To The Challenge
Sichos in English
Parshas Ki Sisa; 16th Day of Adar, 5751
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?
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."
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
cite a parallel to this concept: In Hilchos Avodas Kochavim, the Rambam
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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