A Look at Parashat Ki Tisa

The Western Wall, Jerusalem/Steve Lubetkin Photo. Used by permission.
The Western Wall, Jerusalem/Steve Lubetkin Photo. Used by permission.

Exodus 30:11 to 34:35

Plaut Pages 632 to 662

Chapter 30 deals with two interesting subjects: Instructions for conducting a census of the people and instructions for the anointing of Priests

Here we have the first reference to taking a census of the people. Some ultra-orthodox Rabbis interpreted (or rather misinterpreted) verse 30:12 as prohibiting Jews from conducting a census without divine approval and direction, nor should it be performed in an ordinary manner.

It is interesting to note that modern day Israel conducts a population census every ten years. The government gets around this (alleged) biblical prohibition by several rationalizations:

1. It is permissible if performed for a valid and necessary reason, in this case, security and economic planning  

2. It is not included in the biblical prohibition because it does not count all Jews, only those resident in Israel.

3. It does not meet the biblical prohibition because it counts all inhabitants of the land, not just the Jews. Still, some extremist Hasidic rabbis prohibit their followers from participating in the census.

This divinely ordained census includes each male from the age of twenty upwards (note: we will see later that they are members of the generation that must die  off in the desert), are all to be counted in an indirect manner; each  individual is to contribute half a shekel (“the rich shall not pay more and the poor  shall not pay less”) with the money collected to go towards the upkeep of the Tent of Meeting. Thus, all the Israelites, rich and poor, have an equal share in the enterprise. Of course, this is ” regressive taxation”, as it is a pittance to the wealthy and a burden to the poor.

Next we have very strict   and exact instructions for the anointment of the priests  and the altar, with a severe penalty (death) for non-compliance. Also, note that  punishment for a layperson that uses the anointing oil is karet (כרת); meaning uncertain. Traditional interpretations include cutting off from the community (as was the fate of Baruch Spinoza (17th century Amsterdam), meeting an untimely death, or perhaps a spiritual death.

The concept of the spices that compose the anointing oil remains   with us today  in the spice  boxes, as used   in the Havdalah ceremony separating the outgoing Shabbat from the   beginning of the rest  of the week; in essence, separating the holy (קודש) from the mundane (חול).

Chapter 31 deals with the appointment of two craftsmen to fashion metalwork for the Tent of Meeting and a dire admonition to keep the Sabbath.

Bazelel (בצלאל) and Oholiab (אהליאב) are appointed by G-d as skilled craftsmen to perform the requisite metalwork and stonework for preparing the Tent of Meeting, the furnishings, and the altar.

G-d commands Moses to admonish the people to keep the Sabbath and refrain from work on it. The command is accompanied by dire warnings: 31:14: “… cut off from his kin” and “… put to death.”. Why the apparent contradiction?

This seemingly disjointed section ends with Moses receiving the two tablets “… inscribed with   the finger of G-d” (אצבע אלקים). In contemporary contractual documents in Israel, אצבע אלקים is a legalistic term for “Force Majeure” or “Act of G-d”.

Chapter 32 – The incident of the Golden Calf

Now things go horribly wrong. The people panicked, believing, mistakenly that Moses and perhaps G-d abandoned them without leadership in an unknown and hostile wilderness, one that they could not possibly survive in. In their desperation, they searched for something tangible to cling to for support and guidance. There is debate among scholars as to whether the golden calf was worshiped as a god or was intended to represent G-d. Israel’s sin may be not that they worshipped another god but in how they worshipped G-d through a physical representation.

There is a parallel story in the Book of Kings after the KinG-dom of Israel split off from Judea following the death of Solomon. King Jeroboam, to cement his power base as separate from the Temple in Jerusalem, set up two calf-worshipping sites (in Beit El and in Dan). And we know the fate of the Northern ten tribes.

In Verse 32:7, G-d, refers to the misbehaving people as “your (Moses’) people”!? A livid G-d briefly relinquishes his relationship to the people, passing them off on Moses.

When G-d told Moses that he will destroy the people (Verse 32:9), was he really intent on this or was he testing Moses’ character?

Verse 32:12 is easily my favorite verse in the Torah. Moses uses techniques straight out of Dale Carnegie to assuage G-d’s anger, appealing to His ego. In contemporary terms, Moses says to G-d “What would the Goyim think? You don’t want to lose your street cred.”

Perhaps this was not really a return to idolatry. Did the people really believe that the calf they fashioned was a substitute for G-d, or was it a desperate attempt to create an alternative conduit to G-d, a substitute for the apparently AWOL Moses?  What do you think?

What do we make of Aaron’s behavior in this? Note verses 32:21 to 32:25 – Aaron did not push back when told to fashion a new, replacement god. Indeed, he was very much a collaborator in this misadventure.

Arron appears to be a real nebbish. His excuse “…. They gave it to me and I hurled it in the fire and out came this calf.” is laughable and shameful as he tries to shirk personal responsibility. Most traditional Rabbinic commentators try to rationalize Aaron’s behavior as delaying  tactics, portraying him as more  of a victim than as a collaborator.

The aftermath

Moses must take immediate action to regain control of this rabble. The  situation calls for rapid and bloody vigilante justice. Only the Levites among the tribes answered Moses’ call to arms. We are not told how the Levites knew who to kill and who to spare. Note that Aaron apparently escapes unscathed. Why is that?

The following day Moses again interceded with G-d for the people. Moses showed his true leadership ability, daring to confront G-d.

Something has irrevocably   changed in the relationship between G-d and his people. From now on, an angel will go before the camp in place of G-d. Perhaps G-d realized that He would not be able to control his temper if (or rather when) they once again fall short.

Chapter 33 – Moses’ relationship with G-d

Moses pitches his tent outside the camp. As G-d was not fully reconciled with the Israelites, Moses had to withdraw from the camp to converse with Him. His tent was also called the Tent of Meeting. It was accessible to anyone that sought out G-d, al though he would have had to leave the camp to do so.

Note verse 33:11 – “G-d spoke to Moses face to face as one man speaks to another …” (ודבר ה’ אל משה פנים אל פנים כאשר ידבר איש אל רעהו …). The implication is that G-d had a degree of intimacy, or one on one dialog with Moses in a way that he did not have with others, not even with the patriarchs. And certainly not dreams or visions which was the way that G-d communicated with the prophets. I do not think that the verse is meant to be taken literally, that G-d “has a face” (human like or otherwise); rather it is the language of metaphor.

Here (33:18), Moses makes what may seem like an outlandish request from G-d: He (Moses) said “please show me your greatness (glory may be a more fitting translation” (ויאמר ה’ראני נא את כבדך).

Perhaps, like his kinsmen in constructing the golden calf, Moses wanted the reassurance of a god that was visible and approachable. In response we have an anthropomorphic description of G-d. Is this intended to be taken literally? Why cannot man see His Face and live? Would the knowledge or realization be too overpowering or “mind blowing” for a mortal to behold?

Note that Moses is not so humble after all, and dares to make demands of G-d. The late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks interpreted this as declaring that man cannot presume to fully know or understand the mind of G-d or why he delivers or withholds grace. Rabbi Sacks further states that Stephen Hawking was mistaken in stating that even if we could obtain a full understanding of the working of the cosmos (if such a thing is even possible) we would still not understand “the mind of G-d”. Of course, Hawkins, like Einstein, used the term “G-d” euphemistically.

Verse 34 – Moses once again goes up Mount Sinai

Moses must prepare a second set of stone tablets. The first set was prepared by G-d. Since Moses smashed them, he is responsible to prepare a second set. Is this a form of penance?

Moses alights a second time up Mount Sinai. G-d passes before him. From the Hebrew (34:6 “ה’ ה’ אל רחום וחנון ארך אפים ורב חסד ואמת …”), it is not clear whether G-d or Moses proclaims ” … G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, …”. Is this truly a description of the G-d of the Torah? These lines have been inserted in the High Holidays liturgy. Perhaps it is not so much an assertion of G-d’s characteristics but a plea for G-d to act in such a manner towards us. In contemporary terms, this may be a plea to G-d to “cut us some slack”. Your thoughts?

34:7 is usually translated as ” … visits the iniquity of the fathers   upon the children … upon the third and fourth generation (פקד עון אבות …).” Is the intent that descendants bear personal guilt or is responsibility a better translation? The (Orthodox) Artscroll edition translates עון as “recalling the iniquity”.

Moses again appeals to G-d to pardon His people. G-d makes a covenant, promising to drive out the inhabitants of the land promised to them.  There is a warning to the Israelites to beware of fraternization with them as they will be ensnared in their ways. Not a very politically correct section to our contemporary ears! The section also contains a warning (34:14) that he is either a jealous or impassioned G-d (depending on how you translate קנא).

Moses is again up on the mountain for forty days. As Israel abrogated the previous covenant with the golden calve, Moses is entreated to write down a replacement set of the Ten Commandments.

Upon descending the mountain, following his intensive encounter with the divine, his face was radiant (קרן אור פנים), causing the people to draw away from him. Moses subsequently covered his face with a veil, removing it only when he was in the presence of G-d and when he then addressed the people. Medieval Christian translators mistook קרן (ray) to mean horn. While  קרן can mean either ray or horn in Hebrew, Medieval Christian translators here mistranslated קרן as “horn” when the context clearly indicates that the intention is ray.  Hence, Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses with horns.

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