In today’s Torah reading we are told about the 1/2 shekel that every male of fighting age had to pay in order to ransom their souls. God then gives instructions regarding the laver (Mikvah), preparing the incense, and assigning Bezalel and Oholiab over the manufacturing of all the articles needed for the Tabernacle. He also instructs Moses about the Shabbat and gives some of the Kashrut (Kosher) laws.
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The Sin of the Golden Calf happens in this parashah, as well as God describing his very nature to Moses, which in Judaism we call the 13 Attributes of God.
The parashah ends with God forgiving the sin of the people (thanks to Moses’ intervention) and Moses receiving the second set of tablets.
When I started to read this parashah, I knew immediately that what I should talk about today was not the really big topics, meaning the Golden Calf sin or God’s nature, but the very first thing I read about- the ransom.
Many people are confused over the fact that God says we should not kill, yet he orders us to entirely destroy men, women, and children, whole societies. How can a God that hates killing order genocide?
The Torah is more than just a list of commandments. One of the things it does is to establish a penal code, and there is one penalty for murder and another one for accidental homicide. For a murder, meaning a premeditated and purposeful act of killing someone, the penalty is death. However, if someone commits an accidental homicide, they are allowed to pay a ransom for their life.
As an example, if I wait in hiding for you and when you come, I attack you and kill you, I am a murderer and the penalty is death. However, if I lend you a bull that is known to gore people and it kills you, then I have committed the sin of causing someone to die and my penalty is death. However, because this death was unintentional I am able to pay a ransom for my soul and stay alive.
Of course, I may have to deal with the blood avenger at some point, but that’s not relevant to today’s message.
As I mentioned, the very first lines of this parashah say that everyone who is older than 20 years of age must pay a half-shekel ransom for their souls. The reason for this payment is because God IS against people killing other people, which always is a sin. However, when a soldier kills while in battle, God does not consider that the same as intentionally murdering someone. As such, a ransom is able to save their soul from the penalty of sinning.
We read in other places how the soldiers, upon returning from a battle, would dedicate some or all of the spoils to the Sanctuary. This was their ransom payment, which they gave in order to avoid the penalty for having taken a life.
God hates anyone dying, and we read in Ezekiel 18 that he doesn’t want anyone to die, and wants only that those who sin would turn from their sin so they may live. The ransom for one’s soul is how God allows for killing while still maintaining his overall commandment about not killing. The sin of killing is still a sin, but when done under orders by God or unintentionally, there is a means to avoid the immediate penalty (death), and that will also allow for forgiveness of the sin on a spiritual plane.
Ultimately, when we sin on earth we must suffer the consequences of that sin, even if we repent and are forgiven because forgiveness of sin is a spiritual event and secures our place in eternity. It does not let us avoid the consequences of that sin while we are still alive. The ransom for one’s soul when the killing is unintentional or a result of being in a war, is a “legal device” which will countermand the penalty.
There is a story in the Babylonian Talmud about how the angels, upon seeing the Egyptians drowning in the Red Sea, sang praises of joy for the salvation of the Israelites, but God rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!”
The point is that God hates it when someone kills another person, but as a fair and perfect judge, he will take into consideration the cause and motivations behind the action. When killing is done by God’s command, we are not really going out on our own volition and killing someone, we are acting as God’s executioners. The slaughter of the people we read about in the Bible was not genocide, as much as it was punishment for the sins they had committed. Considering the thousands of innocent people, of all ages and gender, who were sacrificed to the pagan Gods, these people were all guilty of murder and when God sent the Israelites to destroy those cities, he was not murdering innocent people but was actually using the Israelites as his means of executing criminals. But even though they were killing under orders, so to speak, the people doing what God commanded still had to pay the penalty for taking a life.
God hates murder and hates the act of taking a life, but he is also a fair and righteous judge who knows and accounts for the motivation behind our actions. That is good news for those who try to do right but fail and repent, and bad news for those who think they can go through the motions of being worshipful, righteous and repenting, but whose hearts and minds are really ruled by sin.
You can’t fool God.
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Until next time, L’hitraot and Shabbat Shalom!
PS: And wash your hands! 🙂