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Torah Sparks

March 10, 2007 – 20 Adar 5767

Annual: Ex. 30:11 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 350)
Triennial: Ex. 33:12 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 538; Hertz p. 362)
Maftir: Numbers 19:1 – 22 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16 – 38 (Etz Hayim, p. 1286; Hertz p. 999)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

Our Torah portion opens with a census, which is taken by collecting a half-shekel from each Israelite. Next, Moses receives more instructions about the work on the Mishkan – the portable sanctuary – and on how to observe the Sabbath.

The time has come for Moses to bring the tablets of the Ten Commandments down from Mount Sinai, where, after the revelation of God to all the people of Israel, he has just spent 40 days alone with God. Lamentably, a golden calf has been fashioned in the camp of the Israelites at the very end of that 40-day period. The Israelite camp is alive with what appears to be a celebration of a pagan deity.

This event causes a radical change in Moses’ agenda. The rest of his summer is to be spent repairing this new rift between God and the Israelites.

Issue #1: Forgiveness as a Process

Following the incident of the golden calf, Moses sought divine forgiveness on behalf of the Israelites. This was not an instantaneous event. After all, Moses had climbed the mountain and spent 40 days in God’s presence before the sin of the golden calf. It was now necessary to re-establish the relationship between God and Israel. After this healing had been achieved, it was appropriate to repeat the process of Moses’ initial 40 days on the mountain.

An additional layer of significance may be realized by overlaying these three 40-day periods upon the months of the Jewish calendar. Tradition teaches that the revelation at Sinai took place on the sixth day of Sivan. Forty days later – the episode of the golden calf – brings us to the 17 of Tammuz, which has been a fast day since the destruction of the first Temple. Rashi summarizes the rest of the chronology, paraphrasing Moses:

On the second ascent, I stayed [on Mount Sinai] for 40 days, which concluded on the 29 of Av – since he had ascended on the 18 of Tammuz. On that day, He pardoned Israel, and He said to Moses: “Carve yourself two tablets.” (Exodus 34:1) He (Moses) remained for another 40 days, thus concluding on Yom Kippur. On that very day, the Holy Blessed One forgave Israel joyfully, and He said to Moses: “I pardon, as you have asked.” (Numbers 14:20) Therefore [Yom Kippur] was set aside for pardon and forgiveness. (Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 9:18)

This comment builds upon the connotations already present in the relationship of Jews to our calendar. The third ascent would begin on the first day of the month of Elul. In what ways do we express an intensifying of our penitential spirit during the month of Elul?

Are there ways in which we can understand the actions of the Israelites back at the base of the mountain? Is there a limit to people’s ability to wait, in contrast to God’s? Is there a limit even to God’s ability to wait?

Issue #2: The Covenant of Compassion

In the wake of the incident of the golden calf, God and Moses become closer than ever. Moses asks (33:18) to see the Divine Presence. God reminds him (33:20) that a human being may not look upon God and survive. Instead, God lets Moses see the Divine Presence indirectly (33:21-23). A few verses later (34:6-7), God shares with Moses the thirteen attributes – that is, the 13 qualities unique to God. After some rabbinic editing, these attributes eventually became a key component of the services of our Day of Atonement and part of the Torah service on Yom Tov as well. Their role in the biblical narrative inspired the following fanciful interpretation:

Rabbi Yohanan said: If it had not been stated in the Torah, we could not say this [because we know that God does not have a body like humans]: the Holy Blessed One wrapped Himself in a tallit like a hazzan, showed Moses the order of prayer [of these thirteen attributes] and said to him: Whenever the people of Israel sin, let them recite this same order of prayer and I shall forgive them. (Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 17b)

Writing in 1972, Rabbi Jules Harlow summarized this bond as follows:

Thus a covenant was established between God and the people Israel. This covenant of compassion is referred to [throughout] the Yom Kippur service... The thirteen attributes are at the core of each service on Yom Kippur... We feel uncertainty and despair when confronted by our own and the world’s imperfections. Yet our faith in the power of compassion gives us confidence for the future. (Mahzor for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, p. 328)

The passage quoted above from the Talmud contains obvious exaggeration. We all know that merely reciting a list of God’s qualities does not really bring automatic forgiveness. Why, then, did Rabbi Yohanan indulge in this bold figure of speech? How does knowing the history of the section affect our understanding of this section of the liturgy?

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