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Parshat Ki Tissa


Is Moses still up on that mountain?

While the parsha opens with the Lord's instructions about taking a census and assigning a half-shekel tax intended for "the service of the Tent of Meeting", Ki Tissa immediately shifts from the sacred ("'...you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages...'") to the profane. Literally.

"...(T)he people gathered against Aaron and said to him, 'Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt--we do not know what has happened to him.' Aaron said to them, 'Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.'..This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, 'This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'"

Even worse, Aaron then "...built an altar before it; and Aaron announced, 'Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!' Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance."

While the "'stiff-necked people'" host a sacrilegious rave, a desperate Moses, the Bible's best litigator, pleads with G-d to save the Israelites-cum-pagans below.

"'Now let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.'

But Moses implored the Lord his G-d saying, 'Let not your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people...Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: 'I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.' And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people."

Moses heads back down the mountain with his precious cargo, "two tablets of the Pact" containing G-d's laws. But the sight of the golden calf (above) and the dancing pushes him over the edge. "...(H)e hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain."

Shouting, "'Whoever is for the Lord, come here!'", Moses "rallies" the Levites who come forward and are ordered to "'put sword on thigh'". We are told, matter-of-factly, that "...some three thousand of the people fell that day". The next day, Moses "went back to the Lord" and we are told, with a chilling simplicity, that "...the Lord sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made."

Lesson learned, loud and clear.

The remainder of Ki Tissa details the astonishing intimacy between Moses and G-d. Moses begs the Lord to lead the Israelites forward on their journey so that "'...it (shall) be known that Your people have gained Your favor'"; even more poignantly Moses entreats G-d, in vain, to allow him to "behold" the Lord.

"...'You cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live.' And the Lord said, 'See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.'"

When Moses returns to Mount Sinai with two new carved tablets, as the Lord has instructed him, "(t)he Lord came down in a cloud; The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, 'The Lord! The Lord! A G-d compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness...'"

G-d renews His covenant with the Israelites, detailing the people's religious obligations (including the observance of festivals). When Moses returns from the mountain bearing the second tablets, "his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him", and the frightened people "shrank from coming near him". Moses "(instructs) all that the Lord had imparted to him on Mount Sinai". Profoundly altered spiritually and physically, Moses must now cover his face with a"veil", removing it only when he speaks directly with G-d, an experience the rest of us can only dream about.

Shabbat Shalom!