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Torah Sparks

Parashat Ki Tisa (Shabbat Parah)
March 6, 2010 – 20 Adar 5770

Annual (Ex. 30:11-34:35): Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352
Triennial (Ex. 33:12-34:35): Etz Hayim p. 538; Hertz p. 363
Maftir (Num. 19:1-22): Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652
Haftarah (Ezekiel 36:16-36:36 [S] or 36:38 [A]: Etz Hayim p. 1287; Hertz p. 999

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, NJ

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses to take a census of adult men; the count is to be conducted by requiring each one to contribute half a shekel. The instructions for making the bronze basin, the anointing oil, and the incense are given. Bezalel is named to head the construction of the Mishkan and its furnishings, with Oholiav as his assistant. God tells Moses to remind the people of the importance of keeping Shabbat and then gives him the tablets inscribed with the Ten Statements.

While Moses is on the mountain the people despair, sure that he will not return. They demand that Aaron “make us a god who shall go before us.” Aaron fashions the Golden Calf and the next day the people offer sacrifices and rise to dance before it. God tells Moses what is happening in the camp. Moses pleads with God to restrain His anger and descends the mountain. When Moses sees what the people are doing, he angrily shatters the tablets. He destroys the calf and 3000 of its worshipers are put to death. Moses returns to Mount Sinai and intercedes with God to save the people.

God tells Moses to lead the people to the land He has promised, but that God will no longer go in their midst. Moses steps forward on behalf of the people and God relents. Moses asks to see God, but God refuses, saying, “man may not see Me and live.” Moses ascends Mount Sinai a third time and receives the revelation of God’s Thirteen Attributes. After forty days, Moses descends the mountain with the second set of tablets.

1. The Human Face of God

But,” He said, “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.” (Exodus 33:20-23)

  1. The second answer [to how we can talk about God] is to concede that although we cannot know God’s essence, we must still speak of God, all the while fully realizing that everything we say about God is only marginally accurate, partial, impressionistic, imaginative, and intrinsically subjective. These characterizations become utterly false and idolatrous if and when we understand them to be literally true, objective, and accurate. We have no photographs of God.” (Rabbi Neil Gillman, The Way Into Encountering God in Judaism, p.6)
  2. “Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back,” Rabbi Hanna bar Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon the Chasid: This teaches that the Holy Blessed One showed Moses the knot of His tefillin. (Talmud Berakhot 7a)
  3. Rabbi Avin bar Rav Aha said in the name of Rabbi Yitzhak: How do we know that the Holy Blessed One puts on tefillin? Because it is written (Isaiah 62:8): “The Lord has sworn by His right hand, by His mighty arm.” “His right hand” – this is the Torah, for it is written (Devarim 33:2), “At His right hand was a fiery law to them;” “His mighty arm” – this is tefillin, for it is written (Tehillim 29:11), “May the Lord grant strength to His people.” And how do we know that tefillin are a strength to Israel? Because it is written (Devarim 28:10): “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Lord’s name is proclaimed over you, and they shall stand in fear of you.” Rabbi Eliezer the Great says, these are the tefillin of the head. Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said to Rav Hiyya bar Avin, “These tefillin of the Master of the Universe, what is written in them?” He said to him (I Chronicles 17:21): “And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth.” And does the Holy Blessed One sing the praises of Israel? Yes, for it is written (Devarim 26:17-18): “You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God... And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are His treasured people.” The Holy Blessed One said to Israel, “You have made Me a unique entity in the world and I will make you a unique entity in the world.” “You have made Me a unique entity in the world,” for it is written (Devarim 6:4): “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone,” and “I will make you a unique entity in the world,” for it is written: “And who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation on earth.” (Talmud Berakhot 6a)
  4. Rabbi Yohanan said: If it were not written in the Torah it would be impossible to say it, for it teaches that the Holy Blessed One wrapped Himself [in a tallit] like a shaliach tzibur and showed Moses the order of prayer. He said to him, “Whenever Israel sins, let them pray to Me in this way and I will forgive them: ‘The Lord, the Lord...’” (Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b)
  5. Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Yose: How do we know that the Holy Blessed One prays? Because it is written (Isaiah 56:7): “I will bring them to My sacred mount and let them rejoice in My house of prayer (beit tefilati.)” “Their prayer” is not said, but “My prayer;” from here we learn that the Holy Blessed One prays. What does He pray? Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said in the name of Rav: “May it be My will before Me that My mercy will suppress My anger, and that My mercy will overcome My [other] attributes so that I may deal with My children by the attribute of mercy and go beyond the requirements of strict justice.” (Talmud Berakhot 7a)

Sparks for Discussion

Rabbi Gillman teaches that if we are to talk about God, we must speak in metaphors. In the passages from the Talmud, the rabbis created a God who is not only very human but is a religious Jew, praying in tallit and tefillin. How to you react to this image? Do you find it comforting or disturbing? What is your image of God?

2. Rise and Shine

So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken to Him. (Exodus 34:29)

  1. Coming out of the fiery top of the mountain, and back from his once-in-human-history encounter with God, Moses is transformed in some way. (Richard Elliot Friedman, Commentary on the Torah)
  2. The verb karan is related to the word keren, “horn,” for the light radiated from his face in hornlike rays. And where did Moses get these rays of majesty? Our sages say he got them from the cave when the Holy Blessed One put His hand over his face, as it is said, “I will . . . shield you with My hand” (Shemot 33:22). (Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), 1040-1105, France)
  3. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: The Torah given to Moses was written with black fire upon white fire, sealed with fire, and swathed with bands of fire. While writing it, Moses wiped off the reed on his hair – thus he received the radiance that was to emanate from his countenance. (Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim 6:1)
  4. A widespread medieval image of the Jew was based upon a misinterpretation of the Hebrew Bible. Moses was oftendepicted with two horns on his head as a result of the Latin misrendering of the verb “sent forth beams” (karan) in Exodus 34:35 as “grew horns.” (A horn is a keren.) This image, which was widely portrayed in art of the Middle Ages by artists including Michelangelo and Donatello in Italy, led to the widespread notion that all Jews had devilish horns. (Ophir Yarden, “Anti-Semitic Perceptions of the Jewish Body,”

Sparks for Discussion

Moses’ encounter with God produced a physical transformation. Many more people have been transformed spiritually by encounters with God. Have you experienced such a transformation? What has spurred and sustained your Jewish journey?

A bad translation led to the depiction of Moses with horns. From there it was a small step to the claim of anti-Semites that all Jews were somehow in league with the devil. However, not all negative stereotypes are the work of anti-Semites. How often do you hear fellow Jews talking about JAPs; guilt-wielding Jewish mothers; nebbishy, physically inept Jewish men, or the fanatics and/or heretics who belong other shuls and movements? Are such conversations harmless as long as we keep them among ourselves? How can we learn to stop tearing each other down?

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