Ki Sisa: Mercy or Pity? ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

As Moshe prayed to G-d to forgive the Jewish People for sinning at the golden calf, G-d revealed to Moshe His Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Those attributes are key to understanding how G-d runs the world, and how one can attain atonement/forgiveness for sins. Although we generally refrain from using adjectives to describe Gd, these Thirteen Attributes are presented as such. In this article we will focus on two of these attributes that both mean “mercy” — rachum and chanun — and attempt to understand what exactly they entail.

In his commentary to Exodus, Rabbeinu Bachaya writes that rachum and chanun represent G-d’s way of forgiving sinners who ask for forgiveness, repent, and experience some form of affliction, but he does not explain how the two terms differ from each other. Elsewhere he writes that G-d’s attributes of rachum and chanun are actually one and the same. They both denote His practice of heeding one’s prayers in times of need, even if that person had not yet repented his misdeeds. Rabbeinu Bachaya finds support for this argument in the fact that the Bible often uses both terms together, while sometimes placing chanun before rachum, and sometimes stating rachum before chanun.

We can discern the difference between rachum and chanun by way of an analogy in human interactions, specifically by looking at the relationship between a victim and one who has the power to save him. In that relationship the word chanun focuses on the victim, while the word rachum focuses on the savior. Chanun denotes the idea of the victim finding “favor” (chein) in the eyes of the savior (when talking about G-d, this may come through prayer), or simply deciding to grant (choneh) him a reprieve of sorts. Rashi (to Deut. 3:23) explains that the word chanun recalls the notion of a “free gift” (matnat chinam), so it denotes giving somebody relief that he does not necessarily deserve. On the other hand, the trait of rachum focuses on the savior who sees the victim’s downtrodden situation, empathizes with him, and ultimately decides to save him. One who is rachum does not necessarily save the victim directly for the victim’s sake, but rather for his own sake.

Other commentators offer other ways of differentiating between these two terms, and what follows is a brief potpourri of such explanations:

  • Rabbi Yosef Bechor-Shor writes that rachum is for the poor because it denotes mercy and the decision to help save one from his dismal situation, while chanun is for the rich because it simply denotes granting somebody a present, regardless of how dire his situation is.
  • A gloss to Tosefot (Rosh Hashana 17b) explains that the word rachamim denotes a form of clemency whereby G-d withholds a calamity from befalling an individual, while the word chanun denotes G-d granting someone a special reprieve while he is in the midst of distress.
  • Rabbi Elazar Rokeach of Worms explains that rachum denotes acting with mercy beyond that which is required by the letter of the law, while chanun denotes using the system of justice to heed another’s call for clemency. Nonetheless, others explain the opposite: the trait of rachum is only applied to one who asks for mercy, while chanun is even if one does not request mercy.
  • Rabbeinu Bachaya writes that rachamim is G-d’s general way of overseeing the world, while chanun is His way of specifically overseeing each element of Creation.
  • Rabbi Avraham bar Chaim Ibn Ramoch (in his commentary to Psalms 86:16, 112:4, and 145:8) — who lived in Spain at the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition — writes that rachum refers to saving another from any form of suffering, while chanun refers to granting him intellectual gifts (which allow him to help himself).

The Malbim discusses two more words (which do not appear as part of G-d’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy) that also conjure the notion of mercy: chus and chemlah. The Malbim explains that rachmanut applies only to having mercy on somebody who is intelligent. Indeed, one pities a child or an animal in a different way than one pities an adult. As mentioned above, the idea of rachmanut is that one is bothered by seeing the suffering of another, so he has mercy upon him. The terms chus and chemlah, on the other hand, can apply to having mercy on any entity, not just an intelligent person. In English we call this “caring”.

Chus refers to having mercy on something out of a refusal to allow it to be destroyed because then he will lose whatever benefit he gains from that item/person/entity. The first word of the phrase chas v’shalom (loosely translated as “G-d forbid” or “Heaven forefend”) is a conjugation of the word chus. The word chemlah is a form of pity that one refuses to allow something/someone’s destruction because of an innate quality of that thing/person. That quality could be some form of aesthetic beauty or another perceived type of completion, which one does not want to see ruined. As Rabbi Wertheimer points out, the concept of chemlah as pity can be applied to pitying he who does not have the ability to ask for help (e.g., a child or somebody lacking the mental capacities to ask for help).

Ki Tisa: Spiritual Weight Watchers ~ Tzvi Abrahams

Ki Tisa

Spiritual Weight Watchers

שֶׁקֶל: silver coin

מִשְׁקַל: weight, weighing scales

שָׁקוּל: equal, balanced

שַׁקְלָא וְטַרִיָא: give and take

שָׁקוּל: to sway from side to side

מִשְׁקְלוֹת: weights

שֶׁקֶל: Silver Coin

זֶה יִתְּנוּ כָּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַה’
And this is what they will give, all who pass through the counting, half a shekel of a holy shekel, twenty geirahis the shekel, half a shekel, a donation to Hashem.1

Unlike today, money used to have intrinsic value, being actually worth its weight in gold. שֶׁקֶלis not only a coin but a מִשְׁקַל/weight, in this case a measured weight of silver. Today’s paper money is just a sign of the times, reflecting the superficiality of a world that just values externalities without paying attention to the real pearls of life, the פְּנִינִים, the rich inner world that is our core value. We live in a generation that has lost its ability to weigh things.

מִשְׁקַל: Weight, Weighing Scales

We also live in a generation that is obsessed with weight. We are the weight-watchers generation, constantly weighing ourselves, going on diets and exercise regimes just to maintain our balance and squeeze into the latest skin-tight fashions. In the earlier generations that appreciated intrinsic value, a good shidduchwas made with someone fat, as this represented wealth, whereas someone skinny was invariably poor. 

The best shidduchis with a heavyweight as opposed to a lightweight. If we really want someone to challenge us in life, then our sense of achievement will be so much greater if our opponent is a heavyweight, meaning someone who has many layers beneath the surface,who has depth of character and isn’t just a pushover.

The force of gravity is what gives us the feeling of weight, but in actuality, when we break through from the earth’s influence, there is no difference in weight between a hammer and a feather. It’s just an illusion to give us a sense of being grounded so that we don’t just float off into space. We are grounded in a world where there is weight in order for us to learn to weigh things and differentiate between what has intrinsic value and what is fake. In the World of Truth there is no weight, because there is no longer any need to weigh things; in the World of Truth everything has true value.

שָׁקוּל: Equal, Balanced

The giving of the מַחֲצִיתהַשֶׁקֶל/half-shekel as opposed to a full shekel is to symbolize that in this world no man is complete. We all need to give money to atone for our sins and to pay for the korbanos. The goal, however allusive it may be, is to attain shleimus.Shleimusis achieved when we reach a state of balance. Hashem gives us all a mixed bag (lucky dip) of middos/measures. Nobody’s set of middosis like anyone else’s. We each have our own unique mission to find our point of balance, not to be too happy or too sad, too stringent or too wishy-washy, too generous or too miserly, etc. The Rambam stresses the need to walk the middle path.2

To help us attain equilibrium, Hashem has designed us in such a way that we have the tools to measure one against the other. For this reason we have two ears, two eyes, two feet, two hands, a good yetzerand a bad yetzer. Having two eyes, a good eye and a bad eye, gives us a spiritual depth of vision. We are able to compare what is good and what is bad, and just like the body is able to digest food and discard the waste, so too we are meant to separate and identify our middos— which are good and which are bad — in order to get a true measure of who we are. 

שַׁקְלָא וְטַרִיָא: Give and Take

When we refer to the שַׁקְלָא וְטַרִיָא of the Gemara, we mean the give and take, looking at it from different angles and perspectives. This gives us שִׁקוּל הַדַעַת,the ability to weigh things.

שָׁקוּל: To Sway from Side to Side

Why do we shokelwhen davening?

Just like when we rock a baby, the calming to-and-fro motion puts the baby to sleep, so too shokelinghelps to put us in a meditative state, blocking out the outside distractions so thatwe can focus on the פְּנִימִיוּת/inner world.

Shokelis so called because its motion is centered on a point of balance.

So what is it about the rocking motion that calms us down? 
Floating on water, in the sea, or in a float tank, is also very soothing. When one combines the state of weightlessness with the gentle rocking motion of the sea, one can easily drift off. Water beds are a great solution for insomnia. The reason rocking a baby is so effective is because it is the closest thing to being in the womb. Water cots would therefore be a great way to get your baby to sleep! 

Another possible reason is that the soul is compared to a flickering flame, as it says: נֵר ה’נִשְׁמַת אָדָם.3The soul is naturally in a state of motion like a flame, so when we rock our bodies, we tune into that motion, helping us to connect more with the soul and less with the body.4

Byshokeling, we give the body a sense of weightlessness, which in turn pulls us away from the gravity of the earth’s heaviness. In a sense, we are able to leave this world and enter the world of soul, Hashem’s world, a world without מִשְׁקַל.

מִשְׁקְלוֹת: Weights

מַעַשֶׂה שֶׁהָיָה: I learned a very valuable lesson from the following incident. Once,while I was parking my car, I drove into a bollard, causing a dent in the bodywork. I went to the garage and they estimated the cost of repairing the damage to be six hundred shekels. I decided I could live with the dent, as it didn’t warrant the expense of being fixed. The next day, one of my neighbors drove into the back of my car. We were in the same kollel, and he was honest enough to tell me that he had caused the damage. I went back to the garage and asked for a quote. It was also six hundred shekels. I thought that if I also get the original dent fixed at the same time, he might be able to do it cheaper. He said he would do it for one thousand shekels (a savings of two hundred shekels), so I would end up only paying four hundred shekels for my damage, which seemed more reasonable, while my neigbor would pay the remaining six hundred shekels. The next day the car was returned to its original state. Even though I usually see my neigbor in kollel every morning, I didn’t see him for the next three days. On the fourth day, while on the way to the kollel, I thought about the fact that perhaps it would be fairer to spread the benefit of the two hundred-shekel cost difference between us, instead of me reaping the entire benefit. Five hundred shekels each would be a much better solution, being that all our money comes from Hashem. On Rosh Hashanah we all get a fixed amount of money for the year. If I were to keep one hundred more shekels for myself than I was supposed to receive, Hashem would just take it away from me by other means, e.g., with an extra parking ticket or dental expense, etc. 

Within five minutes of making my decision, I saw my neighbor and told him that he would have to pay five hundred shekels. He was impressed by how good the price was.

On that very Shabbos, when I was going through the weekly parshah, it suddenly hit me that what I was reading exactly paralleled the events of the week. Towards the end of Ki Seitzei, Hashem warns us not to use big and small weights when it comes to weighing measures on the scales. Rather than cheating people, one should be שְׁלֵמָה וָצֶדֶק/complete and righteous, meaning that when giving to others, don’t weigh with the smaller weight so they get less, and when taking for yourself don’t weigh with the bigger weight so you get more. 

This is what Hashem was telling me: that when weighing things, the scales should be balanced. It should not be less for him and more for me. Being righteous means even in a situation when you are not actively cheating someone — six hundred shekels is the damage he caused and that’s what he should have paid. But since I was also benefitting by saving two hundred, the scales were dipping in my favor, so even in that situation Hashem says do the right thing and balance the scales at five hundred each. I also got the added benefit of feeling great! 

There is an expression that tells one to “put words into action,” however this was more the case of “putting action into words!” Seeing the words in the parshahfelt like Hashem was kissing me and giving me His stamp of approval.

Right after the teaching of using balanced weights, known as מִשְׁקְלוֹת, is the mitzvah to remember Amalek. The Kli Yakar notes that the connection of Amalek to someone who cheats people by using faulty measures is that one who does so is acting as if he believes that Hashem doesn’t see him. This is the middahof Amalek, who came when the people complained and said, “Is Hashem still with us or not?” When we don’t see the אֶמֶת —that Hashem is in control of our finances — and instead we cheat to get what we feel we deserve, then we take Hashem out of the picture. When we realize, though, that Hashem is behind everything, then we can deal in equal measures and give without feeling that we are losing out.

Just like Amalek follows after the lesson of מִשְׁקְלוֹת/equal weights, so too Parshasזָכֹר(the mitzvah to remember Amalek) comes after Parshasשְׁקָלִים, which comes to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. The symbolism of the Golden Calf reveals that the root cause of the sin was due to the lust for gold and money. One who lusts after money will stop at nothing to fulfill his desires, and this will invariably lead to cheating others, which then takes Hashem out of the picture, causing Amalek to come and bring us back to our senses.

This was the purpose of Haman, from the seed of Amalek: to bring us back to G-d consciousness.

In the Gemara in Megillah, Haman weighs shekalimcorresponding to the headcount of the Jewish People in order to bribe Achashverosh to issue a decree to wipe out the Jewish nation.5And for this reason, Hashem preempted Haman’s shekels with the giving of the half-shekel, the merit of which helped neutralize the potentially harmful shekels of Haman.

In conclusion, the שֶׁקֶלis not just a coin, it is a weight. It is a שֶׁקֶל הַקֹדֶשׁ/a holy coin. What makes it holy is how we use it. The way we use our money reveals who we are; it is the measure of a man. Hashem has placed us in world of weight to enable us to compare things and weigh things one against the other. But let’s not waste our time being obsessive weight watchers; rather, Hashem wants us to be spiritual weight watchers, weighing the profit and loss of doing a mitzvah versus the profit and loss of doing an aveirah.6If we make ourselves aware of the fact that there is an all-seeing eye above us, and that all our actions are recorded, then we will not come to use our weights disproportionately to cheat others and ourselves. By sanctifying our מִשְׁקְלוֹת/weights, the shekels we give to Hashem in Parshas Shekalimbecome בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹדֶשׁ/a holy shekel, and then there will be no more need for Hashem to send Amalek, and in this way we will מְקַיֵים הַמִצְוַה שֶׁל מְחִיַית הַעַמָלֵק/fulfill the mitzvah of erasing the name of Amalek.


2Mishneh TorahDe’os1:4.

3Mishlei 20:27.


5Megillah 13b.

6Avos 2:1.

Ki Tisa: Divine Dictator or Populist King ~ Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein


Divine Dictator or Populist King

After Joseph told his brothers about his dreams, which seemed to foretell Joseph’s eventual rise to greatness and leadership over his brothers, the brothers responded, “Will you reign over us? Will you rule us?” (Gen. 37:8). Joseph’s brother were not simply waxing poetic by repeating their question twice, they were alluding to two different concepts. The first question asks if Joseph thought he will become a melech (king) over his brothers, while the second questions asks him if he will be a moshel (ruler). What is the difference between a king and a ruler?

Some explain that a melech is the king on top, while a moshel is a governor or the like to whom the king has delegated certain powers or sovereignty. However, the consensus view understands that a melech and moshel are both the same in terms of their position of power; they only differ in how they got there.

The commentators explain that a melech is someone whose ascent to the throne is commissioned directly by the people. In other words, if the people willingly elect to anoint someone as their leader, he is called a melech. If the people do not necessarily accept their leader’s sovereignty willingly—rather he takes it from them by force—then he is called a moshel. Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik of Switzerland explains that for this reason the Midrash (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer ch. 16) says that a groom is comparable to a melech. Just as even the most Machiavellian melech must constantly make concessions to his people in order that they lovingly accept upon themselves his sovereignty, so must a groom always act with patience and reliability, so that his wife will continuously want to remain his partner.

The Vilna Gaon expands on this approach in differentiating between a melech and moshel. He writes that the melech arises from within the camp of the masses. The melech possess no inherent advantage over anyone else, except for the fact that the people had decided to recognize him as king, otherwise, he is their equal. The moshel, on the other hand, serves as a leader because of his abilities, not just because of the people’s whims. The moshel proves his worth in battle and the like, showing that he is more talented than everyone else. Using his abilities, he grabs ahold of his constituency and forces them under his rule. This approach explains why the Jews offered Gideon the position of moshel (Jud. 8:22). That is, even though the masses willingly offered him this leadership position, he would have still been called a moshel, not a melech, because they only offered him the position due to his acknowledged military prowess.

The term melech is also applied to G-d, the ultimate King of the Universe. Interestingly, the Talmud (Rosh HaShanah 16a) justifies the practice of reciting during the Mussaf prayer of Rosh HaShanah different Biblical verse that speak of G-d’s Kingship, by explaining that G-d said, “you shall say before Me [verses about] kingship in order to make Me king (melech) over you”. By saying these verses, the Jewish people affirm their acceptance of G-d’s role as King of the Universe. But the Talmud assumed that saying those verses is not just an affirmation of accepting God’s kingship, but rather makes Him into a king. Why is G-d’s kingship contingent on the Jews’ acceptance of His sovereignty? Based on the above, the answer is clear: By showing their willing acceptance of G-d’s kingship, the Jews are consolidating G-d’s role as a melech of the world, as opposed to simply a dictatorous moshel.

The Vilna Gaon takes note of an apparent contradiction between two verses cited at the end of the Aleinu prayer. In one verse, we say, “For to G-d is the kingship (melucha), and He rules (moshel) over the nations” (Ps. 22:29). This verse implies that G-d holds two roles: for the Jews, He is considered a melech because they willingly accept His rule, and for the other nations of the world, He is a moshel because He rules them despite their objections. Afterwards, however, we say, “G-d will be the king (melech) over the entire world—on that day G-d will be [recognized as] one and His name as one.” (Zech. 14:9). This implies that He will be a melech over the entire world. The answer must be that while in contemporary times, not everyone accepts G-d’s role in the world, in the future Messianic Era, when all truth will be finally revealed, everyone will recognize His role and accept it upon themselves—so G-d will universally be a melech, not a moshel.