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Torah Sparks

February 19, 2011 – 15 Adar I 5771

Annual: Ex. 30:11 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Triennial: Ex. 30:11 – 31:17 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Haftarah: I Kings 18:1 – 39 (Etz Hayim, p. 548; Hertz p. 369)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
Baldwin, New York

Torah Portion Summary

Parashat Ki Tissa begins with a census and a head tax. The duty levied on all Israelite men 20 or older– the age at which military service begins – is one half shekel. This flat tax contrasts with the earlier voluntary contributions to the sanctuary, and establishes a sense of equity and shared value among the Israelites.

The process of outfitting the tabernacle continues with the prescription of aromatic oils, spices, and incense. Bezalel is to be appointed as the leading master craftsman, charged with adorning the sanctuary and recruiting other gifted artisans to work with him. God pointedly tells Moses again about the centrality of Sabbath observance. The placement of this commandment forms the basis of the rabbinic categorization of those acts prohibited on Shabbat. Those 39 acts are linked to the creative endeavors and processes required for construction and operation of the tabernacle.

Equipped now with detailed instructions about both the sanctuary and the Sabbath, Moses – who stays away from his restless and impatient followers for a long time – prepares to descend Mount Sinai with the tablets of the decalogue. God informs His prophet of Israel's faithlessness, and of His desire to destroy the debauched chosen people. Moses passionately intercedes on Israel's behalf, dissuading God from his anger and intended chastisements. Descending from Sinai Moses finds that Israel indeed has turned to idolatry, worshiping and reveling about the golden calf, constructed for them by a weak, submissive, and all-but-silent Aaron. In anger (or despair? indignation? frustration? sinful solidarity with his people for the benefit of an angry God?), Moses smashes the tablets of the decalogue. He has the idolatrous calf burned, ground to powder, and mixed with water, which the Israelites are compelled to drink. Aaron offers excuses and evasions for his complicity in the sinful episode. Moses rallies his faithful fellow Levites (with the phrase centuries later repeated by the Hasmonean Mattathias): "Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!" The Levites suppress the faithless Israelites by force. Moses again intercedes on behalf of the nation, which is spared, notwithstanding another punitive plague. Moses communes with God in a uniquely direct manner: "face to face, as one man speaks to another." The prophet requests and is provided a still more intimate (yet, it is emphasized, far from fully comprehensive) revelation of God's presence, manifested in the thirteen attributes that later come to occupy so central a role in the high holy day and festival liturgy. God renews the heretofore imperiled covenant, re-emphasizing commandments about idolatry, Passover, firstborn sons and livestock, and the pilgrimage festival cycle. The prohibition against "boiling a kid in its mother's milk" is repeated, again in the context of festival rites rather than a dietary discipline.

Having carved a new set of tablets bearing the decalogue, Moses again descends Mount Sinai. Although he does not it, his face now aglow with a wondrous, radiant, awe-inspiring light.

Theme #1: "Act Your Rage"

"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)

Derash: Study

"When Moses saw the calf, his strength waned and he was unable to throw the tablets very far at all, so as not to injure his own feet as they fell, like one who must drop a burden he no longer has strength to carry. This is the essential, plain meaning of the text." (Rashbam, citing Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer)

"Moses was overcome with despair. Made of stone, the two tablets were painfully heavy. Yet as long as they bore the inscriptions etched by God, they bore themselves and Moses along with them. But once they caught sight of the drums and dancing around the calf, the holy letters fled their stone setting and re-ascended to heaven, leaving Moses to carry the denuded stones on his own. Helpless, he threw them to the ground." (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

"Possibly to set the drama of the scene to follow, Moshe is described as carrying the 'tablets of the Testimony,' which are dubbed the work of God. Yet another point is being made: the work of God is contrasted with the imperfect work of human beings, the law with its hope versus the idol with its underlying despair. Sounds of revelry, implied as being worse than sounds of war, reach Moshe, and upon his descent into the Israelite camp he loses control. But smashing the tablets has implications beyond the emotional: it is a legal voiding of the covenant (as in English 'breaking an agreement')." (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses

"The Sfat Emet... put it this way: 'Moses loved the whole community of Israel even more than he loved the tablets. By this act of [smashing the tablets], Moses in fact redeemed them' ...saved them from themselves. Sometimes in history the only way to bring us to real sacredness, to bring us to real power and holiness, to bring us to God, is to have us witness the smashing of the very things we thought were the source of sacredness, power, and Godliness! We live in an era where economic challenges confront us all. Many 'golden calves' are being destroyed as greedy schemes are exposed, and hopes and dreams for redemption through material abundance are dashed. Idols of wealth are being dismantled, tablets of all kinds of agreements and promises are getting smashed. Perhaps this moment in history is yet another moment like that of Moses smashing the tablets." (Rabbi Gil Steinlauf)

Questions for Discussion

What was Moses' state of mind – his emotional and spiritual condition – at the moment he smashed the tablets? Was it despair that the divine mission he had been about to inaugurate never was to be realized? Was it loneliness at the prospect of a religious experience he could not make fully understood, an awareness of God that he could never adequately share? Was it anger at the lack of appreciation and support from the very people he had led from suffering and bondage, for whom he had risked his life, sacrificed the contentment of family life and the simplicity of his work as a shepherd? Was it the philosopher's dismay at the squandering of freedom and opportunity? Was it surrender in the face of perceived futility? Did Moses, indeed, lose control, as Professor Fox asserts? Or was his act a willful and calculated expression of righteous indignation?

Rashbam and Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer's image of the stone tablets' subjective and shifting weight is a paradigm for our relationship to the extensive demands of Jewish religious life, and for our responsibility for the human moral load. Do these obligations represent an unwanted and unmanageable burden? Or does our understanding that they bear the imprint of a concerned and loving – and demanding – God empower us, steel our will, and elevate us with hope and vision and purpose? When do we most feel the weight of our spiritual task? How should we respond when that weight seems unbearable?

How is the smashing of the tablets – as opposed to the destruction of the idolatrous calf – redemptive, as in Rabbi Steinlauf's formulation? Are the two acts to be viewed as one uninterrupted process of timely and courageous leadership of a nation on the brink?

What are some of the golden calves being worshiped by spiritually straying revelers today? Is it enough simply to destroy those idols, to expose fraudulent and selfdestructive schemes? What is to replace them? How are the errant values that led to such contemporary debacles to be redirected constructively?

Theme #2: "Glow down, Moses"

"Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses' face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him." (Exodus 34:30)

Derash: Study

"The awe-inspiring radiance emitted by Moses' face may be understood as the afterglow of the refulgent splendor of the Divine Presence. It functions to reaffirm and legitimate the prophet's role as the peerless intimate of God, the sole and singular mediator between God and His people; it also testifies to the restoration of God's favor to Israel." (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)

"The association of karan ('was radiant') with keren ('horn') gave rise to the mistaken notion that Moses grew horns… The rendering of karan by cornuta in the vulgate translation, based on the commentaries of Jerome (ca. 347 – ca. 419), helped foster the error, and a horned Moses later became a familiar figure in art from the eleventh century on. The most famous such portrayal is, of course, Michelangelo's at San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome." (Ibid.)

"Something terrifyingly luminous – a reflection of the divine fire glimpsed by the people from the foot of mountain." Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses "Moses' anger when he first descended the mountain (32:19) canceled out any glory that would have appeared on his face. When Moses descended the second time, he was not angry" (The Quest Study Bible)

"A man's face as a rule says more, and more interesting things, than his mouth, for it is a compendium of everything his mouth will ever say, in that it is the monogram of all this man's thoughts and aspirations." (Arthur Schopenhauer)

"It is not fitting, when one is in God's service, to have a gloomy face or a chilling look." (St. Francis of Assisi)

Questions for Discussion

Was Moses' radiant appearance a reflection of his inner state? The resolution of his earlier anger? Fulfillment of his life's purpose? Joy at his uniquely intimate experience of God? Renewed hope for the future of his people and the success of his prophetic mission? A sense of personal redemption following earlier failures? Was it the spiritual happiness of someone who is "in God's service," as St. Francis suggests? Is it indeed the responsibility of religious leaders and other people of faith to project bliss and serenity?

What was particularly frightening to Israelites about Moses' radiant visage? Was it the unknown origin or significance of the glow? Or was it a realization that Moses' success and leadership had far-reaching behavioral implications for them, signaling a new life of responsibility for which they were not entirely ready? Or is it simply natural – and perhaps even appropriate – to seek a certain distance from the awesome power and unfathomable reality of the divine?

The Hebrew is a bit ambiguous: Was Aaron also frightened by Moses' radiance? How does this reflect on Aaron's role as the ordained high priest and progenitor of the Israelite priesthood? What else might account for Aaron's anxiety?

Robert Alter compares Moses' glowing face to the fire that attended the revelation at Sinai. What might this imply about the function of Moses, or about Israel's future religious leaders who trace their spiritual pedigree back to him?

Historic Note

Parashat Ki Tissa's account of the debacle of the idolatrous golden calf, and its destruction by Moses, is read on February 19, 2011. On February 19, 356, Roman Emperor Constantius II, who was a Christian and the sole surviving son of Constantine the Great, ordered all pagan temples closed. It should be noted that Constantius also is remembered for unfavorable treatment of his Jewish subjects, the imposition of economic impediments, and declaring forfeit the property of Christian converts to Judaism.

Halachah L'Maaseh

The mishnah (Hag 1:8) describes the laws of Shabbat as "mountains suspended by a hair: many laws with scant Biblical foundation." The fundamental prohibition against carrying objects on Shabbat is one of the most misunderstood and neglected of observances. It is, however, one of the few Sabbath prohibitions with explicit basis in Scripture: "Thus said the Lord: Guard yourselves for your own sake against carrying burdens on the Sabbath day… Nor shall you carry out burdens from your houses on the Sabbath, but you shall hallow the Sabbath, as I commanded your ancestors." Jeremiah 17:21-22

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