You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Ki Tisa.
God says to Moshe, “Ki tisa et rosh B’ney Yisrael.” This is usually translated as, “When you count the Children of Israel,” but the Hebrew literally says, “When you lift up the head of the Children of Israel.” God is saying, we don’t count people like a commodity; we count them to make them count, to lift them up. God tells Moshe, everyone shall give a half shekel for the offering, the rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less. Everyone gives the same; everyone counts the same.
God says to Moshe, “Make a copper wash basin” for the Cohanim. We learn in the Midrash that this was made from the mirrors of the women of Israel, mirrors that they used to make themselves beautiful while we were slaves in Egypt, so their husbands would desire them and they would keep giving birth to children, even when the times were so hard. These become the basin that holds the water which the Cohanim use to purify themselves before serving God.
There is so much: the formula for the incense in the Holy of Holies, the mitzvah of Shabbos, of Pesach, of Shavuot, of Succot. There is the tragedy of the Golden Calf and the devastation that follows. God is so angry and Moshe is so patient, making peace between God and the people.
There is Moshe, twice alone with God on Mount Sinai, before and after the Golden Calf. The first time God gives Moshe “when He finished speaking with him … stone tablets written with the finger of God.” This is where we learn that the Torah has two parts, written and spoken. If we were meant to be fundamentalists, there would be no spoken Torah, only what is written, which would stay the same forever. But that is not our story. The Torah is a conversation that unfolds through time. The Midrash says that God and Moshe were learning Torah together. By day they learn the written Torah; at night they learn the oral Torah. God teaches Moshe the oral Torah by allowing him to hear the conversations every time the Children of Israel get together to discuss Torah, until Mashiach comes, until the end of time. That includes us, when we sit together in the Circle. Moshe is listening and learning. The Torah is not complete without the oral Torah, without our circle and our contribution. Everyone has a half shekel to give; everyone counts. The Torah is not complete until each of us, everywhere, has made our contribution. This is what God is teaching Moshe.
From Rav Kook
Ki Tisa: The Recipe for Ketoret (Incense)
“God said to Moses: Take fragrances such as balsam, onycha, galbanum, and pure frankincense, all of the same weight, as well as other fragrances. Make the mixture into incense, as compounded by a master perfumer, well-blended, pure and holy.” (Ex. 30:34-5)
The Torah does not give the exact recipe for the ketoret (incense) that was burned daily in the Temple. Only in the Oral Tradition do we find a list of all eleven ingredients.
•70 maneh each of the four fragrances mentioned in the verse.
•16 maneh each of Myrrh, Cassia, Spikanard, and Saffron.
•12 maneh of Costus.
•9 maneh of Cinnamon.
•3 maneh of Cinnamon bark.
Each maneh weighed five pounds. The total weight was 368 maneh — one measure for each day, plus 3 extra for Yom Kippur, or 1,840 pounds. (A few years back, archeologists discovered near the Dead Sea what they believe are remnants of the Temple incense. The spectrum analysis revealed eleven ingredients — just like the Mishnah!)
Why doesn’t the Torah explicitly mention all of the ingredients of the Temple incense?
Rav Kook explained that the ketoret was a link between the material and spiritual realms. The word ketoret comes from the root kesher, a tie or knot. The incense rose straight up, connecting our divided physical world (“alma d’peruda” in Kabbalistic terminology) to the unified divine realm.
From the sublime standpoint of overall holiness, it is impossible to distinguish between the separate, distinct fragrances. Each fragrance represents a particular quality, but at that elevated level, they are revealed only within the attribute of absolute unity. Only in our divided world do they acquire separate identities.
What is the significance of the various amounts of each fragrance?
Each of the major four fragrances explicitly mentioned in the Torah contributed seventy maneh. The number seven represents the natural universe, created in seven days. Seven corresponds to the framework of the physical universe, especially the boundaries of time with its seven-day week.
Seventy is the number seven in tens. The number ten represents both plurality and unity, so seventy conveys the idea of unifying the multitude of forces in the natural world. This is the underlying message of the ketoret. These holy fragrances illuminate and uplift the plurality of natural forces.
After the first level of four fragrances sanctified the dimension of time, the second tier of four fragrances sanctified the dimension of space. The number six corresponds to space, as any location is made up of six vectors (the four directions, up and down).
Time is a less physical aspect, and more receptive to spiritual elevation. Thus, for the first four fragrances representing the dimension of time, the number seven was multiplied by ten. Space, on the other hand, is only influenced by its closeness to holiness. Therefore, the unifying quality of ten is only added to the six, so that 16 maneh were used of each of these fragrances.
The final amounts of twelve, nine, and three represent the limitations of the divided spatial/physical realm. Three is the first number to demonstrate multitude, and nine is the last number, before the multitude is once again combined into a unit of ten.
(adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I pp. 136-138)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rav Kook
Ki Tisa: The Copper Washstand
“Make a copper washstand along with a copper base for it. Place it between the altar and the Communion Tent, and fill it with water for washing. Aaron and his sons must wash their hands and feet from it.” (Ex. 30:18-19)
Most of the Temple vessels were made of gold and silver. Why was the kiyor, the washstand, made out of copper? Why did it require a base, and why was it placed between the altar and the sanctuary?
Preparing to Serve
Three metals were used when building the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem: gold, silver, and copper. Each metal was employed according to its relative value. Gold, with its great ornamental value, was used to construct the innermost vessels — the ark, the table, the menorah, and the incense altar. Silver is more utilitarian in nature. The sockets which formed the foundation of the Tabernacle, as well as various sacred implements, were fashioned from silver.
Copper, the least valuable of the three metals, was used for those vessels that were not used for the actual Temple service, but rather to prepare for it. Thus the washstand, where the kohanim washed their hands and feet before starting their holy service, was formed out of copper.
A Permanent Vessel
Why does the Torah require that the washstand be built on a base?
Not all of the vessels of the Tabernacle were also employed in the Temple. Some components of the Tabernacle were transient in nature, only appropriate for the period before the Jewish people had settled down in their own land. But the kohanim would always need to wash their hands and feet before commencing their holy service. Since there would always be a need for a purifying washstand, even in the Tabernacle the washstand was placed on a base, thus indicating its permanence.
Purifying Thought and Deed
What is the significance of the location of the washstand? Why was it placed between the altar and the sanctuary? And why did the kohanim need to wash not only their hands but their feet as well?
We serve God in two basic ways: with our minds, in Torah study, and with our actions, through practical mitzvot. Washing at the kiyor purifies and prepares for both forms of service.
The sanctuary was called the Ohel Moed, the Communion Tent “where I will meet with you.” It was a place of divine revelation and prophecy. God’s word emanated from the Holy Ark, containing the two luchot of the Ten Commandments, within the sanctuary. This area of the Tabernacle/Temple signifies our intellectual service of God, through prophecy and Torah.
The altar, on the other hand, was the focal point for elevating the ratzon (the will or primal desire) and deed. The practical aspects of the Temple service were performed around the altar. Offerings brought on the altar served to refine the faculty of ratzon — they were to be “leratzon lifnei Hashem,” ‘for a desire that is pleasing before God.’
The washstand prepared the kohanim to serve God in both thought and deed. It was situated between the sanctuary and the altar, as both forms of divine service require the necessary preparation so that they will be performed with purity.
The hands and feet are metaphors for these two faculties. Our hands follow the dictates of the mind, while our feet move almost involuntarily, without conscious effort. When the kohanim washed their hands, they purified themselves for their service of mind and thought. And when they washed their feet, they purified themselves for their service of action and deed.
(Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, pp. 119-120)
From Rabbi Shefa Gold
Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~~
(When You Lift/Count)
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Ki Tisa begins with the law of the half-shekel that all must contribute, and continues to describe the implements for the Mishkan. It goes on to tell the story of the Golden Calf.
THE MISHKAN IS THE SANCTUARY INSIDE US, the holy place wherein the Divine Presence dwells. And the Mishkan is also built between us. God dwells in our midst whenever we make a profound connection with each other. In loving relationship and community, the Divine Mystery reveals itself. With the off ering of the half-shekel, we are called to build this aspect of Mishkan together.
Ki Tisa tells us that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, is commanded to make an equal contribution. Those half-shekels that are collected are used for the casting of the sockets of the sanctuary, the pieces that hold it all together. What a blessing to know that my half-shekel is necessary and valued. And what a blessing it is to look around me and acknowledge that everyone has something to contribute that will hold the “Structures of the Sacred” in place. (I am not alone in my contributions, nor may I withhold my presence from this sacred task.)
THE HALF-SHEKEL is called “a ransom for your soul,” for your soul is truly in danger if you do not consciously contribute to this Mishkan of community and acknowledge the equal value of each and every one of us. We can only build this holy place together. And we cannot sustain a spiritual practice that is blind to our interdependency with all of life.
The half-shekel we contribute is a reminder of the truth of our interdependency. Giving it consciously, we are saying, “Count me in!” Just by being alive and present I become an integral part of this glorious community. My half-shekel redeems me from the illusion of separation. The blessing of the half-shekel is that it saves me from inflation and selfimportance… after all it’s only a half-shekel, only a miniscule part of the whole. And the blessing of the half-shekel saves me from invisibility or demeaning of my self-worth… after all my contribution is of equal value to everyone else’s, and the Mishkan could not be held together without it.
Ki Tisa goes on to bless us with the attention to the details of the instruments of the Mishkan – the laver, the anointing oil, and the holy incense. For the task of constructing and crafting our spiritual practice and the structures of our religious life, God turns from Moses, the prophet, and from Aaron, the priest, and instead appoints Betzalel who is the artist. The true artist within us and among us is filled with the spirit of God and is blessed with wisdom, understanding and intimate knowledge. She also has acquired the skills to express her inspiration. The name Betzalel can mean, “In the shadow of God” (Be-tzel-El) or it can mean “the Divine Egg.” (Betza-L-El) Our artistic, creative life is sheltered under the wings of the Shekhina and incubates the Divine potential.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
THE INSTRUCTIONS AND DESCRIPTIONS of the building of the Mishkan constitute the climax of our journey to freedom. When you have built a place in your life for the Divine Presence to dwell, then your ongoing and growing relationship to the Eternal frees you from the enslavement of the conditioned mind.
Ki Tisa inserts into the middle of the Mishkan texts the most serious spiritual challenge to our freedom. That challenge is represented by the story of the Golden Calf, which our tradition points to as exemplifying the quintessential sin.
I’ve wondered sometimes… what was so bad? After forty days of waiting, the people grew restless and afraid. Moses was, after all, the exclusive mediator between God and Israel. His absence left an unbearable void and so the people cried out to fill that emptiness with an image that would comfort them.
The only way to understand the Golden Calf is to compare it to the Mishkan, for the building of the Mishkan is the context for this story. The Mishkan exists for the space within it. It is a structure that is built to send us to that holy inner-ness. All of its beauty, color and design are dedicated as a nexus point between the Human and Divine, between Heaven and Earth. The important part is not the outer form, but what is inside, for that is where God speaks to us. The further within you get, the more holy is the space.
In contrast, the Golden Calf is solid, existing of and for itself. We supply the gold, but then the Calf seems to take on a life of its own. Aaron describes the process saying, “I cast the gold into the fire and out came this Calf!” The Calf has no interior space. It glorifies itself. It is “full of itself.” It represents the most dangerous hindrance in the life of spiritual practice: that of worshiping and staying attached to the forms, rather than allowing those forms to send us inward to the essence, as is their purpose.
This is the spiritual challenge of Ki Tisa. How can I dedicate my life to spiritual practice without turning the forms of my practice into an idol? The difference between building a Mishkan or a Golden Calf is sometimes very subtle.
SOMETIMES WHEN I THINK I’M BUILDING a Mishkan, I’m really making a Golden Calf. I remember once performing some music for a very appreciative audience. During the first verse of the song, I felt the holiness that the song was creating. I, along with everyone in the room, felt invited into that holy space. By the second verse, I was thinking, “Wow this is great. Everyone loves it. The sound system is terrific; my voice is really ‘on’ tonight. And this is really a great song.” By the end of the second verse I realized that instead of building a Mishkan, I was making a Golden Calf; the song had become a monument to itself and to me. By the third verse, I made a resolve to build a Mishkan again, to get out of the way, and to dedicate my voice and the song to the Great Mystery. I’m certain that no one in the audience perceived the invisible struggle that went on within me.
As a rabbi, I sometimes fall into the role of advocate for Judaism or Jewish practice because I have tasted its treasures and they have opened the “doors of perception” which have brought me to the precipice of the Great Void that is God. The danger is that we can come to love Judaism more than we love God – who is beyond any religion or practice. The Torah, the tribe, the prayers, the language can become a Golden Calf, glorifying itself, binding us to its power and beauty.
THERE IS A STORY that when Moses went up the mountain and stayed for forty days, God personally inscribed the Torah onto the tablets that Moses carried. They were made holy by the signature of the Divine. When Moses descended the mountain carrying these holy tablets, he saw below him the people worshipping and celebrating the Golden Calf. Moses cried out to God, “Look at what our people are doing! If I bring them this Torah inscribed with the Divine hand, they will make this into an idol too. They will worship it instead of You!”
God heard the cry of Moses and sent a strong wind, which blew the stone tablets out of his hand. They smashed at his feet into a million particles of dust, each particle inscribed with the signature of God. Then God sent all the winds – north, east, south and west. They lifted up those holy particles, each inscribed by the hand of God, and scattered them
across the wide world until a fine dust covered our planet.
“If the people wish to know Me,” said God, “they can ponder and appreciate My Creation. When their eyes are opened, they will see My handwriting everywhere.”
For Guideline for Practice please click on link to website.
From Rabbi Tsvi Bar-David 2009
The highest point of Parashat Ki Tissa – and for me the highest point
in the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah – is when Moshe
Rabbeinu pleads with G!d to show him G!d’s face:
Har’eini na et kevodecha! (Exodus 33:18)
This is the cry of the mystic, the one who wishes to directly
experience the Divine. Ha-Shem answers Moshe with gentle sympathy:
Lo yir’ani adam va-chay (Exodus 33:20)
An earthling cannot see me directly and survive the experience. For
when the wave realizes that it is part of the ocean, it loses its
separate existence and merges back into the sum of all existence –
YHWH. So, knowing that Moshe needs to continue in separate
consciousness to lead the Jewish People, G!d arranges for Moshe to see
the traces, the back-side (achoray), of G!d’s passing-by, but not
What struck me in re-reading the text (I have read this text with
yir’ah/awe many times) in preparing to write this drash is its context
in the Torah. The context is not a guide-book for mystics, rather it
describes the sin of the Jewish People in worshipping the golden calf
and Moshe and G!d’s response to it.
After the Levites kill three thousand people in punishment for the
great sin of knowing that G!d is G!d and worshipping idols anyway,
Moshe goes to intercede for the People with G!d to avert further
punishment, possibly the People’s extinction. In Exodus 32:31-33
They’ve sinned, forgive them. If not, make my day and wipe me out of
Don’t tell Me who to wipe out of my book. That’s My job. Now go do your
and lead the People.
Here, Moshe is willing to lose his separate existence – to die – as a
kapparah/atonement sacrifice for the lives of the entire People. For
his life has has no meaning, no purpose, if the People are
extinguished. In the theophanic narrative of Ex. 33:18 which follows,
Moshe asks for extinction of his separate consciousness in ecstatic
merging with YHWH/All-Existence as a reward for having led the People
through the ordeal of idol-worship, punishment and forgiveness.
Moshe’s request is rejected in both of these narratives.
How amazingly parallel are these two narratives! What can we learn
from this parallel?
The learning from these two shtiklach of Torah is humbling, overwhelming:
Pli’ah da’at mimmeni! (Psalms 139:6)
Knowledge of You (YHWH) is too wondrous for me!
Nonetheless, let me to suggest the following. There are many ways to
come to a state of non-duality or yichud. One is physical death and
and another is ecstatic merging with the One, temporarily or
permanently. The Torah seems to be teaching that the timing of yichud
is not up to us. At best, yichud is an evanescent moment. Like
Moshe, each of us is sent to this planet with a job to. Our job is to
find our task and to do it with all the forces – physical, emotional,
intellectual and spiritual – at our disposal. As G!d points out to
Moshe, it is G!d’s job to determine when the royal messenger (you and
me) gets to see the face of the Sovereign, whether it be in briefest
glimpse or eternal embrace. And yet, as Moshe and we know, it is
precisely those fleeting glimpses of the Shechinah that our souls
hunger and thirst for, the direct connection of Divine love which
sustains us on our individual and collective journey through the
sometimes easy but often difficult terrain of our lives.
Adonay, sefatay tiftach ufi yaggid tehilatecha!
My Master, please open up my lips so that my mouth may properly praise
(Ps. 51 and meditation before the Amidah)
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman 2009
James Stone Goodman O holy Shabbes Inspiration Ki Tissa
D E-flat F# G
Coming down the mountain
like a river on wheels
two tablets inscribed
mi-zeh u-mi-zeh [Ex. 32:15]
this way and this way.
The holy And
[so unlike the Either/Or]
Ba-zeh v’gam mi-zeh —
This and also this. . . [Kohelet 7:18]
This and that
except — there is no that
only this and this
just as mi-zeh u-mi-zeh,
this and this.
You and me
God and you
Me and God
Matter and spirit
Good and Evil
Male and female
Left and right
Yin and Yang
The two triangles
Halakhah and Aggadah
Law and Lore
Gevurah and Tiferet
Severity and beauty
the good and the not-so-good.
this and this.
Sometimes I feel so
ordinary and separate.
A few drop dead experiences, please —
in the midst of ordinariness
what we are all about.
Raza d’oraita, a secret of Torah.
This and This.
Radically And —
God everywhere and a child dying
an earthquake, plague, pestilence, suffering,
the appearance of spaces empty of God.
There is no place empty of God.
We are radically And.
We know this mostly —
HaShem Is Eloheinu, Hashem only.
Blessed is that holy notion
this and this
there is no
james stone goodman, usa
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
A mishkan in time 2006
In parashat Ki Tisa we read a series of injunctions about keeping Shabbat:
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. He who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.
Of course, the rabbis took pains to reinterpret most of the death sentences in Torah, and this one is no exception. One way of reinterpreting these lines is to read them as metaphor. These can be descriptive statements, rather than prescriptive ones; they tell us something valuable about the need to pause in our labors.
Ki Tisa tells us that he (or she) who works on Shabbat is turning away from the sustaining potential of the day of rest. One who works all the time is indeed spiritually cut off from kin who take time off for rest, for prayer, for savoring splendor. How many of us have had the experience of going on vacation but bringing along the laptop and cellphone just to “check in” with work once or twice? More often than not, checking email or voicemail opens all kinds of trouble, and by the time the laptop clicks shut again we’ve lost the restful mindset of being away from the ordinary. And we’ve lost connection with our friends or family, those on the vacation with us, who are still in a vacation headspace we may no longer be able to access. The same is true of Shabbat.
Prizing work above all else is a kind of hubris. It asserts that our goals and achievements, our flow charts and to-do lists, are more important than relationships (either with others or with God). One who cares only for work may not be literally put to death, but she is certainly deadened. This text may also have literal resonance — someone who works all the time may be shortening her or his lifetime with stress — but over and above that literal meaning, it speaks to me on a symbolic level. Work all you want the rest of the week, Ki Tisa tells me, but take time away from worldly concerns to breathe, relax, sing, learn, connect with community and with God. This is the way to be the sanctified people God wants us to be.
Out of these simple lines an encyclopedic set of rules and prohibitions surrounding Shabbat has arisen. For many liberal Jews these may seem daunting at best, if not outdated. For instance, traditional interpretation of halakha forbids driving on Shabbat because ignition kindles a fire, but in today’s auto-focused world most of us find walking to shul onerous (if not outright impossible).
And many of us find pleasure in activities that might look like “work” to an outside eye. Some of my happiest Shabbatot have been spent revising poems, pickling string beans, or reorganizing the garage with my husband with the radio on. Tapping away at my laptop, filling sterile jars with newly-washed produce, or lugging cordwood and potting soil — these aren’t traditional Shabbat activities. So am I scrapping halakha and defying the words of Ki Tisa?
I don’t think so, and neither does Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi. In his most recent book, Jewish With Feeling, he writes:
If you enjoy gardening for its own sake, rather than regard it as a chore you’d just as soon delegate to someone else; if you’re enjoying spending time with your plants rather than working on a crop with which to feed your family, then gardening is a Shabbosdik activity for you. If you’re a computer programmer by trade but a potter at heart, and if setting aside some Shabbos time each week would allow you to enjoy sitting down at the potter’s wheel, then pottery is a Shabbosdik activity for you.
The traditional halakha of Shabbat may feel incompatible with our contemporary reality. For many liberal Jews, that leads to a sense that halakha doesn’t speak to us, so we shrug and ignore it. We drive places, and buy things, and do stuff, on Shabbat without giving it a second thought…unless a more-traditional relative is around, in which case our activities are overlaid with a sheen of guilt. Surely guilt, of all feelings, is most foreign to the Shabbat spirit! How much better to consider the way we spend Shabbat time; to give some thought to the Torah’s linkage of constant work with death; and to take ownership of the parameters of our Shabbat experiences. To replace a negative choice about Shabbat (“halakha is irrelevant, so forget it”) with a positive one (“this is how I want to spend time with my family; this is what feeds my spirit”). To reimagine the practices of Shabbat in a way that brings us closer to holiness.
These injunctions about Shabbat come right on the heels of a set of instructions for building the Mishkan, the tabernacle designed as a dwelling-place for God’s presence. That tabernacle became the blueprint for the Temple in Jerusalem, the longtime center of Jewish life. Torah’s juxtaposition of Mishkan instructions and Shabbat commandments prefigures the historical shift Judaism underwent when the second Temple was destroyed. Today Shabbat is, in Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, a holy temple in time. It’s a recurring chance to develop and sustain connection with the Infinite. The Mishkan doesn’t exist anymore — but Shabbat can be eternal, just as Ki Tisa dictates, for as long as we operate within time.
Shabbat is a space for connection with God. In eschewing onerous work for 25 hours, we set personal boundaries. We articulate, to ourselves and those around us, that once a week our wage-earning work takes a back seat to our spiritual needs and our desires for relationship. Just as being chained to work is deadening, taking space away from work is an affirmation of life… and when we adorn this day each week with mindfulness and joy we participate in the ongoing creation and beautification of our own kind of Mishkan, a space for the Infinite in our lives.
Parashat Ki Tissa
March 6, 2010 / 20 Adar 5770
A Taste of Torah
A Commentary by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, director of Israel Programs, JTS.
Exodus 32:1–2 When the people saw that Moses delayed, they gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god (elohim) who will go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons and daughters and bring them to me.”
B’khor Shor, “Come, make us a god (elohim),” judge, magistrate, leader, and spokesperson just like, “I have made you a leader (elohim) before Pharaoh” (Exod. 7:1) and “the case of both parties will come before the judge (ha-elohim)” (Exod. 22:8). And God forbid that you should think the text is suggesting idolatry! My point of view is supported in that the verse states, “that man Moses”—they wanted something in place of him . . . “Take off the gold rings,” Aaron did this with the best of intentions. He thought to himself, “If I say to them, ‘Take Caleb ben Yefuneh or Nahshon ben Aminadav or another great one as their leader and they crown him, then when Moses returns this other leader will not step down from power,’ and there will be a disagreement and blood will be spilled over this. And if I say to them, ‘I will not appoint a leader for you,’ then they will choose someone as their head and there will be a fight. And if I say to them, ‘I, Aaron, will be your leader,’ then this will be difficult for Moses. So I will occupy them until Moses returns and I will make them something that is meaningless and when Moses comes, he will destroy it” . . . this is what Aaron intended when he said, “Take off the gold rings.” He sought to delay the people through this act and in the midst of the collection of gold, Moses would come.
Parashat Ki Tissa is infamous for the quintessential episode illustrating Israelite disloyalty: the Golden Calf. As the people stand at Sinai waiting for Moses to return, they become impatient; they despair of ever seeing the prophet again and seek to create something to fill the void. They turn to the second in command, Aaron, to lead an effort in creating an elohim “who will go before us.” While most translations of this narrative render elohim as “god” (leading to an interpretation of this episode reflecting the rejection of the Israelite God and the idolatrous behavior of the Israelites), a more nuanced and sensitive reading of the text produces a surprising and refreshing alternative. Far from casting a poor light on Aaron (who seems to be the main facilitator) and giving the sense that the Israelites were seeking a different god, this story, when read closely, yields a valuable lesson about responsible leadership.
Masterfully, B’khor Shor approaches this episode seeking to make two important points. First, he underscores the ambiguity inherent in the word “elohim.” Drawing on other instances of the word “elohim” in Tanakh, he points out that the term may mean “judge, magistrate, leader or spokesperson” (in addition to meaning ‘god’ or ‘God’). From this perspective, B’khor Shor argues convincingly that they were seeking a replacement for the man, Moses—not a replacement for God. Second, our commentator argues persuasively that Aaron acted as a thoughtful, responsible leader in the midst of crisis. Far from simply going along with their reckless plan, Aaron is portrayed by the B’khor Shor as thinking quite deeply about an appropriate response. In our exegete’s imagination, Aaron is angst-ridden and ultimately collects gold rings both to avoid appointing another leader and to keep the people occupied in the hope that Moses will return before the situation gets out of hand.
Too often, traditional readings preclude interpretations that are alternative, more constructive, or more hopeful. By taking a step back and reading our narrative in a slower, more careful, and more deliberate way, the B’khor Shor succeeds in redeeming both Aaron and the Israelites. Theirs was not a quest for an idol but rather a response to a feeling of abandonment and radical uncertainty. And Aaron’s action represents the best of a leader in the thick of crisis; fearful of disagreement, bloodshed, and offending his brother Moses, Aaron chooses a stratagem of delay. B’khor Shor encourages us all to reread—with hands, head, and heart open to a more redemptive possibility.
Chassidic Insights for Parshah Ki-Tisa
From the Lubavitcher Rebbe
 A copper laver: As described above, the Tabernacle and its furnishings reflect the process of spiritual refinement we undergo as part of our ongoing aspiration toward unity with God.
When entering from the outside, one first went into the Courtyard, encountering the laver and the Outer Altar. On a personal level, when we leave our own affairs in order to enter our personal Tabernacle and begin the process of spiritual renewal, we must first cleanse ourselves of whatever residual materialism we may carry. (This is similar to the purification process the soul must undergo, when it leaves this material world at the end of life, to be able to enter Paradise. Our personal, spiritual paradise is our inner Tabernacle; we must cleanse ourselves of our worldliness when entering this spiritual paradise as well.) This is why the first furnishing one confronts when entering the Courtyard from the outside is the laver.
In a sense, this purification process begins when we are still outside the Tabernacle and involved in our mundane pursuits. Assuming that we are not doing anything forbidden, even our so-called “mundane” affairs can be entirely holy, and even help us ascend to advanced levels of spiritual consciousness, rather than dull our spiritual sensitivities. This idea was embodied in the very material out of which the laver was made.
The laver was made out of the mirrors the Jewish women donated for the construction of the Tabernacle, which they had used to arouse their husbands’ marital passion in Egypt.13
Inasmuch as spiritually, the laver signifies the necessity to rinse ourselves from even the slightest tinge of materialism before entering our inner Tabernacle, it seems incongruous that it was made out of the very mirrors that were used to draw attention to sensuality. Indeed, Moses originally wanted to reject this donation.14
The sexual urge is undoubtedly the archetypal lust of this world. Yet the fact that the laver was made from the Jewish women’s mirrors teaches us not only that this act can be holy, but that it can even assist us in purifying ourselves of our worldly, materialistic, physical orientation.15
 The difference: The purpose of washing our hands and feet is to cleanse our active faculties of any “dirt,” i.e., of any orientation that could impede our effectiveness in raising and spreading Divine consciousness. Thus, washing prepares us for the task we are about to perform, focusing our mind, hands, and feet on its importance.
When we are working on our “Outer Altar,” involved in elevating the material world, we need to “wash” before each separate foray into it, because we need to take extra precaution in order to be able to resist the constantly renewed draw of materiality.
On the other hand, when we have successfully passed this stage and are working on our “Inner Altar,” involved in enhancing our connection to God, it is enough to “wash” once before each entry into this realm, no matter how many separate aspects of our inner lives we focus on while there.
The exception to this is when we enter in order to rectify something that has gone wrong in this inner realm, indicated by the need to apply the blood of some special sacrifice to the Inner Altar. In such a case, it is necessary to wash again.16
Also from Chabad.org
While Moses’ name does not appear in the Parshah of Tetzaveh, Moses himself is very much present: the entirety of Tetzaveh consists of G-d’s words to Moses. Indeed, the Parshah’s first word is ve’attah, “and you”–the “you” being the person of Moses.
Indeed, the word “you” connotes its subject’s very self, while a person’s name is a more superficial handle on his personality. This means that Moses is more present in this Parshah–that is, present in a deeper, more essential way–than any mention of his name could possibly express.
This is fully in keeping with the Baal HaTurim’s explanation (cited above). Because Moses was prepared to forgo mention of his name in the Torah for the sake of his people, he merited that his quintessential self–the level of self that cannot be captured by any name or designation–be eternalized by the Torah. It is this level of Moses’ self that is expressed by his “nameless” presence in the Parshah of Tetzaveh.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
From Rabbi Zev Leff
Ki Tisa(Exodus 30:11-34:35)
Invoking the Thirteen Attributes
Following God’s promise not to destroy the Jewish people, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses requested that God make known to him the qualities of Divine mercy. In response, God showed Moses a prophetic vision, in which He was wrapped in a Tallit as a communal prayer leader, while reciting the Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy (Talmud, Rosh Hashana 17b). God informed Moses that whenever the Jewish people sin in the future, they should recite the Thirteen Attributes, and He will forgive them. Moses subsequently employed the Thirteen Attributes during the second and third 40-day periods on Mount Sinai, which culminated with the atonement on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Yehudah in the Talmud adds that a covenant exists concerning these Thirteen Attributes, guaranteeing their effectiveness forever. The Brisker Rav explains that all the mercy that the Jewish people would require until the final redemption was, as it were, deposited into an account at that time, to be withdrawn when necessary. Today, writes Rabbeinu Bachaye, we are without the Holy Temple, without a High Priest, and without the sacrifices to aid in atoning for our sins. All that is left is the ability to invoke these Thirteen Attributes of Divine Mercy in our prayers. Though we do not understand the true nature of these terms, and we lack the perception of how they affect the Heavenly realms, still they remain the key with which to open the gates of mercy in every generation for both the community and the individual.
There are two basic opinions as to how the Thirteen Attributes work. According to some commentators (Tzror Hamor, Reishis Chochmah and Alshich), the mere recitation of these attributes is not enough. One must accompany their recitation with action by emulating these attributes in his relationships with his fellow man. (Rabbi Moses Cordevero in the first chapter of Tomer Devorah gives guidance as to how to integrate these attributes into one’s interpersonal relationships.) For this reason, says the Ma’or Vashemesh, these Divine attributes are only recited in a minyan. It is difficult for any one individual to embody and apply all of these attributes in his personal life. However, among a congregation, all of the attributes can be found.
The prophetic vision of God wrapped in a Tallit relates to this need to emulate His Attributes by reminding us of our obligation to perform all the Mitzvot. The Tallit hints to the fact that one must clothe himself in these attributes and not merely recite them.
Ibn Ezra asks why we wear a large Tallit only during prayer (while otherwise we wear a small fringed garment underneath our shirt). Would it not be more logical to wear a reminder of God’s Mitzvot when engaged in our mundane pursuits? The wearing of a Tallit addresses the danger that one will mistakenly think that the words of prayer are enough to effect Divine mercy. The Tallit reminds us that lip service alone is not effective. One must live and fulfill that which his prayers represent.
The second line of opinion (Tzedah Laderech and Bnei Yissachar) views recitation of the Thirteen Divine Attributes as effective by itself. They point to the fact that the first three attributes, according to many opinions, are proper names of God which do not lend themselves to emulation.
Two questions must be addressed according to the opinion that the mere recitation is effective. First, how can mere recital of words be effective? And if it can, how can we reconcile this to the fact that these attributes are often recited without any noticeable result? The Maharal answers the first question. Even if recitation is sufficient, he writes, it must be with concentration, intention and understanding. This is hinted to by the wrapping of the Tallit over one’s head. The Tallit signifies concentration and the banishment of outside distractions.
The recitation of these attributes creates a period of Divine favor and grace brought about by recitation of the Divine Attributes (Malbim). In this respect, the Heavenly Kingdom patterns itself after the earthly kingdom: the periods of Divine favor and grace, parallel those times when an earthly king grants pardons not mandated by the law (Netziv). There are, says Ramchal, two types of Divine Providence, on in which God has, as it were, subjugated Himself to a system of reward and punishment dependant on man’s conduct, and another where God acts independent of man’s worthiness.
We can elucidate this last idea as follows: The entire creation was designed so that God could shower good on man, the ultimate good being the experience of the Divine Presence. To that end, God created a physical world in which man can earn this reward and develop his relationship with God through Torah and mitzvot. At the same time, God created an intricate system of reward and punishment through which His kindness is funneled.
Under normal circumstances, kindness outside this system would be detrimental to man, for it would suggest to him that justice does not exist and one can receive good without deserving it. That would obscure recognition of God. However, there are times when the application of justice would permanently impair kindness and thus place the entire purpose of creation in jeopardy. At such times, God chooses to let us know that He exists by showering upon us undeserved kindness beyond our understanding.
But to receive this undeserved beneficence, we must first recognize that this mercy and kindness emanates from God and is not an indication (God forbid) of a random universe and refutation of God’s control over the world. Hence, the necessity to recite these attributes with intention and concentration to bring about this period of favor.
Although there is a covenant that the recitation of these attributes is always effective, this depends, according to the first opinion, on our emulation of these attributes and, according to the second opinion, on their being said with concentration, intention and understanding. Though a proper recitation of the Divine Attributes is always effective according to the Vilna Gaon, sometimes the effect only results in mitigation of the Divine decree, not its complete annulment (Tzedah Laderech). That is why we sometimes fail to see the effect of the recitation.
We are now in the midst of trying times for the Jewish people, a time in which we need Divine mercy. Let us attempt to recite, learn and live these Divine Attributes of Mercy – and thereby fulfill all these various opinions – so that we can partake of the abundant wellsprings of Divine mercy already prepared for us, and effect a period of Divine favor and grace
From Reb Zalman
Ki Tisa: Counting and Raising
The following text by Reb Zalman is from this week’s Torah portion, Shabbos Ki Tisa. Notes by Gabbai Seth Fishman, Blog editor
“When you raise the heads (i.e. take the sum) of the children of Israel according to their count, let each one give to Hashem an atonement for hir soul when they are counted, etc.” (Exodus 30:12)
[NOTE: Hir = his + her. S/he = she + he. This is a convention on this site for gender inclusivity, avoiding the conventions of English, which makes a universal slant feel male-heavy.]
Through the minyan of davenners thus named shemonim / because they count those of children of Israel who join to make a minyan / quorum of worshippers, they do it through raising the heads (i.e. counting) of all the children of Israel who came. For in a minyan, it is, as the quote says, (Chronicles II 17:6), “And his heart was lifted up” through knowing Hir, for in the ways of Havaye, worshippers see themselves together with every Jew and one enters, because of this, into a sense of (Psalms: 47:5) “the pride of Yaakov.”
[NOTE: Tisa Et Rosh is translated as “Taking the sum.” The word Tisa also has a secondary meaning of raising up, (cf., Genesis 40:13, “Yisa Pharaoh Et Roshecha” / Pharaoh will lift up your head.) This piece is based upon many double entendres. In a minyan we also count and raise: Counting to get the quorum, and raising as a side effect of prayer and coming together in community.]
And indeed, regarding the matter of raising of heads, how truly wonderful and excellent it is, to lift and to raise the head – for the mind rules the heart and the middot / emotional attributes are offspring of Chabad / the intellectual faculties
[NOTE: Tanya Ch. 3]
– however the point is that the raising of the heads should be for counting them only, but not that this one nor that one are being raised up one over the other.
For in truth, anyone, when s/he is counted, stands, i.e. is elevated, (Deut 29:9) “And you are all standing, etc, your heads / (i.e. leaders), etc., and the water drawers and the woodcutters,” but if the latter didn’t deal with hir situation, the former would not have been able to deal with hir own accounting, and thus, “Let each one give an atonement for hir soul,” i.e. what needs atonement within hir own soul, and hir own existence
[NOTE: While each of us are counted, there is an inter-dependency between us. Each of us has an obligation to actualize, to deal with our personal issues, the challenges we face, and to try to turn them into a plus for our families and our communities. If I don’t do my part, then that will carry with it a secondary effect of making it more difficult for you to do yours.]
and to redeem that one’s existence through hir giving of “half a shekel according to the holy shekel.”
[NOTE: The census was done by having each one of Israelites pay a half a holy Shekel. The word SHeKeL has a secondary meaning of weight. The image is a scale with two pans that balance. One puts the coins on one side and on the other side, one puts a stone of the proper weight. The half Shekel “sacrifice” is to offset any sins we have committed. That is the underlying dynamics of the redemption that occured when this money was paid.]
For when one considers one’s existence, s/he will pay the head tax for hirself according to the holy weights, for s/he has also within hir a half of weighty unholiness. And also that half is heavy – the weight – of hirself on one side and the good in hir on the other. However, this will not yet balance out until there is at a minimum an honest friend, sounding boards for one another in partnership according to the shekel – the weight – of holiness to balance the other side.
[NOTE: In addition to working things out for ourselves, on a higher level is the “Rung of Community,” cf., Gate to the Heart, pp 6-8, “Stages of the Path”.)
And the treasures we will gather we will give until the repairs of the community come to pass.
[NOTE: The process of working with our shadow part will lead to many benefits, here described as “treasures.” These will, in time, extend beyond ourselves to our community. This is a vision of tikkun and meshiachzeit.]
For who knows if I am fulfilling my own part, certain that what is mine to do is not for another to do, or conversely, that what another must do is not mine to do?
[NOTE: If we can get it together then each of us may find in the diversity that exists within our group or beyond, that there is someone else who can more easily, more effectively, take care of dealing with a particular issue with which we each may have struggled. At the same time, there may be someone focusing on another particular issue whose solution turns out to be apparent to us, given each of our diverse ways of seeing things. And so we can contribute based upon our strengths and be supported based upon the strengths of others.]
And in this, it will be that they can tally,
[NOTE: The point is that the path of teshuvah does not assume that one is already a Tzaddik. In this torah portion, we were are all counted regardless of where we were on the path.]
for upright are the ways of Hashem yitbarach – many ways to a place, and there is no one of myriads with exactly the same consciousness as any other.
“Let each one give to Hashem an atonement for hir soul when they are counted, etc., half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel, etc.”
For in all your heart, i.e., regarding the two inclinations, (Mishnah Brachot 9:5), and twenty gerahs i.e. that which affects (mi-GaReH) and motivates one, it will be that the two of them, i.e., yetzer hatov v’yetzer hara, times ten aspects, (i.e. Sefiros), of soul, of the nefesh habehamit / animal soul and the nefesh haeloki / divine soul, will be on the level of “and they will give” uprightness and its opposite.
Who is giving and who is receiving? “The rich shall give no more and the poor shall give no less,” for it does not depend on the quantity of the funds – the longing,
[NOTE: The path of teshuvah is laid out alike for rich and for poor, for beinoni and for rasha. The Hebrew contains a play on words: K’safim / funds, kisufim / feeling ashamed.]
rather, in the quality and in the intention one gives for lifting hir head (raising the mind).
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi
from Yishmiru Daat (2009 revision),
“Parashat Ki Tisa,” pp. 32-33
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Ki Tisa
on Reconnecting with our Ideals
The Torah reading this week begins with the words; “Hashem spoke to Moshe/Moses, saying; when you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to Hashem atonement for his soul when they are counted. This they shall give, everyone…a half a Shekel” (30:11-13)
In the course of this week’s Torah reading we learn of the Children of Israel creating, and eventually worshiping, a Golden Calf. The half shekel was given as an atonement for this transgression.
The golden calf was a devastating spiritual blunder, though, at its inception, it was inspired by pure intentions. The Isrealites desired an image with which to connect to the Transcendent and Imageless Infinite Creator.
They assumed that Moshe was no longer with them, as he had ‘ascended to heaven.’ Thus, they needed an image, an object to grasp, to allow them to access the imageless.
The transgression occurred when the image itself became an object of worship.
This week we deal with the issues of imagery and our attachments to the image.
The image can be money, power, physical objects, or even a person.
Initially, many pursue financial gain, or positions of power in order to provide benefit for their loved ones and the world around them.
For example, a person strives to make money to be able to contribute, provide for their family and give charity to the unfortunate. The money is an image with a higher purpose. Over time however, without proper awareness, the money becomes an end to itself and deeper intent is forgotten.
The pursuit begins with an ideal, however, over time, the ideal can be lost in the image – and the means becomes the end game. The original idealistic intent drowns in the mere amassing of money, objects and power. We can become so overly connected with a representative object that we forget that it is only a representation and a means to an end. This can even reach a point of worship.
Everyone had to give a “half -Shekel coin.” This suggests that the symbolic physical coin is merely a “half.” It is but the physical representative of a deeper spiritual reality.
The Energy of the Week:
Reconnecting with our Ideals
This week’s Torah reading imbues us with the energy of seeing past the ‘image’ to the original intent.
We sometimes get distracted by the object of our desire, forgetting the bigger picture and ultimate purpose of achieving that goal.
This week provides the energy to reconnect with our original, idealistic intentions. To go back to that place of idealism, and remember what we are pursuing and to what end.
We look beyond the immediate “imagery” and reclaim the purpose.
RE-ENTRY (KI TISA) 2009
Coming down the mountain —
understand, being up there
was the best thing ever
I glowed with awareness
I practically levitated
and what I was bringing back…!
Torah you can’t imagine
so transparent, so pure
divine mind, open to us
but the people I’d led
to the edge of revelation
forgot me, went whoring
after the gaudy creation
of their own wretched hands
what shattered on the earth
were my heart and God’s
broken beyond repair
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STORY 2011
Already so many changes.
Our long column of refugees
snaking into the wilderness.
Through the sandal-sucking mud
where the waters had been.
Their men and horses consumed.
And then that Voice
speaking directly into us,
reverberating in our chests…!
But Moshe ascended by himself
into the sapphire sky
and he didn’t come back.
Of course we asked Aharon
to make something to remind us
we weren’t as alone as we felt.
From Reb Miles Krassen/Moshe Aharon
Parshat Ki Tisa, 5771
According to SeferAz Yashir Moshe (Meta-Jewish Torah)
When you are elevating the consciousness of Israel (Exodus 30:12)
According to the BeSHT and the Maggid, all prayer and aspiration should be for the sake of the Shekhinah. The Shekhinah literally means Divine Presence. But what exactly is THAT? Divine Presence is precisely the space-like all pervasive invisible yet conscious medium within which everything appears and exists (Sovev Kol Almin). Unlike the Buddhists, we don’t say that the Shekhinah is the “ALL,” rather THAT which we worship as SHE, the great Cosmic Mother, is the EVERYTHING that in Her inseparability from the ALL (Eyn Sof) completes the Totality of ALL and Everything (Eyn Sof and Or Eyn Sof).
Ki Tisa et Rosh Beney Yisrael: If you want to raise consciousness not just for yourself but for everybody, teach them to make their prayer practice a time for revealing the Shekhinah. As long as the Shekhinah remains only a concept (however lofty) signifying something separate from “you,” any uplifting of consciousness is limited and remains self-centered. That isn’t really prayer for the sake of the Shekhinah. But whenever one allows the self-centered conceptual mind to drop away (bittul) the always already present Shekhinah is revealed just as THAT which (SHE) IS.
The main disseminator of the BeSHT’s teachings, Yossele Katz, took this deeper. He said, whenever a person is immured in conceptual mind, one becomes very heavy. Everything is a struggle and requires a lot of effort. “Working our brains” is tiring and the entire body suffers and doesn’t function optimally as a result. But whenever the mind is empty and expansive (bittul), there is a power present that spreads lucidity and lightness throughout the entire body. This relaxed state is self-evident and all may experience it for themselves.
In the Zohar, Tzaddikim-in-training are called “agents of the Skekhinah,” because they are not working only for their own benefit, but for the sake of the Shekhinah Herself who is both pervasive and equally present in everyone (memale kol olmin), as is self-evident to all Her Lovers.
Tzaddikim-in-training recognize all others as limbs of their own body. When a Tzaddik-in-training through bittul reveals the Shekhinah (spontaneously, effortlessly, and immediately liberating the Shekhinah from “exile”), lightness spreads through all “the limbs,” because the body always reflects and follows consciousness.
If you want your prayer to elevate consciousness not just for yourself, but for the entire world, allow the Shekhinah to reveal Herself.
May it be so. May it be so.
Very likely, you may doubt your power to affect the consciousness of others merely as a consequence of your own bittul, i.e. merely through effortlessly allowing the clear Presence of the Shekhinah to manifest wherever you are. But RaSHI already taught us that the verse “I will empower with MY Grace whomever I choose” (Exodus 33:19) means that revealing the Shekhinah isn’t conditioned by any particular merit or absence thereof. Anyone can do it, because the Shekhinah IS what IS. Even when She IS in Exile, SHE is still Ising, only then no one knows WHERE SHE IS. And that is our biggest problem: we don’t even know WHERE to look for HER.
So the Rebbe Elimelekh adds, whenever anyone through the efficacy of her own bittul reveals the Shekhinah, there is so much Divine Joy in that clarity that even those who aren’t able yet to reveal the Shekhinah through the unobstructed transparency of their own bittul get a “contact high” from the pure energy of the revealed Shekhinah’s all-encompassing embrace!
The only pre-condition really is that in order to be sensitive enough to feel the Shekhinah’s embrace, one has to pay a price, which means to be effectively doing the practice of teshuvah. Practicing teshuvah effectively means mindfully observing oneself with enough clarity so as to be able to make skillful adjustments whenever one’s energy and behavior require it. That is the true meaning of “vidui,” (confession), being honest with oneself and acknowledging what conscience requires you to fix. Dedication to “fixing ourselves” empowers the Heart to have the capacity to be a vessel for storing yirat shamayim (literally “fear of Heaven). But it isn’t really like a battery charged with the energy of fear in any conventional sense. Yirat shamayim is the Heart’s innate capacity to manifest the attitude of devotion to the Shekhinah, which in its ultimate level blossoms as the highest form of Love and the many are revealed as ONE.
Since this is a leap year, we won’t reach the (ultimate) level of Purim for another month (Adar Sheni). Anyone familiar with the sequence of Torah readings knows that to get to Purim, we need to pass through Sheqalim and Zachor, “weighing” and “remembering.” Even though we have another month of practice before we come to Purim itself, in the Shabbat of KI Tisa, we are already preparing ourselves through the secret of the “half-shekel,” our half of the “bargain” we make with the Shekhinah. We can already do our half of the weighing now that renders ourselves “weighty” enough to receive and consciously experience the all-encompassing embrace of the Shekhinah, who will graciously pay off the rest of our debt. This price we pay, which is equal for everyone—is like a ransom that contributes to releasing the Shekhinah from exile.
“Nothing more extravagant is required of the wealthy nor are the impoverished excused from the necessity of paying their half of the ransom that helps raise up the Shekhinah from exile in order to ‘get themselves ready for Purim’ (le-khaper al nafshoteyhem). (Ex. 30:15). The Purim hint comes right in the following verse: mindful self-weighing is called the “currency of those who are preparing for Purim” (kesef ha-ki-PURIM). (Ex: 30:16). And it is this currency that makes us “memorable” and thus receptive to the energy radiating as the all-encompassing embrace of the Shekhinah that manifests directly through the effortless, spontaneous, pure-hearted bittul of the Tzaddiqim-in-training.
Shabbat shalom blessings from
Shekhinah Lover Moshe Aharon
Ki Tisa 5771
From Chaya Lester
Ki Tissa: For Shabbat-Candle lighting
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Ki Tissa / Shabbat Parah
March 2, 2013 / 20 Adar 5773
By: Reb Mimi Feigelson,
All I Want is for You to be Happy!
Torah Reading: Exodus 30:11-34:35
Maftir Reading: Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah Reading: Ezekiel 36:16-38
When was the last time you said this to someone you love? When was the last time someone you love said this to you? And what did you mean when you said it? And how did you feel when you heard it being said to you? Who are those people in your life that this sentence could even be a viable exchange between you?
The Ropshitzer Rebbe (Naftali Tzvi Horowitz, 1760-1827) pushes this question even one step further and invites us to ask this question in relationship to God! I know that this seems like a major leap – theologically, emotionally and intellectually. But nonetheless he does this based on the opening two verses of our torah portion that seemingly are very straight forward and innocent:
“And God spoke to Moshe saying: When you do take the sum [ki tisa] of the children of Yisrael [et rosh Bnei Yisrael] after their number [lif’kudei’hem]…” (Shmot/Exodus 30:11-12).
“כי תשא את ראש בני ישראל לפקודיהם”
In this classic translation there is nothing questionable about what is being said. We are asked to count the children of Israel, and we’re taught that we do this by bringing half a shekel (one of the five designated commandments of Purim, that we just observed this past Sunday [or Monday in Yerushalayim]). Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), who often is perceived as explaining the most basic interpretation of the Torah, draws upon the literal meaning of “ki tisa” and challenges us: the word tisa means to take, so surely the verse cannot be saying “when you take” because we don’t literally take each person when counting them! Rashi relies on Unkelous (first century Sage) in his Aramaic translation of the Torah, to translate ki tisa as ‘when you receive’ – when you receive the half shekel that each person will be counted with.
The Chassidic Masters have alternate ways of interpreting this verse, and others like it, later in the Torah. The Ropshitzer Rebbe on our verse, the Mei HaShiloach (R’ Mordechai Yosef Lainer of Ishbitza, 1800-1853) on a similar verse in the opening verses of the book of Bamidbar / Numbers ask of us to interpret the word verb ‘laset’ – ki tisa in our verse, se’oo in Bamidbar 1:2, indeed as ‘lift up’ – a legitimate translation of this word. For both of them, as Rashi himself alluded to, we are not physically lifting up a human being, but rather lifting up our ‘rosh’ / head – our consciousness! This would also be a way of interpreting Avraham lifting his eyes when he saw the angels/messengers/nomads coming towards him when sitting at the opening of his tent – he became aware of them.
In this reading we are no longer speaking of a literal counting of people, or even of shekel coins, but we are being asked to lift our consciousness, our awareness and our sense of accountability, to that which is higher than us.
You may now ask, ‘to what and where are we meant to lift our consciousness and awareness?’ Or perhaps, ‘to whom are we accountable and who is accountable to us?’ You may even pose, ‘in what regard shall we do so?’ It is with these questions that the Ropshitzer Rebbe leads us to the last word we quoted in the opening verses – ‘lif’kudei’hem. Again, drawing on alternate translations he reads the word lif’kudei’hem as ‘lack’ / ‘missing’ – as when David was ‘missing’ / ‘absent’ from King Shaul’s table “va’yi’paked m’kom David” (Shmuel / Samuel 1, 20:25).
The challenge of this reading is the meaning of raising our consciousness by virtue of articulating our lacks, the shortcoming of our lives. Is this possible?
It is here that the Ropshitzer Rebbe invites us to all be mystics for a moment and embrace a spiritual practice which may seem at first sight as counter intuitive. For the Ropshitzer Rebbe the one existential question is the Divine equilibrium. Truth be told, if all is in place in the Heavenly realm then all will be in balance in the human realm. It would be considered unfathomable to turn to God and ask God what is God lacking or missing in God’s existence, so we turn to God and speak of our own lack and all those things in our lives that are not in place. For the Ropshitzer Rebbe this would be a form of ‘mirroring’ – by virtue of our speaking of our lack and needs, we are holding the space and illuminating the reality of lack for God. This is how he understands the realm of prayer. Though in the Sh’monah Esrei, the silent prayer, it seems that we are beseeching on our behalf, asking for livelihood, health, peace etc., the Ropshitzer Rebbe suggests that we are doing this as a way of asking God “How can we help You? How do you need to be manifested? What is necessary so that the Heavenly realm is whole and complete?”
For the Ropshitzer Rebbe our prayer is the way we say to God: “All I want is for you to be happy!” There is deep faith in his understanding that when our Creator is in a state of wholeness / completion / happiness then this state of presence will permeate our being as well, and will lead us to this state of existence.
It is important to remember that our integrity rises or falls on our intention – do we seek Divine happiness for the sake of Divine happiness or do we seek it for the personal benefit that we will reap from it. I believe that in those true love relationships in our lives we truly aspire for the first. We truly want the other to be happy for the sake of their personal happiness and not for the benefit that we’ll reap from it. I truly believe this. And when we hear someone say to us “All I want is for you to be happy!” we receive it as their pure desire for our well being.
I return to my opening question as to identifying these people in our lives. On a personal note, this Shabbat sits comfortably between my lunar (Adar) and solar (March) fiftieth birthday. I have completed, with God’s Grace, my first Yovel / Jubilee. I know that my parents, Moshe Refael (of blessed memory) and Frada Leah (may she be granted good health till 120 years) said, and say this to me every day since I was born, with their words and actions. I pray they heard, and hear me say it to them too. So many times I hear this from my students in their questions, smiles and glances as we walk by each other, as our eyes meet for a moment. I pray that they hear it from me as well.
Who are those people in your life that you will tell them, as part of your Shabbat preparation: “All I want is for you to be happy!”? And who, in their acts of love and kindness, in their prayers, do you hear them saying this to you?
From the Maqam Project
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Adam KadmonWash Those Dirty Hands! (5774/2014)
Traditional Jewish mealtime practice includes a blessing before each meal. When the meal includes bread, we also wash our hands with ceremonial intent. As Dr. Gregg Gardner taught at Limmud Vancouver, the washing custom brings Temple practice right into our homes, and holiness right to our dinner tables. The Temple (and its earlier prototype the desert mishkan) featured a table piled with bread and a washstand where priests washed before entering.
What is the original meaning of the hand-washing custom? What should be our spiritual intent as we wash? Torah says: When they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water, that they may not die…they shall wash their hands and feet…it shall be a law (chok) for them…throughout the ages (Exodus 30:20-21).
Astute Torah readers know that when Torah calls a practice a chok (eternal law), it does not explain the reason behind the practice. But fearless commentators do speculate. Nachmanides/Ramban (1194-1270) offers three explanations. (1) Cleanliness: “Some people’s feet are hideously filthy.” (2) Respect: “Anyone who comes to the king’s table to serve and handle the king’s food, must wash his hands.” (3) Spirituality: “The true interpretation: the whole human body between hands and feet symbolizes the ten sefirot (divine spiritual qualities).”
Our bodies, Ramban teaches, are the vehicles through which we experience all the qualities of a spiritual life. Negative experiences, deeply felt, can taint our bodily sense and thus harm our souls. When we wash our hands, we express intent to re-set our body’s interface with the world, a hope that all our interactions may bring us into the Divine presence.
How do you reset your spiritual equilibrium?
Ki Tisa: Shabbat, the Golden Calf, and Rest
Posted: 16 Feb 2014 04:00 AM PST
Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
This week’s Torah portion begins with Moshe atop Mount Sinai, communing with God. The last thing God says to Moshe is a set of verses we now know as V’shamru, commanding us to keep Shabbat throughout the ages as a sign of covenant with God. Then God gives Moshe the two tablets, inscribed by God’s own hand.
Meanwhile, the people are anxious. Moshe has been gone for a long time. They implore Aaron, his brother, to “make them a god.” They donate their gold jewelry, and from that jewelry is fashioned a calf which they begin to worship.
When Moshe comes down the mountain, he shatters the tablets in his fury.
Many commentators have seen this incident as a kind of spiritual “adultery.” Here is God reminding us of the Shabbat which serves as the sign of our eternal relationship, and meanwhile we’re off giving ourselves over to something which is not God. The Torah frequently compares our relationship with God to a marriage…and here we are, “cheating on” God when the ink on our ketubah is barely dry.
As punishment, Moshe grinds up the calf and makes the people drink it — which is strikingly similar to the punishment for a woman accused of adultery, as described later in Torah. I’m always struck by the symbolism of making the people confront their own misdeeds in this way. They have to literally swallow what they have done. They have to take ownership of the damage they have done to their relationship with God.
Seen in this light, Moshe’s shattering of the tablets is a sign of the spiritual brokenness in that relationship. But what becomes of those broken stones?
We read in Talmud:
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said to his sons: Have care for an old person who has forgotten his/her learning. For we say: Both the whole tablets and the shattered tablets lie in the Ark. (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 8b)
In the ark of the covenant, which will be kept inside the mishkan / dwelling-place for God, our ancestors carried both the second set of tablets (which are whole) and that first set of tablets (which are broken).
For Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, this holds a message about how to treat our elders. Just as we cherished both sets of tablets, so we should cherish both those who are whole, and those whose wholeness has been broken by sickness or by age.
Perhaps when Moshe broke the tablets, he was demonstrating his own brokenness. His wholeness was broken when his people demonstrated their lack of commitment and faith. Just as our ancestors kept the broken tablets along with the whole ones, we cherish the memory not only of Moshe’s beautiful moments, but also his times of imperfection and anger.
Each of us is like Moshe. Each of us carries her own history in the ark of her own heart. In our own holy of holies, we hold our sweetest memories — and also the times when we have felt shattered. Without both, we wouldn’t be who we are.
How does all of this relate to Shabbat and to v’shamru?
The verses of v’shamru, from this week’s portion, charge us with keeping Shabbat as an eternal covenant. It is a sign, God says, between us for all time. A reminder that on the seventh day God rested and so do we.
Shabbat is a covenant between us and God. When we keep Shabbat — whatever that means to us; as liberal Jews we shape our Shabbat observance in accordance with a variety of values — but when we keep Shabbat, however we keep Shabbat, we re-enact the covenant.
Every week, we renew our wedding vows with the Holy One. We reprise the central act of our relationship, an act of pausing to notice the sacredness of creation.
Every Shabbat is the antidote to the sin of the Golden Calf. Then we were anxious and we put our faith in something gleaming, something we could see and touch. Now we remind ourselves that relationship exists even when we can’t see it. That when we make Shabbat, we emulate the ineffable force behind the cosmos in rhythms of creation and rest.
From Rabbi Jill Hammer
At Synagogue Romemu
The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth: Ki Tisa
A Grandmother’s Wisdom
March 7, 2015
My mother’s mother died long before I was born, so I never met my grandmother. She seems to have been some sort of goddess. She never raised her voice, never had a blemish or a wrinkle, equally loved three very different children, created a stable home in spite of her husband’s gambling addiction, spoke perfect English though an immigrant, etc. Her name was Leah and yes, as her namesake, I was supposed to live up to her legacy.
In the tradition of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), wisdom is a female figure. In the book of Mishlei (Proverbs), Wisdom herself tells us that she was God’s first creation, standing by God’s side, as an omen: a great artisan and a hidden nanny (Prov. 8:22, 30; Gen. R. 1:1). Torah confirms Wisdom’s claim: even before light is created, a feminine entity called ruach Elohim, a divine spirit, hovers over the waters (Gen. 1:2).
But Wisdom is not just a cosmic force. She exists in real life, too, in the figure of eshet chayil, the virtuous woman (Prov. 31:10-31). Eshet chayil speaks wisdom, inspires trust, feeds the poor, educates children, does well in business, makes clothing, etc. She herself wears royal purple, a sign of her spiritual majesty. Eshet chayil is kind of like my grandmother, who lived on majestically in her daughter’s imagination.
When Parshat Ki Tissa introduces Betzalel, lead artisan of the mishkan (portable wilderness sanctuary), Wisdom’s gender identity seems to slide. God says, “I have filled Betzalel with divine spirit, with wisdom, understanding and knowledge” (Ex. 31:3). Really? Divine spirit and wisdom? Actualized in a male character? By what gender-bending miracle does Betzalel merit this filling?
Why, the answer should be obvious! He received the wisdom transmitted by his great-grandmother – who happens to be none other than Miriam.
As we will see, however, the answer is not obvious at all. It follows a path of midrashic interpretation as intricate as the design of the mishkan itself.
Miriam’s story begins in Egypt. As the Torah tells it, Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives (miyaldot ha’ivriot), Shifra and Pua, to kill newborn baby boys. Of course, the midwives do no such thing. They appear before Pharaoh to explain why not, telling a story about birthing stones. Their risk pays off: Pharaoh does not know enough about birthing babies to question the story. And because the midwives fear God, God makes houses for them (Ex. 1:15-21).
Although Shifra and Pua sound like Egyptian names, midrash insists that these two midwives were Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam. Even Pharaoh’s daughter knew that. When she sees baby Moshe floating by, she says, this is the midwives’ baby (meiyelidei ha’ivrim) (Ex. 2:6; Waxman, 2004). Shifra and Pua, it turns out, were affectionate nicknames, celebrating these midwives’ special skills. Yocheved, a.k.a. Shifra, would wash the babies, making them beautiful (mishaperet) (Ex. R. 1:13). Miriam, a.k.a. Pua, perhaps too young to handle the infants, would calm the birthing mothers, making musical sounds with her mouth (peh) (Koh. R. 7:3). After the midwives defiantly appeared before Pharaoh, little Miriam was honored with yet another name, Efrat, “The One Who Helped Us be Fruitful and Multiply (peru u’revu).” (Ex. R. 1:17).
The houses God makes for these great women, midrash says, are not buildings. These houses are families, legacies, and dynasties. Through her son Moshe, a “king in Yeshurun” (Deut. 33:5), Yocheved becomes matriarch of a royal house. Through her son Aharon, she becomes matriarch of a priestly house. Miriam, in her own right, becomes matriarch of the house of Wisdom (Ex. R. 48:4).
As the Torah tells it, Miriam never marries. Narratives never mention a husband, and genealogies name no children (e.g., Num. 26:49). But midrashic thinkers could not imagine that someone so great as Miriam would leave no lineage. They theorize that Miriam marries a leader with skills like hers: brave inspirational speaker Calev from the tribe of Judah, of whom it is said, “Calev married Efrat” (I Chron. 2:19; Ex. R. 48:4). Together, they parent Chur, who parents Uri, who parents Betzalel. From his great-grandmother Miriam, an eshet chayil who speaks wisdom, inspires trust, waters the thirsty, saves children’s lives, helps lead a nation, makes music and more, Betzalel receives wisdom: artistic wisdom, interpersonal wisdom, and organizational wisdom. With this wisdom, he builds a house that makes God present to all.
In her youth, Betzalel’s great-grandmother did some amazing things. Many were womanly things: helping babies, leading women, nourishing people in need. These actions created a spiritual lifestyle of wisdom, understanding, knowledge that shaped multiple generations. Maybe your grandmother, too, did small acts of kindness with great repercussions. Maybe she built a legacy that you hold, whether you knew her personally or not. For the sake of Miriam, honour your grandmother’s wisdom.
A dvar Torah (sermon) offered at Or Shalom Synagogue in honour of International Women’s Day 2015. Appropriate for both Ki Tissa and Vayakhel-Pekudei!
From Rabbi David Ingber
The After-Glow of Things Broken
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The Closeness of God
From Rabbi David Kasher
In the Face of it All: Parshat Ki Tisa
From Brian Yosef Schachter- Brooks
The Coconut Oil: Parshat Ki Tisa
Sabbath: First Day or Last
From Jewish Sacred Aging
Ki Tisa: The Cleft In The Rock and Mystery
Rabbi Richard Address
Our portion this week, Ki Tisa, packs a lot into its chapters. Perhaps the most famous story is that of the Golden Calf. I have no doubt that many colleagues will be speaking to this over this Shabbat. However, lets look also at a wonderful passage from Exodus 33: 17-23. Moses, and God speak as to the future. Moses insists that God accompany the Israelites on their journey and finally asks God: “Let Me behold Your presence” ([33:18]). God responds that “you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live” ([33:20]) God places Moses “in a cleft of the rock” and he promises to shield Moses’s eyes with His hand until he passes by “Then I will take my hand away and you will see My back, but My face must not be seen” ([33:21],21,23). Quite an amazing visual.
How can this incident relate to our own aging? I was thinking about how we experience God. We often do so in retrospect. It is like that passage of Jacob’s ladder from Genesis when he proclaimed that God was in this place but he did not know. Yes, we sometime experience an event or a moment and say how “spiritual” it was. Yet, let me suggest that we often experience the Divine as we reflect on an incident in our lives. It is as if we understand that old saying that we live life forward but understand it backward. Often, when we are “in the moment”, we may not be aware of everything that is happening. Yet, when we take some time to reflect, we can become aware of a sense of something greater than our own experience, and that some greater meaning was gained.
Many of us are trained to seek answers to questions. We need to “see” proof of something. Yet, what this passage may also be saying is that there are many things in life that may defy answers. Those answers may have to wait until we live a little, experience life a little more and place that experience against the larger journey of our life. Sometimes, there may be no hard answers to a situation and we are faced with a sense of acceptance. Here is where faith comes in to play. It is as if that metaphor of God’s face not being allowed to be seen is a way of saying that there may be moments on life where no answer can be found and so one’s faith must be the source of strength. We all have faced such circumstances when the answer to an event or circumstance is that there is no answer. Therein is part of the mystery of our own existence. Try as we might to see God, we can only “know” God through the collective experience of our life.
Rabbi Richard Address
From Kol Aleph
Rabbinical Student Caryn Aviv
Shabbat shalom. Last week we celebrated Purim, with its themes of concealing and revealing. This week, in Ki Tisa, there’s more hide and seek. The parsha begins with deep spiritual transmission between the Divine and Moses about the building of sacred space. We learn of the requirement to give a half-shekel, to build our community’s holy meeting space and purify our collective accumulation of spiritual shmutz. We are given instruction in who will participate in the building sacred space, and we hear the radical teaching to celebrate sacred time of kedusha and menucha – holiness and rest. Both of these teachings illuminate how to build and be built in relationship to what’s holy, and to strengthen our relationship to being alive.
The narrative then moves to anxious and fearful regression of the Israelites, who are waiting for Moses at the bottom of the mountain. They experience collective separation anxiety. They insist that Aaron create a Moses substitution/replacement security object, and build a Golden Calf. The Divine sees what’s happening, and expresses anger toward the people to Moses, who pleads with the Divine for compassion. Moses descends down the mountain. He sees the separation anxiety substitution object, and his anger flares. He dramatically shatters the tablets of our freedom teachings. He burns the Golden Calf in the fire of his disappointment, frustration, and perhaps shame that his brother and the people were unable to trust in the process. Moses begs the Divine for forgiveness of the people, and asks God to lead him and the Israelites out of this constricted spiritual state.
Finally the parasha closes with a second encounter at Mount Sinai. The Divine instructs Moses to carve two more tablets, and climb the mountain alone. The text says:
As My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and protect you with My hand until I have passed by.
Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.
It is in this place, of concealment, seeking, and presence, that Moses experiences connection with the Sacred, and a profound covenantal promise.
In that encounter, the rabbis imagined the Ineffable wearing a tallit, singing to Moses, what we now sing to God as the core of our own Selichot, our prayers of forgiveness:
אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם Erech appayim
וְרַב-חֶסֶד VeRav chesed
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים Notzer chesed laalafim
נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן Noseh avon
וְחַטָּאָה VeChata’ah (breakages and ruptures)
וְנַקֵּה VeNakeh (accepting apologies to mend relationship)
Rambam argued that these attributes are not inherent in God, they are the method of divine governance, delivered in a conceptual form that we as limited human beings can understand. In the Sifre, these attributes are called “derakim” – the ways of divinity. In other words, these attributes are not just qualities – they are profound practices to emulate and embody.
For centuries, we are the ones who voice these words as a plea, to be forgiven for our shortcomings and our mistakes. We don’t sing these on Shabbat, because they are such deeply personal supplications. And our mystical tradition introduced the singing of these words when we take the Torah out of the Aron Kodesh for Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. But in the Torah, it is God singing these to Moses, and to us – as an invitation and a promise. And perhaps, we might see this as a love song for how to live in right relationship with God and with one another.
It’s not accidental that God describes the importance of Shabbat as a source of blessing and sacred power in the same parsha where God sings and teaches us the attributes of divinity as a source of blessing and sacred power. The 13 attributes God sings to Moshe are a reminder, that every day we are given the opportunity to live in right relationship with the Divine.
We build this relationship through our doing 6 days of the week and then celebrating creation and simply being. Shabbat is an amplification, a manifestation, and a fruition of all those qualities in Shemot. When we embody and practice those ways attributed to the Great Mystery, in the rhythm of Jewish time, we have the opportunity to experience kedusha and healing in our world.
May we build sacred spaces and communities, erech appayim, v’rav chesed v’emet, slow to anger and filled with kindness and truth. May we be built by our holy work this weekend in partnership with the Divine to embody those wondrous attributes of Godliness.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Eleven spices in the blending of the ketoret, the incense, including one called chelbenah, a foul selling spice. Chelbenah means we welcome the stranger, the sinner, the outcast, the other, into our sacred community especially now. There is no other or we are all other.
Personal: Each person has an emptiness, a space, a darkness, a brokennesss that needs to be healed, to be integrated, to be included — it is our chelbenah, and when we integrate the chelbenah it is the key to finding our wholeness.
This is the transformational healing that we pray for, that no part of the self, nor anyone from the community, be separated from the whole.
When there is no other we are all other and whatever separates us diminishes, or whatever insulates us from the heart of suffering dissolves. We become the heart of suffering. We lose the separations and live together in one community, one people.
— Nachman, Precision Spice-thrower to the House of Holiness
From My Jewish Learning
Paralyzed By Numbers
What can we learn from counting the Israelites?
BY RACHEL FARBIARZ
Parashat Ki Tisa introduces the taboo against quantifying persons, enjoining the Israelites from giving themselves numbers. The sum of the people, it seems, is a dangerous thing–inviting evil, tempting fate, summoning the evil eye. Thus, God here commands that when Israel is to be counted the people are to use coins as proxy for their persons, so as to ensure ”that no plague may come upon them…” (Exodus 30:12).
Despite the danger, the Torah seems perversely taken with memorializing tallies of persons, painstakingly recording each tribe’s sum when the census is ultimately taken: Reuben numbers 46,500, Simeon 59,300, Judah 74,600 and so forth (Numbers 1:20-44).
Rather than overcome the numbering taboo, however, the tallies seem instead to underscore it. These plump, round numbers are, inescapably, estimates–concessions to the necessity of the count, obfuscations to ward off the evil and anxiety that it invites.
Counting & the Evil Eye
In ritualized utterances today, cannily crafted to deflect the evil eye, one can still hear the raspy echo of the counting taboo. Yeshivah teachers will tally their charges with the totemic chant: ”Not one, not two, not three….” And many minyanim ensure a quorum not by counting heads, but by assigning to each person a word in a ten-worded biblical verse.
Neither are we as global citizens rid of the primal anxiety that counting persons inspires. We seem, instead, to have transmuted it–burying our agitation in an anesthetic refuge. Thus, it is too often the largest humanitarian crises, with their tallies of millions displaced, hungry, sick or dead, that we have the most trouble wrapping our hearts around.
It is as if our very beings revolt against the endless collection of so many suffering persons, and our sympathies–attenuated already by the myriad demands upon them–shut down, paralyzed by the immensity of the problem. It is not the evil eye that we fear in these massive numbers, but our own failure to respond to the vast suffering that they imply.
Deftly, though, we have learned to hold our anxiety at bay with a brittle shield of apathetic ignorance. Those too-large numbers, pneumatic with their many zeros, become shockingly easy to ignore.
Responding to the Numbers
This tendency is borne out in the world’s anemic response to the massive devastation weathered by the people of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Over the past decade of civil war, an estimated 5.4 million Congolese have died, mostly from preventable causes such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition. Forty-five thousand Congolese still die each month.
The grim cruelty of these numbers is horrifying– ”equivalent to the entire population of Denmark or the state of Colorado perishing within a decade.” Indeed, as George Rupp, president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) explains: ”The conflict and its aftermath, in terms of fatalities, surpass any other since World War II.”
Yet the massive humanitarian crisis in DRC has failed to elicit the outrage and concern that other crises with significantly smaller death tolls, but more accessible narratives–such as Bosnia, the Asian tsunami or Darfur–have appropriately inspired.
In 2005, the devastation in DRC topped the list of the world’s largest ”forgotten emergencies,” according to a poll of international experts conducted by the Thomas Reuters Foundation. At the end of 2008, Dr. Rick Brennan still felt compelled to explain his work spearheading the IRC’s extensive DRC mortality survey, with a heartbreaking statement: ”We want people to give a damn.”
How then do we make ourselves give a damn? How do we wake from our anxious stupor to care about this massive, meaningless number–this 5.4 million dead in DRC?
Finding Individuals in the Masses
The parashah’s first words–Ki tissa et rosh B’nei Yisrael–provide an opening. Conventionally translated as, ”when you take a census of the Israelite people,” the verse literally means ”when you raise up the heads of the Israelite people.”
In the act of aggregation, the individual is not simply subsumed into the final tally. He is instead ”raised up.” His singular humanity is underscored even as the counting grinds on, creeping toward the census’s ultimate goal of sums and totals.
”Raising up the heads” of the individuals surviving–and dying–in DRC is precisely what the numbness of numbers calls for. We must counter the anxiety of counting by insisting that the vast numbers are composed of one and one and one and one. We must discipline ourselves to think beyond the sums and engage the human specificity of DRC’s devastation. Numbers, then, will not present a refuge for the world’s apathy: they will represent, instead, a rebuke.
Provided by American Jewish World Service, pursuing global justice through grassroots change.
By: Rabbi Gail Labovitz,
There is a piece of parashat Ki Tissa that we will actually be hearing twice this week. Because Thursday is Purim, this means that Wednesday is the Fast of Esther, a minor fast day meant to commemorate the three day fast Esther asked the Jews of Shushan to observe before she approached King Ahashueros (Esther 4:16-17) and thereby initiated the process of saving the Jews from Haman’s genocidal plans. As on each of the minor fast days of the Jewish calendar, at both shaharit and mincha we read from Exodus 32 and 34, including Moses’ (on-going) pleas for forgiveness for the people for the sin of worshipping the golden calf, God directing Moses to make a new set of stone tablets to replace the ones Moses smashed, and the revelation of what has come to be known in Jewish tradition as the thirteen attributes of God (Ex. 34:6-7).
This latter element is in response to Moses’ request, in the chapter in between, that God “Let me know Your ways…Show me, please, Your glory!” (Ex. 33:13, 18). But what exactly is it that Moses is requesting? While I have given a rather literal translation of v. 18, Etz Hayim renders the request as “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” God’s response, it seems, only further complicates our understanding:
I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name of the Lord…But…you cannot see My face, for one cannot see Me and live…I will put you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen. (vv. 19-20, 22-23).
Goodness… Face… Back… What is it that human beings can see and perceive of God? What is beyond us, beyond our comprehension, beyond our capacity to encounter?
Etz Hayim, in its commentary, cites the early modern (18th-19 th century Austro-Hungary) rabbinic scholar Moses Sofer (known by the name of his most famous work) to explain what it might mean to see God’s “back”:
What does it mean that a human being cannot see God’s face—but can see God’s back? In the words of the Hatam Sofer, we cannot see God directly. We can only see the difference that God has made after the fact. We can recognize God’s reality by seeing the difference God has made in people’s lives.
That is, God Godself is not visible, not ultimately comprehensible to human cognition. What we see, what we know of God, is what we see of God’s effects in the world. I thus believe there is an important connection between our celebration of Purim this week, and this episode in our parashah, and the questions that it poses. But if you will, allow me to take a slightly circuitous route to get there…
In 2013, the Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi published a piece in which he posited that there are two kinds of Jews: Purim Jews and Passover Jews. He wrote (you can find the full article on the website of the Hartman Institute:
Jewish history speaks to our generation in the voice of two biblical commands to remember. The first voice commands us to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and the message of that command is: Don’t be brutal. The second voice commands us to remember how the tribe of Amalek attacked us without provocation while we were wandering in the desert, and the message of that command is: Don’t be naive.
The first command is the voice of Passover, of liberation; the second is the voice of Purim, commemorating our victory over the genocidal threat of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. “Passover Jews” are motivated by empathy with the oppressed; “Purim Jews” are motivated by alertness to threat. Both are essential; one without the other creates an unbalanced Jewish personality, a distortion of Jewish history and values.
By this definition, anyone who knows me would probably assume that I lean towards being a “Passover Jew.” But the truth is I have a complicated relationship with Passover, and have always enjoyed the freewheeling, carnivalesque Purim. Despite a long standing commitment that I made back as a young adult to an observant lifestyle and halakhic practice, I much prefer thinking up a clever costume, baking hamentaschen, exchanging mishloach manot, and so on over kashering my kitchen and avoiding hametz for seven days.
One could argue that Passover is the holiday of obedience and strict rules, while Purim is the holiday of creativity and knowing that the rules sometimes only take you so far, while we may need to be able to go beyond and around them on occasion – a useful reminder when we get too stuck in our patterns and ruts.
And there’s another factor, with which I’ll now circle back to our parashah. Without challenging the truth in Klein’s analysis, I want to suggest another difference between a “Purim” outlook and a “Passover” outlook, one that is a bit more theological and less political than Halevi’s (though of course both distinctions have elements of both theology and politics). The God of Passover is an activist God, visible throughout the events of the Exodus by way of plagues, miracles, clouds of Glory, and pillars of fire. Passover is the holiday of God’s mighty arm and outstretched hand. So central is God to Passover that we avoid mention of Moses at the seder. “I, the Lord – not an angel, not an emissary – took you out of Egypt!” Purim, on the other hand, is the holiday of the concealed Face of the Divine. God is never mentioned directly in the book of Esther. Esther’s very name echoes the Hebrew root for “hidden,”: s.t.r. Purim is the holiday of the leap of faith.
Thus, I think it is in no way coincidental that Ellen Frankel, in her commentary to this parashah in The Five Books of Miriam, imagines that “Esther the Hidden One” would have something to say about this passage. Here is Frankel/Esther’s interpretation of the unviewable Divine face (p. 139):
But if we grant that God is infinite and incalculably ingenious, we might imagine, as we look in our mirrors, God’s face behind our own. After all, we are each created b’tzelem Elohim, in the likeness of God. We should daily recognize God within our own features. For if we did so, we would recognize God’s face in each person we meet—and act accordingly.
Perhaps this is why among the central commandments of Purim are the acts to giving to the poor (matanot l’evyonim), giving gifts to friends and neighbors (mishloah manot), and coming together in community to feast and celebrate (the Purim se’udah). And despite God’s seeming absence in the Purim story, Jews across generations have insisted that it is visible in the outcome of victory and salvation. We reveal God’s presence both in how we understand the “history” of the event and in how we respond to that history – how we respond to each other in light of that history.
And finally… As I write this, it has been just over three months since the passing of Rabbi/Dr. Neil Gillman, a beloved professor of philosophy and theology at the Jewish Theological Seminary, remembered by myself and generations of students as a challenging and inspiring presence in the classroom and beyond. In his memory, I have been carrying his book of theology Sacred Fragments with me to synagogue on Shabbat and (re)reading through it little by little, week, by week. And as was the case in his lifetime, in his classes, he makes it impossible for me rest easy with the conclusions I have just drawn. Because, as he observes, God’s face is never obvious. We always see and interpret the passing of God’s back – even for the Exodus, even for Passover. It is always a matter of whether we are willing to see at all. Examining a sequence of verses in Ex. 14:30-31 and the series of claims made there (“Thus the Lord delivered Israel that day…Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea; When Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded, the people feared the Lord; They had faith in the Lord and God’s servant Moses.”), he writes (pp. 66-7):
Note…in particular the movement from claim… to claim… It is one thing to see dead Egyptians, quite another thing to “see” God’s “wondrous power.” What the community “sees” is the dead Egyptians as the manifestation of an invisible and omnipotent God’s intervention into history. In fact, however, there is an enormous leap from claim…to claim…
But one can easily imagine the skeptic…concluding that God had nothing to do with it at all; that Israel was the beneficiary and the Egyptians the victims of a fortuitous wind storm that stirred up the waters…
Contrary to the popular adage, then, seeing is not necessarily believing… especially when what we “see” is something as elusive as an invisible God’s “wondrous power.”
If we cannot see God’s face, will we still seek God’s back? Will we strive to see where God has been, to see the patterns of God’s presence around us? Will we see God’s face reflected in each other and act accordingly? This is the challenge of Purim, of parashat Ki Tissa, of being human in the world.
Holiness Cannot Be Mass Produced
The artisan is as important as the ingredients used.
BY RABBI SCOTT PERLO
When talking about the traveling temple in the desert, called the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the Torah describes a sweet-smelling essential oil with which the Mishkan, everything in it, and all who served in it were to be anointed. Partly of cinnamon, partly of myrrh, cane and cassia, with a whole lot of olive oil, it sounds amazing. At least Judaism smelled good back then.
All this artisanal is stuff is very cool, and the oil was made in a manner that’s still used today: The perfumer took the different plants named and ground them by mortar and pestle, after which they were dissolved into water. Olive oil was added, and the whole thing was cooked in a double-boiler — where the water evaporated and the oil, combined now with the spices, would remain. The process hasn’t changed much in three millennia.
However, the verse that describes the making of the oil is a kind of a puzzle. It is oddly redundant and a bit strange. I’ve cut it into three pieces below for effect:
“Make of [these ingredients] an oil for anointing the holy
– a perfume that is perfumed in the manner of a perfumer –
an oil for anointing the holy will it be.”
Take a close look at the verse: It repeats itself in at least two different ways. The idea that the oil is for anointing holy things both begins and ends the sentence in nearly identical language, and bookends the description of the oil-making on both sides.
Look at that phrase in the center of the verse. It’s tough to point out something in Hebrew when writing in English, but the same Hebrew root is repeated over and over, “a perfume that is perfumed in the manner of a perfumer,” or “incense that is incensed, the work of an incenser.”
This root, rekach, is the same one you’d use whether in perfume-making or in a pharmacy: It always refers to is the same skilled manner of preparation, how botanics and other materials are turned into compounds using fire and chemistry. Both are a science, and, especially back then, an art.
Still, it seems like a single word would have sufficed here, two at most. It is a perfume; it should be prepared by a perfumer. So why does the Torah repeat the root three separate ways?
By using the root three ways, the person, the process and the product are all brought to our attention. This partial verse points out that the holy oil is a unique thing, a compound. It was also created through a specific method, a craft. And, finally, the process takes a skilled individual, a craftsperson, one who knows how to make essential oils. When one looks at the language that surrounds these roots, the implication is that, without any one of the elements, the oil would not be holy.
Person, process, product. In contemporary mass production, what we see are the end results, and the consumer is ignorant of person and process. Most of the products we buy and use come to us stripped of the history of how they were made and who made them. Even in biblical times, one can assume that there were goods and commodities whose making and maker seemed irrelevant.
But the Torah teaches here that they are not irrelevant; holiness cannot be factory-made. To be more precise, one can’t sever the connection between the person, the process and what is produced in the end. It isn’t enough just to have oil composed of the right ingredients: It is the individual human being and the craft employed that make it “an oil for anointing the holy.”
Even in spiritual spaces, there can be an assumption that people are interchangeable. There can be a belief that whatever spiritual experience is at hand — prayer, study, yoga, meditation, song — that the experience should be consistent no matter who is present. Though the ingredients of a particular spiritual experience always remain the same,the Torah suggests here that the subtle differences that each individual spirit brings are necessary; without that uniqueness, holiness cannot be.
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