also from the standpoint of our conscious powers. This will "raise up the heads of the children of Israel," elevating their intellectual potential through the study of Chassidus. Furthermore, this will lead to the ultimate elevation, the coming of Moshiach, who will reveal the secrets of the Torah and reveal "the new Torah that will emerge from Me."

3. Purim is thirty days before Pesach. As the Alter Rebbe writes in his Shulchan Aruch, we should begin studying the laws of Pesach thirty days before the holiday. Similarly, since the celebration of Pesach involves many expenses, it is proper that efforts be made to provide everyone who lacks with their Pesach needs. Although there are organizations that are involved with these activities throughout the entire year, there must be an increase in these efforts in connection with Pesach, providing people with food and clothing so that they can celebrate the holiday in an ample manner, as befits "free men."

Our Sages teach that tzedaka brings the Redemption close. May our efforts hasten the ultimate Redemption, and we will proceed to Parshas VaYakhel in its most complete expression, "the great congregation" which "will return here" with the coming of Moshiach. May it be in the immediate future.

4. Our Sages note that even after the Purim miracle, we remained servants of Achashverosh. Similarly, we are also "servants of Achashverosh." Nevertheless, although we are in the midst of exile, the dominant nation in this exile is a generous country, a country that offers assistance to many nations and to its Jewish residents. In appreciation, may G-d grant that country success in its war against Basra, and may we soon merit the fulfillment of the prophecy, "who is that coming in soiled garments from Basra?" with the coming of the Redemption.


In order for a Jew to negate belief in idolatry – not only through the service of t’shuva, but also on the level of intellect – it is necessary to "lift up one’s head."




This will lead to the ultimate elevation, the coming of Moshiach, who will reveal the secrets of the Torah and reveal "the new Torah that will emerge from Me."


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