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Ki Sisa – The Greatest Commission in History

By: Rabbi Tzvi Price

When we think of Moshe Rabbeinu and the role that he had in history’s most sublime moment – the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai – the title Prophet, Lawgiver, or Teacher might come to mind. All true. However, our Sages see another, more down-to-earth, aspect to Moshe Rabbeinu’s bringing the Torah from Heaven. Understanding their perspective will help us see our own world in a whole new way. But in order to do that we’ll first need to learn a little bit of Choshen Mishpat.

In Bava Basra 87a, the Mishnah states the following halachah:

…If there was a middleman [brokering a sale of wine or oil] between them (i.e. the buyer and the seller), and the barrel [of wine or oil] breaks, the middleman incurs the loss.

Rabbeinu Yonah, in his commentary to Bava Basra, explains that the Mishnah is discussing a case in which a middleman was measuring the wine or oil that he has received from the seller to facilitate the sale to the buyer. In the process of measuring, the barrel breaks, and it was determined that the middleman was somewhat negligent in his handling of the barrel. The Mishnah rules that since the middleman is receiving payment for his services, he is considered to be a paid watchman (a shomer sachir) with respect to the barrel. While an unpaid watchman (a shomer chinam) is only obligated to pay for damages that occur due to complete negligence, a shomer sachir must pay for damages that are due to even a lesser level of negligence. Conceptually, the Mishnah is telling us that when a middleman handles merchandise that he received from the seller in order to transfer it to the buyer, treating and guarding it with special care is among the things expected of him and it is included in his overall brokerage fee.

While all this seems quite business-oriented and mundane, the Yalkut Shimoni (Yisro, 280) applies this halachah to a decidedly spiritual episode in this week’s Parsha. After Moshe Rabbeinu smashed the first set of Luchos (tablets) when he saw the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf, he was directed by Hashem to chisel out another set of Luchos on which Hashem would write the Ten Commandments a second time. With that directive, Hashem was telling Moshe that the second Luchos would not be given on quite the same level as the first ones. While the first Luchos were made totally by Hashem, Moshe would have to take part in creating their replacement. They would be partially man-made.

The Yalkut records a discussion in which Hashem explains to Moshe why he must make the second tablets:

Rebbi Yitzchok said: Our Sages taught, “If the barrel breaks, the middleman incurs the loss.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, “You were a middleman between me and my sons. You broke [the Luchos]; you replace [them].”

Moshe Rabbeinu, the middleman? Fascinating! Chazal are telling us that we should see Moshe as having brokered a deal between Hashem and Klal Yisroel, and the Torah as symbolized by the Luchos was the ‘merchandise’ trading hands. In fact, the Medrash Raba in the beginning of Parshas Trumah explains that the supernal radiance that emanated from Moshe’s face (the keren ohr panav) that is described at the end of this week’s Parsha was a kind of payment for brokering the deal. The Medrash comments that from the size of the commission one usually can tell the size of the actual sale, and if Moshe’s commission for transferring the Torah from Hashem to Klal Yisroel was the awesome keren ohr panav, then one could only imagine how absolutely mind-boggling was the ‘merchandise’ sold.

According to Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanation of the Mishnah cited above, Moshe’s responsibility to guard the Luchos and to make sure they would not be destroyed was that of a shomer sachir ((The fact that Moshe’s s’char of keren ohr panav was perceived by Klal Yisroel only after they received the second Luchos does not necessarily indicate that he was not given that spiritual level as a reward when he initially brought down the first Luchos. It was just that Moshe’s body did not reflect his soul-light as it did after receiving the second Luchos. See Shaim MiShmuel, Parshas Ki Sisa, 6672. Alternatively, Rabbeinu Bachya explains that Hashem did not bestow upon Moshe his s’char of the keren ohr panav at the first Luchos because He knew that Moshe’s job as a middleman would not be complete until the second Luchos were received. According to this opinion, the fact that Moshe understood that Hashem would give him a reward was enough to raise Moshe’s status to that of a shomer sachir.)) . It would follow that Moshe was somewhat negligent in caring for the Luchos which had been entrusted to him. How so? In light of the fact that Moshe’s smashing of the Luchos was lauded by Hashem (see Rashi, Devarim 34,12), this question proves to be even more perplexing.

Possibly the answer is as follows. True, Hashem agreed with Moshe’s decision that after the Jews had committed the Sin of the Golden Calf, the first Luchos had to be destroyed. Klal Yisroel was simply no longer on the spiritual level to receive them. Breaking the Luchos was a necessity. However, one might argue that Hashem held Moshe in some way responsible for the events which brought about that necessity – for the Sin itself.

Firstly, Moshe had welcomed those troublesome multitudes who wanted to be part of the Exodus, the Eirev Rav, and it was those people who had been first and foremost in worshipping the Golden Calf. Secondly, Moshe had not foreseen the possibility for confusion regarding when he would return from the mountain. It could be argued that he should have seen the need to be more careful in his instructions. Thirdly, and possibly most fundamentally, the harsh truth is that Hashem holds a leader of the Jewish People in some way responsible for the people’s deficiencies. The Kli Yakar (Vayikra 9,7) states, “…Whenever the leaders of Israel are proper, the entire nation is proper, and the leaders’ faults bring guilt upon the entire nation, like it says, ‘If the anointed priest sins for the guilt of the nation….'”

Whatever the explanation for Moshe’s culpability is, the fact remains that both G-d and Moshe saw themselves as being bound to the laws of Choshen Mishpat even when it came to such metaphysical things as the giving of the Torah. There is a truly important lesson to be learned from this. Chazal are saying to us, “Don’t think that the Torah’s laws for your business were just given in order to promote a peaceful marketplace. They are laws that are absolutely intrinsic to the fabric of the universe. They are laws that are so basic in nature that from our perspective even Hashem Himself is bound by them.” So, whether it’s Moishe, the middleman, who brokers deals in Manhattan, or Moshe, the middleman, who brokered the ‘deal’ at Mt. Sinai, it’s really all the same. It’s all about knowing that whether in the Heavens or down here on Earth, the laws of Choshen Mishpat are of inherent Truth. In the most literal sense, they are universal.

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