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Torah Sparks

Parashat Ki Tissa (Shabbat Parah)
March 2, 2013 – 2013 Adar 5773

Annual: Exodus 30:11-34:35 (Etz Hayim p. 523; Hertz p. 352)
Triennial: Exodus 33:12-34:35 (Etz Hayim p. 538; Hertz p. 362)
Maftir: Numbers 19:1-22 (Etz Hayim p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah (A): Ezekiel 36:16-38 (Etz Hayim p. 1287; Hertz p. 999)
Haftarah (S): Ezekiel 36:16-36 (Etz Hayim p. 1287; Hertz p. 999)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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.

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.

Equipped now with detailed instructions about both the sanctuary and the Sabbath, Moses – who stays away from his restless and impatient followers for a fatefully 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. 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 still more intimate revelation of God's presence, manifested in the thirteen attributes that later occupy 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 realize it, his face is now aglow with a wondrous, radiant, awe-inspiring light.

Theme #1: "Or D'Oeuvres"

"He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it." (Exodus 32:20)

Derash: Study

His intention was to test them as in the ordeal of the suspected adulteress." (Rashi)

It is not that he literally forced every Israelite to drink it; rather, he scattered the ashes in the stream that came down the mountain, from which all Israel drank." (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin)

"What could possibly be the point drinking gold-laced idol-water? By doing so, each person clearly internalizes forever the choice they had made, in a very public way. They had publicly contributed personal wealth (shekels) in the service of the Tabernacle, and to build the Calf, they had also publically contributed personal wealth (gold rings). They had become a part of a holy community, one by one, and then transformed it into an idolatrous community, one by one. So, it wasn't enough to destroy the Golden Calf. Each person had to take personal responsibility for his/her actions." (Anita Silvert)

"The first and greatest punishment of the sinner is the conscience of sin." (Lucius Annaeus Seneca)

"We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter." (Denis Diderot)

Questions for Discussion

Compare Seneca and Silvert. Was the drinking of the gold powder simply intended to raise the consciousness of the wayward Israelites? To make them painfully aware of their sin and misconduct? Is this accurately described as punishment… or moral/spiritual education?

Was Moses' treatment of the Israelites a case of "tough love"? Responsible leadership? Behavior modification? Abusive?

Why was the trial by ordeal to which suspected adulteresses were subjected (see Numbers 5:11-31) a particularly suitable frame of reference for Moses' treatment of the Israelites after the debacle of the Golden Calf?

Why do you think the Netziv (Berlin) was seemingly so reluctant to read our verse in the usual literary sense: forced consumption of the remnants of the idolatrous Calf in water?

Diderot's insight closely parallels our text. The Israelites eagerly "swallowed" the preposterous assertion that the Golden Calf was their "god." What truth was Moses conveying to his lapsed followers by his choice of punishment/response?

Theme #2: "Prostrate Post Haste"

"Moses hastened to bow low to the ground in homage." (Exodus 34:8)

Derash: Study

"What did Moses see? Rabbi Chanina ben Gamla said, ‘God's characteristic slowness to anger.' The Rabbis say, ‘He saw God's truth' (Talmud, Sanhedrin 111). This disagreement is based on the nature of Moses' bowing. Was it an expression of gratitude or an act of intercessory prayer? Rabbi Chanina thought it was out of gratitude: that is, Moses saw God's patience, His slowness to anger, and therefore he rejoiced, believing this would protect Israel… Therefore he bowed. The Rabbis believed Moses bowed in prayer, since he saw that God would judge Israel with truth. Therefore, Moses feared that God would find Israel culpable, so he hastened to bow down and to pray on their behalf." (Rabbi Baruch Epstein)

"Why did Moses hurry? What was the rush? It is because God began to give Moses an accounting of the generations on which the sins of the fathers would be visited: ‘on their children, their children's children, and on descendants of the third and fourth generation…' Moses was distressed, fearing that perhaps the count would continue ad infinitum, so he ‘hastened to bow down' to interrupt God, as it were, so that He would not count still further generations." (Kli Yakar)

"When we really worship anything, we love not only its clearness but its obscurity. We exult in its very invisibility." (Gilbert K. Chesterton)

"Whenever a man makes haste, God too hastens with him." (Aeschylus)

"Bow, stubborn knees!" (William Shakespeare, Hamlet)

Questions for Discussion

What, indeed, was the "rush"?! Was Moses intervening on Israel's behalf at a moment of mortal (and moral) national peril? Was he personally moved by the presence of God? Was he consciously modeling (for the spiritual slackers of Israel) a marked eagerness to worship and serve God?

Consider G.K. Chesterton's comment: Was Moses responding to his uniquely intimate relationship with the Almighty? Or was he awed by the mystery… by all he could never know or see? Is mystery – the ultimate unknowability of God – a satisfying element of your Jewish experience?

Notwithstanding Aeschylus, "haste" is generally a negative attribute. What are the exceptions to this general principle? When is it appropriate to rush, to hasten, to move quickly and decisively? How does the line from Hamlet speak to this issue?

Where else do we read of Biblical figures rushing, running, responding to God with alacrity?

When have you experienced a pressing urge to pray, to worship… a pressing need that just couldn't wait?

Historic Note

In Parashat Ki Tissa, read on March 2, 2013, Joshua hears the commotion caused by the worshipers of the Golden Calf, and concludes (incorrectly): "There is a cry of war in the camp" (Exodus 32:17). On March 2, 1915, Zev Jabotinsky formed a Jewish military force, the Zion Mule Corps, to fight in the pre-state Land of Israel against its Ottoman occupiers.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Parashat Ki Tissa includes a restated emphasis on observance of the festivals, including "Chag Ha-Matzot" – Passover. The Rabbinical Assembly Pesach Guide, by Rabbi Barry Starr, reviews the food products which are permitted and those that are forbidden on Passover. Quinoa (somewhat similar in appearance to short grain rice) presents an interesting case. Certainly not in the category of "hametz," quinoa is also not (according to the vast majority) among those foods termed "kitniyot" (legumes) customarily prohibited by Ashkenazim. Rather, quinoa is from the "goosefoot" family (Chenopodiaceae), which includes beets and spinach (Pesach staples!). The RA Guide lists quinoa among those "products which may only be purchased without a Pesach hekhsher before Pesach. If purchased during Pesach they require a Pesach hekhsher." (Milk and pure fruit juices are famously in this same category). Please consult with your rabbi about use of quinoa and other products on Pesach.

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