You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Ki Tisa.
From Rabbi Yael Levy
A Way In: Don’t Follow the Fear
This week: Parshat Ki Tisa
As we come through the waves of Purim
We listen to the call of the Torah portion, Ki Tisa.
Moshe had gone back up the mountain
And the people grew afraid he wouldn’t return.
So they made something they thought
They could hold onto
Something that would be definite and sure.
Out of gold, silver and precious stones
They fashioned for themselves a god.
A god they could see and touch.
A god that would lead them
And would keep them safe always.
In the throes of fear,
Our ancestors grasped for certainty
And created a place where there was no room for Mystery.
And when Moshe returned to camp,
Carrying the tablets
Inscribed by the Infinite Presence,
The tablets shattered.
These tablets, containing the light of the Infinite Mystery,
Could not enter a place where fear ruled
And certainty was insisted upon.
So, the shattered pieces
Spread throughout the camp
And the people wailed amid the broken fragments.
But from within the brokenness,
The Mystery called:
Hinei makom iti—There is a place for you with me. (Exodus 33:21)
In the midst of fear,
In the grip of doubt and mistrust,
There is a place for you with me.
Feel my presence.
I am standing right beside you.
Listen as I call out my name:
All Being, All Being, Compassion and Graciousness,
Patience, Forbearance, Abounding in Love and Truth,
Extending Generosity through time and space,
Lifting up Guilt and Despair from the Depths of Misdeeds,
And making you free.(Exodus 34: 5-7)
The Torah urges us to not be hijacked by fears,
No matter how insistent they are,
And to not allow regrets and misdeeds to shatter us.
Listen, the Mystery calls:
There is a place for you with me.
I am standing right beside you.
And this is my name:
Compassion, Graciousness, Patience, Love, Truth, Generosity, Forgiveness.
Rabbi Yael Levy
From Ghiora Aharoni
The artist Ghiora Aharoni answers a question about why Moses had the Israelites drink the ground gold from the Golden Calf. At the bottom of the quote is a link to a brief video of his art piece,The Moses Cup where Ghiora envisions the cup Moses used for this purpose.
…” What are the Israelites drinking when they drink the ground gold of the calf mixed with water?
When we ask that question we need to pause…a long pause. Because perhaps the answer is the question.
The way I see it is this: we need to own our sins. And in this case, Moses is not receiving orders from God—it is an independent act of Moses. And in the same way that we’re proud of our virtues and because of that we sometimes externalize them, what Moses is teaching us is that sins need to be internalized. And the physicality of consuming that sin in the physical form of gold—and letting it move through your system—is a shock to the system. It is the shocking act of consuming your sin. And may I add another level of complexity to that? How did former slaves have that much gold? Remember… they “borrowed” that gold from the Egyptians, with the intention of never returning it, so might this be another “sin” that needs to be cleansed? And I think this might be a good place to remind myself that I began by saying that this is a question that perhaps should go unanswered….
I see that experience of internalizing as a metaphor for acknowledging, reflecting and taking responsibility for what we’ve done—while what Moses had the Israelites do was a physical internalization, and it was a shock, in certain instances we need to create a pause—which is what a shock does—and really contemplate what we’ve done to let it sink in.”…
From Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
There are many important themes in our Parsha Ki Tisa, and I would like to concentrate on Ch. 32 that relates to the incident of the Golden Calf. The whole story of the Exodus describes a very complicated process and the text can be read in a myriad of ways, as a story of a gradual awakening, or a story that transmits the notion that sometimes a purge is necessary along the way when behaviors threaten the hard won progress that has been made. There are ‘opposites’ that abide, different energies appearing at different and at the same time, and the journey proceeds with these myriad of forces. There are problems, struggles and resolutions found here.
Along the Journey from Mitzraim, there are three stages.1 – Slavery – where we feel weak – Mitzraim; 2 – Freedom – where we feel more powerful-wilderness; and 3 – Covenantal Freedom – where we use our power responsibly – The Promised land. Along the journey we learn that ‘Liberation is not a guarantee of liberty.’ For wherever we live it is probably Egypt. And there IS probably a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land. However, the way to this land is through the wilderness. And there is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching. (Edinger: The Bible and the Psyche).
The internalized slave mentality of the elders, their struggles in the desert and their desire to return to Egypt, is cited by many thinkers as evidence of the challenges faced by any group facing change and obstacles along the way. The book of Exodus describes a people weighed down by oppression, frightened, despondent, and thus unwilling at times to move forward while facing hardship and falsely fantasizing about an earlier reality in Egypt.
Although our text tells us that the Elders join Moses to dialogue with Pharaoh, the text relates how the Elders slowly slipped away allowing just Moses and Aaron to confront Pharaoh. In Exodus 5:1, we read, “The Elders slipped away”, Rashi comments, “Because they were afraid.” As the elders, so the people as a whole were afraid of their masters, unwilling to challenge Pharaoh in his Palace, overawed by the size of his army (14:10). According to the Torah there were 600,000 Hebrews who marched out, why should they be afraid? Ibn Ezra asks, why didn’t they turn and fight? He says, “They were psychologically incapable; they suffered from a slave mentality, for centuries they had not defended themselves- not at least by fighting.
Theorists of revolution and writers about the Exodus, can be divided into two groups. Those who believe that the liberation of the oppressed will always be a gift from G-d. And those who believe that liberation must to some degree, at least, be the work of the OPPRESSED themselves.
G-d and Moses take the long view, see the promised land ahead, and think that no hardship is too great to endure for the sake of such an end. But many of the people were unsure of the end and remembered the bread in Egypt. So the conflict is then between the fears of the people and the idealism of their leaders, or it is between the demands of the present moment and the promise of the future.
Some commentators suggest that the people’s complaint was not because the desert was a place of austerity, but rather that it was also a world of laws– the whole legal system founded by Moses, Kashrut, Shabbat, rules about manna. It was against all this that the people rebelled, remembering Egypt now as a ‘house of freedom.’ (Indeed, there is a kind of freedom in bondage, and a kind of bondage in freedom; the bondage of law, obligation, and responsibility).
Moses made them free, not merely by breaking their chains, but also by organizing them into a society, by giving them laws. He brought them into what we may call ‘Positive Freedom’– a way of life to whose regulation they could, and did agree. They did accept a common standard; hence the Sinai covenant, but they also resented the standard and feared the responsibility it entailed. And so the wilderness had to be a new ‘School of the Soul.’
The march toward this new ‘School of the Soul,’ moves through organized education, but also includes periods of violence and purging, as counter-groups emerge objecting to the challenges faced ahead. Karl Marx posited that the old world must go under to make room for people to cope with a new world. Thus, in the wilderness we find that there is violence, not only marching and murmuring, but fighting too, internal war and divine punishment. With the Golden calf the murmuring of the people turned into something like a counterrevolution– and the murmurers were not dealt with ‘patience and understanding, acknowledging the difficulties of slavery.’ With the Golden Calf there was no recognition by the leader Moshe that progress takes time.
The incident of the Golden Calf is indeed THE GREAT CRISIS OF THE EXODUS. The question is should there have been a response of GRADUALISM or the PURGING that actually took place. (Walzer: Exodus and Revolution).
Here is the argument for GRADUALISM: G-d should have foreseen the consequences of Egyptian bondage. Oppression is an experience with necessary effects, and G-d confronting those effects should not now be impatient or dispirited. Physically, the escape from Egypt is sudden, glorious, complete. Spiritually, it is very slow– a matter of two steps forward, one step back. The need for education, it would seem, should be the response to the crisis.
But at the foot of the mountain, there was a deep feeling of chaos, revolt, rebelliousness, and recklessness at the absence of Moses. Thus, Moses moved ahead toward the mobilization of the Levites and the killing of the idol worshippers (3,000 out of the population of 600,000 Jews). He felt that this was an absolutely crucial moment to take this drastic step; for allowing this raging insurrection to continue would destroy the forward momentum from the house of bondage to the promised land. This was an act of a PURGE of those who threatened the cherished goal of Moses following G-d’s promise.
Interestingly, Moses says: “THUS SAYETH THE LORD, Let every Levite take his sword and slay the rebels” (32:27). But G-d NOWHERE in the text orders the killing of the idol worshipers! Did Moshe invent this command? Perhaps it is easier to do what in any case must be done if the leader can claim divine authority.
Moshe sees the rebels as a threat that must be removed if the march forward is to succeed. He feels that this sub-group if left to survive will grow in power, sabotage the whole enterprise, and this must be prevented at all costs for this promising new world to be born. So this rule of force, this PURGE, though the enemy of patient GRADUALISM, must be implemented as an emergency necessity or else all would be lost. As people who pursue peace and express compassion, can we imagine a moment when violence is valid to prevent a greater tragedy, can we institute a rule when it is valid and when it is not, and that perhaps both violence and gradualism are necessary at different times? This is a most challenging question that has to be faced when a terrifying threat faces us.
Radical revolutionaries say that even meek Moses had to be a ‘man of blood’ at times. There was no way to reach the Promised Land except to overcome the opponents of the march and
then drive on the reluctant marchers. Moshe, against his natural instinct of compassion, had to call upon Gevurah in this crisis moment.
Buber makes an interesting point and says that the Exodus was the kind of revolution which could not be brought about by anyone who had been raised as a slave. Moshe is separate from the people in his growing up and later separates himself from the people again. Immediately after the incident of the Golden Calf, “Moses took the Tabernacle and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp.” (Exodus, 33:7). Neither G-d nor Moses (broken-hearted for what he had done) could dwell among the people whose brothers, companions, and neighbors they had ordered killed.
There is another lesson that we learn from the Exodus/Wilderness experience and that is that perhaps only a new generation with a different experience can be capable of liberation. The elders with the memory and fears of slavery had to raise a new generation of freeborn children, for the elders could not completely overcome their earlier experience of oppression.
Moses educates this new generation to the laws and rituals of Israel’s new religion. and the result is that the Israelites at the Jordan are very different from the Israelites at the sea; they are faithful and courageous. They are committed to one another and to the covenant that binds them together. This is the achievement of four decades in the wilderness.
So, let us return to the original question, WAS IT THE PURGING or the TEACHING that made the decisive DIFFERENCE? I think we can say that it is the patient teaching over forty years that created a new reality, and there was a crisis moment when a purge, though an anomaly, also was necessary to prevent a regression to a lower consciousness. I think our text is telling us that at some point the counter-revolutionaries had to be defeated if the Egyptian bondage was ever to be left behind. At these crisis moments it is expected, though agonizing, that we stand up for our ideals with courage and confront those who wish to remain with the status quo due to their fears of change and loss of power. We must not allow the naysayers, or the minority opinions who shout the loudest to deter us from goals that will benefit the larger society yearning for justice and kindness for all. We must (therefore as well) confront the Egypt within, overcome our fears and choose ‘Derech Hayashar’, that which we are commanded to do. However, I think that the text makes clear that the counter-revolutionaries, who are not fully committed to the higher goals, cannot be defeated by force alone. It still took a generation of gradual education that transformed their consciousness. It took forty years of living through trials and tribulations to embrace the path of faith and higher consciousness.
It is in our nature to sometimes be recalcitrant in the face of G-d’s demand that we be something more than ordinary. Thus, it takes a long process in the desert, an educational process, where people work and struggle to grow and take on the higher, noble ideals that G-d has ‘called us’ to uphold. Sometimes it takes a whole new generation, and sometimes with patience, persistence, and prayer, G-d’s blessing will bring us to the Promised Land.
May we all find the strength to stand up for the exalted goals that we are ‘chosen’ to uphold, oppose those who would deter us from these goals, and continue to educate ourselves and others with patience, love and respect as we grow on our journey toward wholeness.
Have a great Shabbat, one filled with gratitude and joy for all our blessings,
Peace and Love,
From Rabbi David Kasher
BREAKING THE LAW – Parshat Ki Tisa
Every so often, roaming through the world of parshanut, we come across a piece of commentary so startling, so profound, and so complex, that it demands our full attention for the week. This is such a week, and the piece in question is from one of the great works of Torah commentary of the 20th-century, the Meshech Chochmah, by Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, Latvia.
This collection of novellae on the Torah, published posthumously by one of Rabbi Meir Simcha’s students, is known for its long discursions into legal or philosophical matters. But the author of the Meshech Chochmah is also distinguished by his willingness to offer entirely novel interpretations of classic scenes from the Torah. Occasionally, he is able to re-read just one verse in such a way that it completely shifts our understanding of a whole chapter.
That is the case with his commentary on the following verse from this week’s parsha:
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)
וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר קָרַב אֶל-הַמַּחֲנֶה, וַיַּרְא אֶת-הָעֵגֶל, וּמְחֹלֹת; וַיִּחַר-אַף מֹשֶׁה, וַיַּשְׁלֵךְ מִיָּדָו אֶת-הַלֻּחֹת, וַיְשַׁבֵּר אֹתָם, תַּחַת הָהָר.
This famous image of the breaking of the tablets takes place as Moses descends from Mount Sinai, after a forty-day communion with God, only to find that the people have built a golden calf – transgressing the very commandment against idolatry now inscribed by God upon those tablets. Moses was warned by God that this was happening, but the sight of it is just too much for him; he flies into a rage, and smashes the tablets to the ground.
But how could Moses have done such a thing? The sin of the people was great, to be sure, but here he was not merely punishing them – he was destroying a sacred object, the work of God’s own hands. How dare Moses presume the authority to shatter this precious testament to God’s commandments? Or perhaps he simply lost his temper, and wasn’t thinking clearly; but then, what does that say about the character of our greatest leader?
The commentators do their best to explain these difficulties away. Some say that he received approval from God to destroy the tablets, while others suggest that he was simply so startled by what he saw that he just dropped them.
But the Meshech Chochmah has a very different answer. He begins with what appears to be a tangential theological point :
The idea here is that that Torah and Faith are the essential principles of the nation of Israel, and all the holiness of the Land of Israel, and of Jerusalem, etc. For these are all just particulars and extensions of the Torah, and are made holy only through the holiness of the Torah. Because of this, in matters of Torah, there are no differences based on time or place – it is the same whether one is in Israel or outside of the Land. Nor does it matter whether one is the most exalted person, like Moses, the Man of God, or the lowest of the low – for anyone who transgresses the commandments of God, there is one law for all, even down to the lowliest.
הענין, כי התורה והאמונה המה עיקרי האומה הישראלית וכל הקדושות א“י וירושלים כו’ המה פרטי וסניפי התורה ונתקדשו בקדושת התורה, ולכך אין חילוק לכל עניני התורה בין במקום בין בזמן והיא שוה בא”י ובחו“ל, וכן הוא שוה בין לאדם הגבוה שבגבוהים, משה איש האלקים להשפל שבשפלים, ואם יעבור אחד מהמה על אחת ממצות ד’, דת אחד לו עם השפל שבשפלים.
This is a lovely statement of equality under the law. It almost reads like a description of modern democracy. The main takeaway here, however, seems to be that Moses is no greater than any other Israelite, and the Meshech Chochmah builds on this point as he pivots into our story in Exodus. He writes:
Moses was only the middleman for the Torah, but the Torah was not essentially connected to his being… But when they saw that Moses was taking so long to come down, they lost their faith and so they sought to make the calf, in order to bring a spirit from above down upon this sculpture…
ומשה לא קראו התורה רק סרסור, אבל אין התיחסות התורה לו… והמה כאשר ראו כי בושש משה נפלו מאמונתם ובקשו לעשות להם עגל ולהוריד על הצורה ההיא רוח ממעל…
The people, the Meshech Chochmah is implying, believed Moses to be endowed with a unique holiness, such that the word of God could only come from him. So when Moses delayed in returning, they panicked, fearing their only connection to God had been lost. They built the Golden Calf, according to this logic, not as a thing to be worshipped in itself, but as an object of holiness that might summon the Divine down upon it. Their crime did not begin with the Golden Calf, then, but was already present in their distorted understanding of Moses. And once Moses understood this, writes the Meshech Chochmah, he cried out:
“Did you think that I had any holiness without God’s command, so that when my presence was gone, you made this calf?! God forbid! I am just a man like you! The Torah is not dependent on me, and even if I had never come, the Torah would have its own existence, without any change, God forbid… So do not think that the Sanctuary or the Tabernacle themselves are holy things, God forbid. Through them the Holy Blessed One dwells among His children, but if they transgressed the covenant, all holiness would be removed from them. These things are mere vessels… And even more so, the tablets, with the writing of God – these too have no holiness in themselves, but only for your sake.
, האם תדמו כי אני ענין ואיזו קדושה בלתי מצות ד’, עד כי בהעדר כבודי עשיתם לכם עגל, חלילה גם אני איש כמוכם, והתורה אינה תלויה בי, ואף אם לא באתי היתה התורה במציאותה בלי שנוי חלילה…ואל תדמו כי המקדש והמשכן המה ענינים קדושים בעצמם, חלילה, השי”ת שורה בתוך בניו, ואם המה כאדם עברו ברית, הוסר מהם כל הקדושה והמה ככלי חול …ויותר מזה הלוחות מכתב אלקים, גם המה אינם קדושים בעצם רק בשבילכם
Here we begin to get an understanding of what might have prompted the breaking of the tablets. Moses realized that if his absence prompted prompted a religious crisis, and if the people tried to fill that void with a golden statue, then they were likely to attribute divinity to any physical representation of God – including the Tabernacle, the Land of Israel, and especially… the tablets.
And that is why, As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he understood their error, and he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands, in order to declare that there was no holiness or divinity at all apart from the being of the Creator of Blessed Name. And if he were to bring them the tablets, they would have simply exchanged the calf for the tablet, and would not have corrected their error.
וזהו ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל ומחולות הבין טעותן ויחר אף משה וישלך מידיו את הלוחות, ר”ל כי אין שום קדושה וענין אלקי כלל בלעדי מציאות הבורא ית”ש, ואם הביא הלוחות היו כמחלפים עגל בלוח ולא סרו מטעותן.
As soon as Moses handed over these rocks, which had been touched by the hand of the Lord, they would become the new idols. The people would place the tablets in the Ark and then come to worship, at the Tabernacle, not just God, but the tablets themselves. For what they really wanted was a representation of God they could touch and see.
It is an understandable impulse, perfectly human, to seek a physical manifestation of one’s spiritual beliefs. Yet that is precisely the impulse that the Torah intends to counteract, argues the Meshech Chochmah. The message of the Torah is that no object has inherent holiness, for the only true holiness comes from God, and God is beyond all physicality or representation.
And so Moses had to break the tablets, in order to show the people, “Look, these are just rocks! They have no meaning other than the one God gives to them. If you do not understand that, you are not ready for them.” Moses did not break the tablets out of mere rage, but in order to teach the people a profound spiritual lesson: that religion itself can become an object of idolatry.
The implications of the Meshech Chochmah’s interpretation are potentially quite devastating for many of our traditional assumptions. They directly undermine the sanctity of any material aspect of Judaism: places – like Israel, or Jerusalem, or the Cave of the Patriarchs; people – like Moses, or the Arizal, or the Ba’al Shem Tov; or objects – like the tablets, or a lulav, or a mezuzah. All of these things are, in the language of the Meshech Chochmah, mere vessels, with no holiness of their own.
One wonders, however, just how accurate this theory of Torah is. The Meshech Chochmah wrote earlier, for example, that the principles of the Torah operate irrespective of time and place – “it is the same whether one is in Israel or outside of the Land.” Yet that seems to belie the many agricultural laws in the Torah that are specifically designed for settlement in Israel. And in fact, the Meshech Chochmah later adds a rather significant amendment, in brackets:
[except for those commandments which are tied to the land]
[לבד מצות התלוים בארץ]
Well, yes. Except for those.
Israel is, after all, described by the prophet Zechariah as, “the holy land.” (2:16)
And there are holy people mentioned in the Torah as well. Israel is to be “a holy nation.” (Exod. 19:6) The High Priest wears a golden sign on his forehead designating him as “holy to the Lord.” (Exod. 29:1) Later in the Hebrew Bible, Elisha is described as “a holy man of God.” (2 Kings 4:9)
As for holy objects, we need look no further than our own parsha for vessels that seem to be imbued with holiness. Just two chapters earlier, we read:
You shall anoint the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, the table and all its utensils, the lampstand and all its fittings, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the laver and its stand. You shall sanctify them and they will be most holy; whatever touches them will also become holy. (Exodus 30:29)
כו וּמָשַׁחְתָּ בוֹ, אֶת-אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, וְאֵת, אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת. כז וְאֶת-הַשֻּׁלְחָן, וְאֶת-כָּל-כֵּלָיו, וְאֶת-הַמְּנֹרָה, וְאֶת-כֵּלֶיהָ; וְאֵת, מִזְבַּח הַקְּטֹרֶת. כח וְאֶת-מִזְבַּח הָעֹלָה, וְאֶת-כָּל-כֵּלָיו; וְאֶת-הַכִּיֹּר, וְאֶת-כַּנּוֹ. כט וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ אֹתָם, וְהָיוּ קֹדֶשׁ קָדָשִׁים; כָּל-הַנֹּגֵעַ בָּהֶם, יִקְדָּשׁ.
Not only are these items holy, but whatever touches them becomes holy as well! Now that certainly sounds like the holiness has become attached to the object itself.
Of course, the Meshech Chochmah would likely respond, it is simply because God deemed these things holy that they are so, and if they can transmit that holiness, that, too, is simply by the command of God. There is, again, no holiness that exists independently of God.
It is a powerful position, and certainly has a great deal of truth to it. Yet one cannot help but feel that the Meshech Chochmah is sometimes reaching a bit too far, sometimes willfully ignoring things that are right in front of him.
In other words, this theory of Torah, in its most extreme formulation, doesn’t always fit the words of the Torah itself. Rather, the Torah has to be to be selectively quoted, and intentionally interpreted, in such a way as to fit the true message of the Torah – at least as the Meshech Chochmah understands it.
In that way, the Meshech Chochmah is not so different from his own vision of Moses. He is breaking the actual Torah apart, in order to make a higher point about the purpose of Torah. He wants us to be able receive the Torah in its purest form, and to do that, he will have to shatter some of our basic understandings of the actual Torah we have before us.
You can’t make a Torah, it seems, without breaking some tablets.
From the Hebrew College
Seeking God’s Face in the Age of Coronavirus
By Cantor Ken Richmond
Purim, the annual topsy-turvy holiday that we celebrated this week, provides an opportunity for thinking about God’s presence and absence, God’s quality of seeming alternately hidden or revealed, as we listen to the only Biblical book without God’s name and wonder whether the plot twists are ruled by God’s will or by lottery, and whether the vicissitudes of the world are meaningful or capricious. This tension seemed even stronger this year, the Divine presence more hidden than usual, as people of all religious and political persuasions united against a common enemy—the coronavirus. The holiday of joy took on elements of fear; some celebrations were canceled and others took place with trepidation (and attempts at improved hygiene), as a holiday of coming together as a community occurred with many of us in isolation.
Our Torah portion, Ki Tisa, also juxtaposes God’s presence and absence, sometimes in jarring ways. The parsha begins with instructions for the building of the mishkan, the ultimate community-building experience, constructed through everyone’s generosity and efforts, with the goal of encouraging God’s presence to dwell in their midst. Suddenly we read that while Moses is communing with God on Mount Sinai, the people despair in his absence, and in what they experience as a corresponding lack of Divine presence or Divine attention, attempt to fill the void by building a Golden Calf. While one could read the Divine anger that results as a perverted version of God’s presence, I prefer to see it as an acute absence in which the Levites slay 3,000 of their fellow Israelites, with many more dying in a plague, parallel to the death toll at the hands of the Jews of Persia at the end of Megillat Esther.
Perhaps feeling that if he had been just a little more in harmony with God, the incident might have been avoided1, Moses then asks that God’s presence return to the people, and that God allow him to understand God’s ways. He goes on to say (33:18) “Har’eini na et Kevodecha,” “please show me your Presence.” God responds (33:19-23):
“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Adonai, and I will grant grace to the one to whom I grant grace, and have compassion for whoever I have compassion for. But you cannot see My face, for a person may not see Me and live.” God said [further]: “Here is a place with Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a 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 will not be seen.”
Every time we read this parsha, I’m surprised and moved by Moses, who according to tradition has a incomparably close relationship with God, yet here yearns to become closer still. Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, whose writings I’m studying this semester with my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader at Hebrew College, writes about a spiritual quest starting from a place of doubt, a challenge to faith that one’s mind can’t resolve. Through searching and struggle, a person may find some resolution to this doubt. This only clears the way for a new doubt, a new challenge, and perhaps another insight and resolution, ideally with the process repeating, as one ascends higher and higher rungs of a ladder. And even so, according to Rebbe Nachman, “the end of knowledge is that we do not know.” The spiritual journey begins with and is punctuated by doubt, and only by beginning with God’s absence can we hope to reach, temporarily, a sense of God’s presence. The rest of us can be relieved and emboldened by Moses having his own doubts and yearnings, and we can emulate his desire to keep striving for renewed intimacy by overcoming God’s hiddenness.
Commentators bring a variety of interpretations as to the meaning of “God’s back,” which Moses and we can sense, as opposed to “God’s face,” which we can never comprehend. Seforno says that God’s back is the lower working of the heavens, while God’s face is the machinations and motivations of the Divine Mind itself. The Hatam Sofer says that God’s back is the limited understanding that we can have of God’s actions in the world as they occur, with a greater understanding possible later, perhaps only at the end of days. The Kotzker Rebbe, Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, says that everything puzzling and confused that people see is called “God’s back.” But no person can see God’s face, where everything is in harmony.
Sometimes we feel like we’re in a world like that of the Purim story, where God’s presence is hard to find, where we’re buffeted by forces beyond our control; we may have felt this way in some respects even before the latest challenge of the coronavirus, which threatens our health and sense of well-being, and limits the physical and social contact we depend on to form community. One may wonder if seeking God’s presence is something that we can even aspire to in an age of potential pandemic. I would argue that the search becomes even more important, and that the sense of fear and absence of God we may feel can become the catalyst for finding God’s presence in unexpected places, in people’s best efforts to keep each other safe, to care for each other, and to connect as best we can in a time of “social distancing.” We may have to settle for “God’s back,” as the Kotzker rebbe said, with everything still seeming puzzling and confused. But like Moses, we need to keep striving to see God’s face, where everything is in harmony, even if this experience may prove ephemeral, just out of reach. May Moses’ example remind us, especially in a time of uncertainty, to strive to come closer to the Divine and to other people, and in doing so, may we turn fear into caring, anxiety into moments of joy, and God’s hiddenness into revelation.
1 This insight from my teacher Rabbi Nehemia Polen
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Moses Annuls a Vow
Ki Tissa 5780
Kol Nidre, the prayer said at the beginning of Yom Kippur, is an enigma wrapped in a mystery, perhaps the strangest text ever to capture the religious imagination. First, it is not a prayer at all. It is not even a confession. It is a dry legal formula for the annulment of vows. It is written in Aramaic. It does not mention God. It is not part of the service. It does not require a synagogue. And it was disapproved of, or at least questioned, by generations of halachic authorities.
The first time we hear of Kol Nidre, in the eighth century, it is already being opposed by Rav Natronai Gaon, the first of many Sages throughout the centuries who found it problematic. In his view, one cannot annul the vows of an entire congregation this way. Even if one could, one should not, since it may lead people to treat vows lightly. Besides which, there has already been an annulment of vows ten days earlier, on the morning before Rosh Hashanah. This is mentioned explicitly in the Talmud (Nedarim 23b). There is no mention of an annulment on Yom Kippur.
Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi’s grandson, was particularly insistent in arguing that the kind of annulment Kol Nidre represents cannot be retroactive. It cannot apply to vows already taken. It can only be a pre-emptive qualification of vows in the future. Accordingly he insisted on changing its wording, so that Kol Nidre refers not to vows from last year to this, but from this year to next.
However, perhaps because of this, Kol Nidre created hostility on the part of non-Jews, who said it showed that Jews did not feel bound to honour their promises since they vitiated them on the holiest night of the year. In vain it was repeatedly emphasised that Kol Nidre applies only to vows between us and God, not those between us and our fellow humans. Throughout the Middle Ages, and in some places until the eighteenth century, in lawsuits with non-Jews, Jews were forced to take a special oath, More Judaica, because of this concern.
So there were communal and halachic reasons not to say Kol Nidre, yet it survived all the doubts and misgivings. It remains the quintessential expression of the awe and solemnity of the day. Its undiminished power defies all obvious explanations. Somehow it seems to point to something larger than itself, whether in Jewish history or the inner heartbeat of the Jewish soul.
Several historians have argued that it acquired its pathos from the phenomenon of forced conversions, whether to Christianity or Islam, that occurred in several places in the Middle Ages, most notably Spain and Portugal in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. Jews would be offered the choice: convert or suffer persecution. Sometimes it was: convert or be expelled. At times it was even: convert or die. Some Jews did convert. They were known in Hebrew as anusim (people who acted under coercion). In Spanish they were known as conversos, or contemptuously as marranos (swine).
Many of them remained Jews in secret, and once a year on the night of Yom Kippur they would make their way in secret to the synagogue to seek release from the vows they had taken to adopt to another faith, on the compelling grounds that they had no other choice. For them, coming to the synagogue was like coming home, the root meaning of teshuvah.
There are obvious problems with this hypothesis. Firstly, Kol Nidre was in existence several centuries before the era of forced conversions. So historian Joseph S. Bloch suggested that Kol Nidre may have originated in the much earlier Christian persecution of Jews in Visigoth Spain, when in 613 Sisebur issued a decree that all Jews should either convert or be expelled, anticipating the Spanish expulsion of 1492. Even so, it is unlikely that conversos would have taken the risk of being discovered practising Judaism. Had they done so during the centuries in which the Inquisition was in force they would have risked torture, trial and death. Moreover, the text of Kol Nidre makes no reference, however oblique, to conversion, return, identity, or atonement. It is simply an annulment of vows.
So the theories as they stand do not satisfy.
However it may be that Kol Nidre has a different significance altogether, one that has its origin in a remarkable rabbinic interpretation of this week’s parsha. The connection between it and Yom Kippur is this: less than six weeks after the great revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites committed what seemed to be the unforgivable sin of making a Golden Calf. Moses prayed repeatedly for forgiveness on their behalf and eventually secured it, descending from Mount Sinai on the Tenth of Tishrei with a new set of tablets to replace those he had smashed in anger at their sin. The tenth of Tishrei subsequently became Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, in memory of that moment when the Israelites saw Moses with the new tablets and knew they had been forgiven.
Moses’ prayers, as recorded in the Torah, are daring. But the Midrash makes them more audacious still. The text introducing Moses’ prayer begins with the Hebrew words, Vayechal Moshe (Ex. 32:11). Normally these are translated as “Moses besought, implored, entreated, pleaded, or attempted to pacify” God. However the same verb is used in the context of annulling or breaking a vow (Num. 30:3). On this basis the Sages advanced a truly remarkable interpretation:
[Vayechal Moshe means] “Moses absolved God of His vow.” When the Israelites made the Golden Calf, Moses sought to persuade God to forgive them, but God said, “I have already taken an oath that Whoever sacrifices to any god other than the Lord must be punished (Ex. 22:19). I cannot retract what I have said.” Moses replied, “Lord of the universe, You have given me the power to annul oaths, for You taught me that one who takes an oath cannot break their word but a scholar can absolve them. I hereby absolve You of Your vow” (abridged from Exodus Rabbah 43:4).
According to the Sages the original act of Divine forgiveness on which Yom Kippur is based came about through the annulment of a vow, when Moses annulled the vow of God. The Sages understood the verse, “Then the Lord relented from the evil He had spoken of doing to His people” (Ex. 32:14) to mean that God expressed regret for the vow He had taken – a precondition for a vow to be annulled.
Why would God regret His determination to punish the people for their sin? On this, another Midrash offers an equally radical answer. The opening word of Psalm 61 is la–menatzeach. When this word appears in Psalms it usually means, “To the conductor, or choirmaster.” However the Sages interpreted it to mean, “To the Victor,” meaning God, and added this stunning commentary:
To the Victor who sought to be defeated, as it is said (Isaiah 57:16), “I will not accuse them forever, nor will I always be angry, for then they would faint away because of Me— the very people I have created.” Do not read it thus, but, “I will accuse in order to be defeated.” How so? Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He, “When I win, I lose, and when I lose I gain. I defeated the generation of the Flood, but did I not lose thereby, for I destroyed My own creation, as it says (Gen. 7:23), “Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out.” The same happened with the generation of the Tower of Babel and the people of Sodom. But in the days of Moshe who defeated Me (by persuading Me to forgive the Israelites whom I had sworn to destroy), I gained for I did not destroy Israel.
God wants His forgiveness to override His justice, because strict justice hurts humanity, and humanity is God’s creation and carries His image. That is why He regretted His vow and allowed Moses to annul it. That is why Kol Nidre has the power it has. For it recalls the Israelites’ worst sin, the Golden Calf, and their forgiveness, completed when Moses descended the mountain with the new tablets on the 10th of Tishrei, the anniversary of which is Yom Kippur. The forgiveness was the result of Moses’ daring prayer, understood by the Sages as an act of annulment of vows. Hence Kol Nidre, a formula for the annulment of vows.
The power of Kol Nidre has less to do with forced conversions than with a recollection of the moment, described in our parsha, when Moses stood in prayer before God and achieved forgiveness for the people: the first time the whole people was forgiven despite the gravity of their sin. During Musaf on Yom Kippur we describe in detail the second Yom Kippur: the service of the High Priest, Aharon, as described in Vayikra 16. But on Kol Nidre we recall the first Yom Kippur when Moses annulled the Almighty’s vow, letting His compassion override His justice, the basis of all Divine forgiveness.
I believe we must always strive to fulfil our promises. If we fail to keep our word, eventually we lose our freedom. But given the choice between justice and forgiveness, choose forgiveness. When we forgive and are worthy of being forgiven, we are liberated from a past we regret, to build a better future.
 Pesikta Rabbati (Ish Shalom), 9.
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
The Golden Calf
From My Jewish Learning
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.
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
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.
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.
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 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
13th March 2017
The Sabbath: First Day Or Last? (Ki Tissa 5777)
In the immensely lengthy and detailed account of the making of the Tabernacle, the Torah tells the story twice: first (Ex. 25:1 – 31:17) as Divine instruction, then (Chs. 35 – 40) as human implementation. In both cases, the construction of the building is juxtaposed to the command of the Sabbath (31:12-17; 35:1-2).
There are halakhic and theological implications. First, according to Jewish tradition, the juxtaposition was intended to establish the rule that the Sabbath overrides the making of the Tabernacle. Not only is the seventh day a time when secular work comes to an end. It also brings rest from the holiest of labours: making a house for God. Indeed, the oral tradition defined ‘work’ – melakhah, that which is prohibited on the Sabbath – in terms of the thirty-nine activities involved in making the sanctuary.
At a more metaphysical level, the Sanctuary mirrors – is the human counterpart to – the Divine creation of the universe (for the precise linguistic parallels between Exodus and Genesis, see Covenant and Conversation, Terumah 5767/2007). Just as Divine creation culminates in the Sabbath, so too does human creation. The sanctity of place takes second position to the holiness of time (on this, see A. J. Heschel’s famous book, The Sabbath).
However, there is one marked difference between the account of God’s instruction to build the Sanctuary, and Moses instruction to the people. In the first case, the command of the Sabbath appears at the end, after the details of the construction. In the second, it appears at the beginning, before the details. Why so?
The Talmud, in the tractate of Shabbat (69b), raises the following question: what happens if you are far away from human habitation and you forget what day it is. How do you observe the Sabbath? The Talmud offers two answers:
R. Huna said: if one is travelling on a road or in the wilderness and does not know when it is the Sabbath, he must count six days [from the day he realises he has forgotten] and observe one. R. Hiyya b. Rav said: he must observe one, and then count six [week] days. On what do they differ? One master holds that it is like the world’s creation. The other holds that it is like [the case of] Adam.
From God’s point of view, the Sabbath was the seventh day. From the point of view of the first human beings – created on the sixth day – the Sabbath was the first. The debate is about which perspective we should adopt.
Thus, at the simplest level, we understand why the Sabbath comes last when God is speaking about the Tabernacle, and why it comes first when Moses, a human being, is doing so. For God, the Sabbath was the last day; for human beings it was the first. However there is something more fundamental at stake.
When it comes to Divine creation, there is no gap between intention and execution. God spoke, and the world came into being. In relation to God, Isaiah says:
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.
I say: My purpose will stand,
and I will do all that I please. (Isaiah 46:10)
God knows in advance how things will turn out. With human beings, it is otherwise. Often, we cannot see the outcome at the outset. A great novelist may not know how the story will turn out until he has written it, nor a composer, a symphony, nor an artist, a painting. Creativity is fraught with risk. All the more so is it with human history. The ‘law of unintended consequences’ tells us that revolutions rarely turn out as planned. Policies designed to help the poor may have the opposite effect. Hayek coined the phrase ‘the fatal conceit’ for what he saw as the almost inevitable failure of social engineering – the idea that you can plan human behaviour in advance. You can’t.
One alternative is simply to let things happen as they will. This kind of resignation, however, is wholly out of keeping with the Judaic view of history. The Sages said: ‘Wherever you find the word vayehi [‘and it came to pass’] it is always a prelude to tragedy.’ When things merely come to pass, they rarely have a happy ending.
The other solution – unique, as far as I know, to Judaism – is to reveal the end at the beginning. That is the meaning of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not simply a day of rest. It is an anticipation of ‘the end of history’, the Messianic age. On it, we recover the lost harmonies of the Garden of Eden. We do not strive to do; we are content to be. We are not permitted to manipulate the world; instead, we celebrate it as God’s supreme work of art. We are not allowed to exercise power or dominance over other human beings, nor even domestic animals. Rich and poor inhabit the Sabbath alike, with equal dignity and freedom.
No utopia has ever been realised (the word ‘utopia’ itself means ‘no place’) – with one exception: ‘the world to come’. The reason is that we rehearse it every week, one day in seven. The Sabbath is a full dress rehearsal for an ideal society that has not yet come to pass, but will do, because we know what we are aiming for – because we experienced it at the beginning.
We now begin to sense the full symbolic drama of the making of the Tabernacle. In the wilderness, long before they crossed the Jordan and entered the promised land, God told the Israelites to build a miniature universe. It would be a place of carefully calibrated order – as the universe is a place of carefully calibrated order. Nowadays, scientists call this the ‘anthropic principle’, the finding that the laws of physics and chemistry are finely tuned for the emergence of life. Just so did the Tabernacle have to be exact in its construction and dimensions. The building of the Tabernacle was a symbolic prototype of the building of a society. Just as it was an earthly home for the Divine presence, so would society become if the Israelites honoured God’s laws.
The ultimate end of such a society is the harmony of existence that we have not yet experienced, living as we do in a world of work and striving, conflict and competition. God, however, wanted us to know what we were aiming at, so that we would not lose our way in the wilderness of time. That is why, when it came to the human execution of the building, the Sabbath came first, even though in global terms, the ‘Sabbath of history’ (the Messianic age, the world to come) will come last. God ‘made known the end at the beginning’ – the fulfilled rest that follows creative labour; the peace that will one day take the place of strife – so that we would catch a glimpse of the destination before beginning the journey.
Only those who know where they are travelling to will get there, however fast or slow they go.
From Brian Yosef Schachter- Brooks
The Coconut Oil: Parshat Ki Tisa
In the Face of it All: Parshat Ki Tisa
IN THE FACE OF IT ALL – Parshat Ki Tisa
My great hero, Nechama Leibowitz, wrote a beautiful little essay on a beautiful little passage in the Book of Exodus. And she led me to piece of Torah commentary by the 13th-century Spanish preacher Rabbeinu Bachya that has frankly been blowing my mind all week. So I’d like to take you down the same path I walked, and to share some of these riches with you.
Let’s begin with the text of the Torah itself, taken from the end of Parshat Ki Tisa. And I’m going to do something I rarely do, which is to quote the passage in full, because just to read it out loud is a beautiful experience. As Nechama points out, it is written in uniquely poetic language, dreamlike and repetitive, almost like a mantra. The narrative describes Moses’ descent from Mount Sinai, after having spent forty days up there, neither eating nor drinking, just communing with the Lord. And as the people see him begin to descend, they notice something startling about his appearance:
So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain, with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him. Aaron and all the Children of Israel saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant, and they were scared to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. Afterwards, all the Children of Israel came near, and he commanded them in all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. And when when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a mask on his face. So whenever Moses came before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the mask off until he came out. And when he came out and told the Children of Israel what he had been commanded, the Children of Israel would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was. Moses would then put the mask back on his face until he came in to speak with Him. (Exodus 34:29-35)
What a dizzying scene. So much mystery here. What is this light on Moses’ face? Why isn’t Moses aware of it, if it is so visible to everyone else? Why are the people afraid of it? And what is this mask that Moses puts on? It’s all very difficult to understand.
But there is a clue in the wording that may help us answer at least one of these questions. Because there is one word that repeats itself again and again: פני (pnei), the word for ‘face.’ Moses’ face is mentioned no less than six times.That’s where this light is coming from. And then there is a seventh mention of a face, though this one is somewhat hidden. Towards the end, when the verse says that Moses would come “before God,” the Hebrew word for ‘before’ – לפני (lifnei) – is related to the word for ‘face;’ literally, it means, ‘at God’s face.’ So we have Moses’ face, and God’s face. Now where have we seen those faces together before?
Well, earlier in our parsha, of course. A chapter back, when describing how God would communicate with Moses at the Tent of Meeting, the Torah says:
The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, like one man speaks to his fellow. (Exod. 33:11)
When we come to the end of the Torah, the last verses of the Deuteronomy will repeat this imagery. Moses spoke to God as no one else ever had before or has since – פנים אל פנים (panim el panim) – face to face.
So when we read in our parsha that Moses’ face, of all things, glowed after he came down from the mountain where God spoke to him for 40 days, we can only presume that this light on his face was transmitted from the light of God’s own face.
I won’t claim to know what that means. Surely God does not have a face in the way that you and I have a face. In fact, in another verse from our parsha, God famously declares to Moses, “you cannot see My face, for no person can see me and live.” (33:20) But maybe Moses cannot see God’s face precisely because all he could see was the blinding light radiating off of it. That light was so powerful that it left a residue on Moses’ own face. And that light is precisely what Moses shows the people when he calls them to come close, after he has descended from the mountain.
This imagery is particularly striking when we consider that what is happening in this scene is that Moses is instructing the people. The language here is that he “commanded them in all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai.” And Rashi sees in this moment a key to understanding the entire process of transmitting Torah from one person to another, and links the phrase “afterwards, all the Children of Israel came near,” to the following passage from the Talmud:
Our Rabbis taught: What was the ‘Seder Mishnah’ ( the Procedure for Teaching)? Moses learned from the mouth of the Almighty. Then Aaron entered and Moses taught him his lesson. Aaron then moved aside and sat down on Moses’ left. Then Aaron’s sons entered and Moses taught them their lesson and then they moved aside… Then the elders entered and Moses taught them their lesson, and when the elders moved aside all rest of the people entered and Moses taught them their lesson…
Then Moses departed and Aaron taught them his lesson. Then Aaron departed and his sons taught them their lesson. His sons then departed and the elders taught them their lesson…
So Moses received straight from God. And then everyone received a lesson from Moses. And then, it seems, everyone had a lesson to give. Now if we connect that process to our analysis above, and remember that part of what Moses received from God was a remnant of the light from God’s face, then it is fair to assume that part of what Moses is giving over to the people is this same light. It shines from his face, now, onto theirs. And then their faces radiate. And then they transmit that light on to the next person. And on and on, so that everyone who learns Torah is being glazed with a trace of that original light from the Divine countenance.
I could just stop here and dayeinu. The imagery alone is so stunning it kills me. But we have to push further and ask: what does it all mean? What exactly was being communicated or transmitted, or radiated, from face to face? What happened to Moses in that original encounter?
To answer that we turn, finally, to the piece I promised from Rabbeinu Bachya, the piece that Nechama Leibowitz shared with me in her essay. Bachya notices a strange ambiguity in the last line of our passage in Exodus. That line was: “Moses would then put the mask back on his face until he came in to speak with Him.” And here’s what Bachya says:
“until he came in to speak with Him” – It should have said “until he came in to speak with God.” For look, the verses repeat Moses’ name many times, and don’t revert to the pronoun. So why, now, do they use the pronoun instead of the special name of God? In a place where the name really ought to be mentioned [to avoid ambiguity] – it isn’t mentioned!
But it is possible to say that all of this was to elevate the honor given to Moses, so that you could understand this verse also to mean, “until God came in to speak with Moses.” This is to teach you that just as Moses came to speak to God, so God came to speak to Moses. Just as the verse [we saw earlier] says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, like one man speaks to his fellow.”
Astounding. Rabbeinu Bachya is offering such a radical reading of the verse that it took me a moment to realize what he was saying. He is suggesting that the Torah used the vague pronoun on purpose, deliberately leaving the phrase ambiguous, so that you, the reader, could understand the “him” here to be either God or Moses. And that means the that “he” who came could also be either God or Moses.
In other words, the very description of the face-to-face encounter between Moses and God, by blurring the identities of the two parties, manages to convey that in that moment the difference between Moses and God itself became blurred.
Standing in the light of God’s face, one could not see who was who. There were simply two beings talking. There was a true meeting between them, some kind of merger. And when Moses walked away, his face was changed. He looked more like the God he’d been talking to.
And then he went and spoke to Aaron, face to face, and Aaron began to glow. And when Aaron taught his sons, their faces also became radiant. And so on and so forth, until all of the people were shining with the same light.
In all of these moments, when the Torah is given over from teacher to student, it is never clear who is the teacher and who is the student. There are just words, and light.
And in that blinding light, we cannot see who is God and who is Moses. And who is Moses and who is Aaron. The elders and the people. The Talmud and Rashi. Bachya and Nechama. Nechama and me. Me and you. You and me.
We are lost. Lost in the face of it all.
The Closeness of God (Ki Tissa 5776)
The more I study the Torah, the more conscious I become of the immense mystery of Exodus 33. This is the chapter set in the middle of the Golden Calf narrative, between chapter 32 describing the sin and its consequences, and chapter 34, God’s revelation to Moses of the “Thirteen attributes of Mercy”, the second set of tablets and the renewal of the covenant. It is, I believe, this mystery that frames the shape of Jewish spirituality.
What makes chapter 33 perplexing is, first, that it is not clear what it is about. What was Moses doing? In the previous chapter he had already prayed twice for the people to be forgiven. In chapter 34 he prays for forgiveness again. What then was he trying to achieve in chapter 33?
Second, Moses’ requests are strange. He says, “Show me now Your ways” and “Show me now Your glory” (33:13, 33:18). These seem more requests for metaphysical understanding or mystical experience than for forgiveness. They have to do with Moses as an individual, not with the people on whose behalf he was praying. This was a moment of national crisis. God was angry. The people were traumatised. The whole nation was in disarray. This was not the time for Moses to ask for a seminar in theology.
Third, more than once the narrative seems to be going backward in time. In verse 4, for example, it says “No man put on his ornaments”, then in the next verse God says, “Now, then, remove your ornaments.” In verse 14, God says, “My presence will go with you.” In verse 15, Moses says, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not make us leave this place.” In both cases, time seems to be reversed: the second sentence is responded to by the one before. The Torah is clearly drawing our attention to something, but what?
Add to this the mystery of the calf itself – was it or was it not an idol? The text states that the people said, “This, Israel, is your God who brought you out of Egypt” (32:4). But it also says that they sought the calf because they did not know what had happened to Moses. Were they seeking a replacement for him or God? What was their sin?
Surrounding it all is the larger mystery of the precise sequence of events involved in the long passages about the Mishkan, before and after the Golden Calf. What was the relationship between the Sanctuary and the Calf?
At the heart of the mystery is the odd and troubling detail of verses 7-11. This tells us that Moses took his tent and pitched it outside the camp. What has this to do with the subject at hand, namely the relationship between God and the people after the Golden Calf? In any case, it was surely the worst possible thing for Moses to do at that time under those circumstances. God had just announced that “I will not go in your midst” (33:3). At this, the people were deeply distressed. They “went into mourning” (33:4). For Moses, then, to leave the camp must have been doubly demoralising. At times of collective distress, a leader has to be close to the people, not distant.
There are many ways of reading this cryptic text, but it seems to me the most powerful and simple interpretation is this. Moses was making his most audacious prayer, so audacious that the Torah does not state it directly and explicitly. We have to reconstruct it from anomalies and clues within the text itself.
The previous chapter implied that the people panicked because of the absence of Moses, their leader. God himself implied as much when he said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt” (32:7). The suggestion is that Moses’ absence or distance was the cause of the sin. He should have stayed closer to the people. Moses took the point. He did go down. He did punish the guilty. He did pray for God to forgive the people. That was the theme of chapter 32. But in chapter 33, having restored order to the people, Moses now began on an entirely new line of approach. He was, in effect, saying to God: what the people need is not for me to be close to them. I am just a human, here today, gone tomorrow. But You are eternal. You are their God. They need You to be close to them.
It was as if Moses was saying, “Until now, they have experienced You as a terrifying, elemental force, delivering plague after plague to the Egyptians, bringing the world’s greatest empire to its knees, dividing the sea, overturning the very order of nature itself. At Mount Sinai, merely hearing Your voice, they were so overwhelmed that they said, if we continue to hear the voice, ‘we will die’ (Ex. 20:16).” The people needed, said Moses, to experience not the greatness of God but the closeness of God, not God heard in thunder and lightning at the top of the mountain but as a perpetual Presence in the valley below.
That is why Moses removed his tent and pitched it outside the camp, as if to say to God: it is not my presence the people need in their midst, but Yours. That is why Moses sought to understand the very nature of God Himself. Is it possible for God to be close to where people are? Can transcendence become immanence? Can the God who is vaster than the universe live within the universe in a predictable, comprehensible way, not just in the form of miraculous intervention?
To this, God replied in a highly structured way. First, He said, you cannot understand My ways. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy” (33:19). There is an element of divine justice that must always elude human comprehension. We cannot fully enter into the mind of another human being, how much less so the mind of the Creator Himself.
Second, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live” (33:20). Humans can at best “See My back.” Even when God intervenes in history, we can see this only in retrospect, looking back. Steven Hawking was wrong. Even if we decode every scientific mystery, we still will not know the mind of God.
However, third, you can see My “glory”. That is what Moses asked for once he realised that he could never know God’s “ways” or see His “face”. That is what God caused to pass by as Moses stood “in a cleft of the rock” (v. 22). We do not know at this stage, exactly what is meant by God’s glory, but we discover this at the very end of the book of Exodus. Chapters 35-40 describe how the Israelites built the Mishkan. When it is finished and assembled we read this:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan. (Ex. 40:34-35)
We now understand the entire drama set in motion by the making of the Golden Calf. Moses pleaded with God to come closer to the people, so that they would encounter Him not only at unrepeatable moments in the form of miracles but regularly, on a daily basis, and not only as a force that threatens to obliterate all it touches but as a Presence that can be sensed in the heart of the camp.
That is why God commanded Moses to instruct the people to build the Mishkan. It is what He meant when He said: “Let them make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell (ve-shakhanti) among them” (Ex. 25:8). It is from this verb that we get the word Mishkan, “Tabernacle” and the post-biblical word Shekhinah, meaning the Divine presence. A shakhen is a neighbour, one who lives next door. Applied to God it means “the Presence that is close.” If this is so – it is, for example, the way Judah Halevi understood the text – then the entire institution of the Mishkan was a Divine response to the sin of the Golden Calf, and an acceptance by God of Moses’ plea that He come close to the people. We cannot see God’s face; we cannot understand God’s ways; but we can encounter God’s glory whenever we build a home, on earth, for His presence.
That is the ongoing miracle of Jewish spirituality. No one before the birth of Judaism ever envisaged God in such abstract and awe-inspiring ways: God is more distant than the furthest star and more eternal than time itself. Yet no religion has ever felt God to be closer. In Tanakh the prophets argue with God. In the book of Psalms King David speaks to Him in terms of utmost intimacy. In the Talmud God listens to the debates between the sages and accepts their rulings even when they go against a heavenly voice. God’s relationship with Israel, said the prophets, is like that between a parent and a child, or between a husband and a wife. In The Song of Songs it is like that between two infatuated lovers. The Zohar, key text of Jewish mysticism, uses the most daring language of passion, as does Yedid nefesh, the poem attributed to the sixteenth century Tzefat kabbalist R. Elazar Azikri.
That is one of the striking differences between the synagogues and the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. In a cathedral you sense the vastness of God and the smallness of humankind. But in the Altneushul in Prague or the synagogues of the Ari and R. Joseph Karo in Tzefat, you sense the closeness of God and the potential greatness of humankind. Many nations worship God, but Jews are the only people to count themselves His close relatives (“My child, my firstborn, Israel” Ex. 4:22).
Between the lines of Exodus 33, if we listen attentively enough, we sense the emergence of one of the most distinctive and paradoxical features of Jewish spirituality. No religion has ever held God higher, but none has ever felt Him closer. That is what Moses sought and achieved in Exodus 33 in his most daring conversation with God.
 He famously said, at the end of A Brief History of Time, that if we were to reach a full scientific understanding of the cosmos, we would “know the mind of God.”
 Judah Halevi, The Kuzari, 1:97.
From Rabbi David Ingber
The After-Glow of Things Broken
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
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 Jill Hammer
At Synagogue Romemu
The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth: Ki Tisa
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
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.
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?
From the Maqam Project
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 Chaya Lester
Ki Tissa: For Shabbat-Candle lighting
From Rabbi Miles Krassen
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 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.
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 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
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.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
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.
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 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 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 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)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
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)
God and Moshe Learning Torah Together
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.
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