TORAH SPARKS​: Parashat Ki tissa

Torah Sparks
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TORAH SPARKS (print friendly version)

Parashat Ki Tissa February 23, 2019 I 18 Adar I 5779
Annual | Exodus 30:11-34:35 (Etz Hayim p. 523-546; Hertz p. 352-368)
Triennial | Exodus 33:12-34:35 (Etz Hayim p. 538-546; Hertz p. 362-368)
Haftarah | 1 Kings 18:1-39 (Etz Hayim p. 1286-1289; Hertz p. 999-1001)

D’var Torah: Brokenness & Forgetting
Rabbi Shoshana Cohen, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Following completion of the Mishkan this week’s parashah focuses on the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath. In 32:15 Moshe is descending from Mt. Sinai holding the original God-given Luchot HaBrit - the Tablets of the Covenant - when he hears what has happened. These original tablets “were the work of God; the writing was the writing of God, engraved on the tablets.” But upon hearing the news he throws down the tablets, smashing them at the foot of the mountain.

What follows is a long back and forth between God and Moshe as to whether and how each side of the triangular God-Moshe-Israel relationship can be repaired. In the end, of course, there is a reconciliation and a new set of tablets. But as we see in chapter 34 the new tablets are different - it is Moshe who does the carving and inscribing.

According to an account of this event in Deuteronomy 10 both sets of tablets, the original broken tablets and the second set, are placed in the Ark of the Covenant. (Interestingly according to Deuteronomy’s retelling the second tablets were constructed by Moshe but the writing was God’s). In a midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 17b (and various other texts), we see that the sages understood the inclusion of the first tablets as divine endorsement of Moshe’s having smashed them. Reish Lakish goes so far as to say that God congratulated Moshe saying, “yashar koach that you broke them!”

What does it mean that God congratulated Moshe for breaking the tablets? R. Yitzchak Hutner, a 20th-century rabbi who spanned the Hasidic and Lithuanian traditions and served as the rosh yeshiva of the Rav Hayim Berlin yeshiva for many years, connects this midrash on the broken tablets to another found in the Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 54a. There Rabbi Eliezer says that because they had been inscribed directly by God, “had the first tablets not been broken, the Torah would never have been forgotten from the Jewish people.”

At first glance it seems like Rabbi Eliezer is saying a bad thing - that is if it hadn’t been for the sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the tablets Israel would have a clear and direct picture of God’s will in the world. However if we read these two midrashim together - “yashar koach for breaking” and “Torah would never have been forgotten” we are forced to reconsider.

There are times, explains Rav Hutner, that the forgetting of Torah is actually the way that it survives. He connects this idea to Hanukkah, when, according to the Al haNisim prayer the Greeks came to make the Jews “forget the Torah.” He points out that it was at the point in Jewish history that the Oral Torah came into being. This happened because people began to forget the Torah and they needed to debate and reconstruct its content.

While this is an interesting and important historical point it also can give us more insight on Torah learning and on brokenness. Real creativity and learning most often happen from a sense of deep need. When something is missing we are most inspired to delve deep and apply our God-given intellect to create new and innovative ideas. Moreover, in places of darkness and confusion, when we recognize that something is missing we are most likely to turn to others to help us make sense of the world and fill the void with wisdom.

The broken tablets in the ark remind us of the power of brokenness, of forgetting, to spark innovation and the building of intellectual and spiritual community. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets through.”


Parashat Ki Tissa Self-Study
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

We open with a few more instructions for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and then move on to see what the people are doing while Moshe is up on the Mountain receiving the tablets. Here comes the story of the Golden Calf!

1) Each person from age 20 had to give half a shekel of silver as a way of counting the people. The silver was given for the work of the Tent of Meeting (Tabernacle), possibly maintenance and public sacrifices. It would be considered an atonement for each person giving the silver (30:11-16). Why do you think that this was considered an act of atonement? Why were people forbidden to give more or less than the specified amount?

2) A special fragrant ointment will be used to anoint the Tent of Meeting and its furnishings, as well as Aharon and his sons who will be set aside as Kohanim. No one is allowed to make any ointment like it (30:22-33). What physical sense is this employing? Why should no one else make any ointment like it? (Consider the effect of smell on memory.)

3) The Mitzvah of observing Shabbat is listed at the end of the instructions for the Mishkan, described as a sign between God and the people that God makes us holy (separate), for God created the Heavens and Earth in 6 days and ceased and rested on the Seventh (31:12-17). How might the instructions for the Mishkan be connected to Shabbat? Why is a sign of God as the Universal Creator be relevant here?

4) A large part of this parashah is dedicated to the story of the Golden Calf. Before descending the mountain Moshe is notified by [a very angry] God of the actions of the people. Nonetheless, when he arrives and sees the calf and the dancing, he throws the tablets down and smashes them (32:7-19). Do you think that Moshe’s action was spontaneous or well thought through, and what would be its purpose?

5) When Moshe goes up to receive new tablets he is instructed that no one should be seen on the mountain. He will be alone (34:34:1-4). His first ascent was preceded by a national ceremony (chapter 24). What has changed? What is the message in this setting?


D’var Haftarah: The Power of Language
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Despite his military process, Ahab was one of the most disreputable kings in the history of Israel. Together with his wife, Jezebel, is (in)famous for promoting idolatry in the life of the Northern Kingdom and persecuting the prophets of the one true God. Ahab had one servant, however, named Obadiah who stood up to defend the prophets of God against Ahab’s persecution. We read in 1 Kings 18:3-4 that “Obadiah feared the Lord greatly; for it was so, when Jezebel (Ahab’s foreign-born wife) cut off the prophets of the Lord, that Obadiah took a hundred prophets of the Lord, and hid them fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.” But from this sad story, the rabbinic sages teased out a profound message.

Contrasting the generation King David with that of King Ahab, they taught:

Rabbi Yose of Milihiah and Rabbi Yehoshua of Siknin, citing Rabbi Levi, said: Even before they knew anything about sexual desire, children who lived in the days of David were able to elaborate forty-nine arguments by which a thing may be proved unclean and forty-nine other arguments by which the very same thing may be proved clean. And despite their superior learning, when the men of the generation of David’s time went into battle, they perished. Why? Because so many of them spoke deceptively and destructively (Lashon Hara) … But the men of Ahab’s generation, even though they worshiped idols, went to war and were victorious because they did not speak deceptively and did not act as informers. It was because of this fact that Obadiah was able to say to Elijah: Was it not told, my lord, what I did when Jezebel slew the Prophets, how I managed to hide a hundred men of the Lord’s Prophets by fifty in a cave and fed them with bread and water (1 Kings 18:13) … Therefore, when Elijah called out to the people on Mount Carmel: I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord (1 Kings 18:22), though all the people knew otherwise, none made it known to the king [that there were a hundred Prophets whom Obadiah had hidden]. (adapted from Pesikta deRav Kahana 4:2 Mandelbaum ed. pp. 56-7)

David’s generation was characterized by its piety, yet they were punished in battle; while Ahab’s generation, which betrayed God, was rewarded. The sages, who taught this midrash, lived under Roman domination and consequently understood from their own life experiences the potential harm that could be caused by disregard for the careful expression of opinions, especially in the company of one’s enemies. They understood how inappropriate remarks could be used destructively to undermine the safety of the nation and its people. How better to make this point than to credit the successes of a nefarious king, who was otherwise sinful and disloyal to God, with a single virtue which God saw as worth rewarding.

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