PARASHAT KI TISSA
March 10, 2012 – 16 Adar 5772
Annual: Ex. 30:11 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Triennial: Ex. 31:18 – 33:11 (Etz Hayim p. 529; Hertz p. 356)
Haftarah: I Kings 18:1 – 39 (Etz Hayim p. 548; Hertz p. 369)
Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser
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 it 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, which 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
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 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: “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 more intimate 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 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 know it, his face is now aglow with a wondrous, radiant, aweinspiring
Theme #1: “The god ate my homework”
“Moses said to Aaron, ‘What did this people do to you that you have brought
such great sin upon them?’ Aaron said, ‘Let not my lord be enraged. You know
that this is a people bent on evil.’ They said to me, ‘Make us a god to lead us; for
that man Moses, who brought us out of the Land of Egypt – we do not know what
has happened to him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off.’ They
gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!” (Exodus 32:21-24)
“All I said to them was, ‘Who has gold?’ But they hastened to take it off and
gave it to me. I hurled it into the fire. I had no idea that the calf would come out,
but out came this calf!” (Rashi)
“As though it fabricated itself! Moses does not respond. In recounting the episode
in Deuteronomy 9:12-22, he ignores Aaron’s excuse as though unworthy of
consideration.” (Nahum Sarna, JPS Commentary)
“As if it happened by itself! Aaron’s two pleas of compulsion and accident are
the usual excuses in palliation of wrongdoing. His want of moral courage evoked
the Divine displeasure.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)
“The spread of evil is the symptom of a vacuum. Whenever evil wins, it is only
by default: by the moral failure of those who evade the fact that there can be no
compromise on basic principles.” (Ayn Rand)
“The real man is one who always finds excuses for others, but never excuses
himself.” (Henry Ward Beecher)
Questions for Discussion
What is Aaron’s greatest moral failure in this incident? The lack of resistance or
moral suasion offered the Israelite mob? His construction of the idolatrous calf?
His evasion of personal responsibility in responding to Moses?
Why did Aaron so quickly succumb to public pressure to “make us a god”? Fear
for his life? Loss of personal faith? A stalling tactic pending Moses’ return?
Innate weakness of character?
How might the biblical narrative have unfolded differently if Aaron had
anticipated Henry Ward Beecher’s counsel – accepting all responsibility himself,
and defending the honor and fidelity of the Israelite people? What would have
been the most honest response to Moses’ query? The most effective?
How are religious leaders today to balance their own commitments and
perspectives (their sometimes besieged “basic principles,” as Ayn Rand terms
them) with the opposition of an outspoken movement of dissent? On what moral
or religious issues can there “be no compromise”?
Theme #2: “Just Between You and Me”
“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” (Exodus 33:11)
“Moses was familiar with Him and he spoke to Him at any time he so desired.” (Rashi)
“It is possible that this is the intent of the verse: when two persons see one
another face to face, they become acquainted with each other through that
meeting. Scripture therefore says ‘whom the Lord knew face to face.’” (Nachmanides)
“Moses implored God, ‘Oh, let me behold Your Presence’ (Exodus 33:18). God’s
reply is well-known. ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you... and you will
see My back; but My face must not be seen ... you cannot see My face, for man
may not see Me and live’ (Exodus 33:18-23). A reader might think the case to be
closed; God is so incomprehensible and unknowable that it simply is not possible
for human beings to see the appearance of God. However, this citation is
preceded by one that is in conflict with the notion that God cannot be seen. The
text reports, ‘The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a person would speak to a
friend.’ At moments when we, like Moses ask, ‘Show me your glory,’ we
struggle for a fleeting glimpse of the Eternal, knowing that the answer to Exodus’
question, ‘Can we see God?’ is yes and no!” (Rabbi Stephen Pearce)
“The word panim (face) is a key term in Exodus 33 (vv. 11, 14-16, 20, 23),
appearing seven times. Here it signals a deeply intimate relationship between
God and Moses.” (Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)
“We see God face to face every hour, and know the savor of Nature.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Questions for Discussion
We can never achieve the same quality of communication that Moses enjoyed
with the Divine. Nevertheless, we can aspire to true intimacy with God. What
constitutes such intimacy? Frequent, spontaneous, and informal contact (see
Rashi)? A sustained, growing, and deepening acquaintance (see Nachmanides)?
The ability to perceive God every day and all around us (see Emerson)?
When have you sensed the greatest intimacy with God. How can we cultivate
Have modern technology and social media diminished our ability to appreciate
and our opportunities to experience what it means to speak “face to face, as a
person would speak to a friend”? What mechanisms does Jewish practice provide
to redress this challenge to genuine intimacy in personal relationships?
What further significance is to be found in the carefully crafted sevenfold
repetition of “face” in our chapter? Why this metaphor for God’s presence?
Discuss Rabbi Pearce’s summation of our text: “Can we see God? Yes and no.”
Moses strenuously resisted his original divine call to prophecy (see Exodus 3-4).
The relationship between God and His chosen prophet, however, grew to be one
of unprecedented and unequalled intimacy. Parashat Ki Tissa, read on March 10,
2012, records that “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man
speaks to another.” On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell made history’s
first telephone call, speaking briefly to his assistant, Thomas Watson.
The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 26A; Mishnah RH 3:1) discusses what kinds of
animal horns may be used for the mitzvah of shofar. The horn of the cow is
specifically excluded (See also Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 586:1). It is argued
that the horn of a cow is termed a “keren” and not a “shofar.” More significantly,
the prohibition against using a cow horn is related to the principle “Ein kateigor
naaseh saneigor” – “the prosecuting attorney cannot serve as counsel for the
defense”! Rashi (ad loc) explains this to mean that the cow horn is reminiscent of
the debacle of the golden calf, and therefore makes an inapt and impolitic
instrument for signaling repentance and imploring God’s forgiveness. We do not
want to introduce incriminating evidence when pleading our own case, as it were,
before the Divine Judge. For the same reason, the kohen gadol did not enter the
Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur wearing gold vestments (Rosh Hashana, ibid.).
For more on this halakhic principle see Eruvin 15B and Yevamot 7B.