UNIVERSAL TORAH: KI TISA
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: KI TISA Exodus 30:11-34:35
Haftara: I Kings 18.1-39 (Sephardi ritual: I Kings 18.20-39).
PROVIDING THE MEDICINE BEFORE THE ILLNESS
The lengthy first section of our parshah of KI TISA (the entire first Aliyah in the synagogue Torah reading, up to Ex. 31:18) starts with a number of commandments concluding the account of the Sanctuary, its vessels and the daily services of its ministering priests. Then, with a reiteration and amplification of the Fourth Commandment, the Sabbath, its seriousness (violation is punishable by death) and its holiness as an eternal sign between G-d and Israel, Moses’ Forty Days on Mt. Sinai after the giving of the Ten Commandments come to an end. G-d gives him Two Tablets of Testimony, but as he readies to go down the mountain back to the people, G-d tells him that the worst had just happened: the people had already violated the Covenant by making a molten idol.
Even before the sin occurred, the commandments with which KI TISA opens provide precisely the remedy for the coming illness, which was rooted within the dark depths of selfish material lust and craving. The Sanctuary as a whole is a remedy for material craving and the lust for wealth. This is particularly true in the case of the mitzvah with which the parshah opens, the HALF SHEKEL which each Israelite was required to contribute to the Sanctuary and for the purchase of the daily sacrifices so as to put food on the “table” of G-d’s House, the Altar. The HALF SHEKEL is symbolic of charity and the will to GIVE, as opposed to the selfish desire to acquire and consume. The HALF SHEKEL is the remedy for the appetite for material wealth in itself.
When G-d spoke to Moses, He “showed him a kind of coin of fire, the weight of a half shekel” and He said to him: “THIS shall all who pass through the count give — a half shekel” (Ex. 30:13 and Rashi there). This fiery HALF SHEKEL COIN, which made every single citizen an equal partner in the Sanctuary and its upkeep, was the remedy for material lust and the appetite for wealth. Everyone was to join and be a partner in an enterprise that elevates material wealth — the finest vessels of gold, silver and copper, the finest fabrics, choicest animals, flour, oil, wine and spices — by incorporating them in the worship of the One G-d. This is where the display of wealth is truly fitting, a place where each may take a just pride in having a share. Having a joint share with everyone else in the national treasure, the Temple, keeping one’s eyes focussed on its splendid golden vessels and their implicit messages — these are the medicine for the selfish lust for wealth for its own sake.
Differences in wealth and assets were of no significance in this annual half-shekel tax that made each citizen an equal partner in the Temple enterprise. The rich could not give more nor the poor less. Souls cannot be quantified and counted — each soul has its own unique significance that would be violated by trying to quantify it or assign it a number. What counts is that each person adds his or her own SELF and WILL, and is willing to play his or her part by paying the “head tax” and “casting a vote”. Numbers and wealth do not count in the eyes of G-d. What counts is each person’s WILL to make a contribution — to have an equal share with everyone else, without pride and without shame, in being part of the whole, feeding the Altar and bringing the fire of G-d’s presence into the world.
An integral part of this remedy for the sin of worshipping material wealth and splendor is the keeping of the Sabbath, with which the account of the Sanctuary and its vessels concludes. Observance of the Sabbath is more important even than the work of building the Sanctuary, which must also cease for one day every week. The race to work, build, make and create wealth must stop for one day out of every seven in order to remember that it does not work and material wealth that guarantees security but only G-d’s enduring Covenant. What is of prime importance is not our wealth but our soul. One day a week must be for the soul. “And on the seventh day, He rested, VAYNAFASH — and became ENSOULED” (Ex. 31:17).
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THE LOSS OF INNOCENCE
To get a faint grasp of how, forty days after hearing G-d speak from heaven at Sinai, the people could worship a golden calf, it is necessary to understand that the ERUV RAV — the “mixed multitude” who went up with the Children of Israel out of Egypt — was by no means a mere rabble of fellow-travelers who jumped on the wagon together with a band of runaway slaves. The Exodus was far more than a slave breakout. It was a religious revolution, in which the entire idolatry-based worldview of Egypt together with its hierarchy of king, priests, and wizards was publicly overthrown and defeated. According to the Zohar (beginning of KI TISA), the shattering of the existing culture and its assumptions caused some of Pharaoh’s leading magicians (the great scientists and philosophers of the time) to join Moses (who was “very great in the eyes of Pharaoh’s servants”, Ex. 11:3), on this new venture out into the wilderness in search of the One G-d. The Midrashim note that some of these magicians even brought their idols with them when they crossed the Red Sea.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, commenting on the two golden calves made later on by Jeraboam, the first king of the Northern Kingdom, asks how it is conceivable that he could have deceived a great multitude with such nonsense as worshiping cows. “Certainly this matter contained very deep and profound reasoning. And if a single page of the philosophical writings on which it was based had survived, it would distance many people from G-d and it would be impossible to come close to Him at all. And for this reason, it is a great benefit to the world that the works justifying this idolatry have been lost.” (Likutey Moharan II:32). [Likewise, it is told in Sanhedrin 102b that the soul of King Menashe appeared to Rav Ashi, who asked him, “Since you were all so wise, why did you worship idols?” The king replied, “If you had been there, you would have picked up your robes and come running after us.” See also Taanis 25b, where the angel of the rains is compared to EGLA, a “calf”. The root EGLA is also related to IGUL, a circle or cycle, hinting at how the image of the golden calf was bound up with representing fundamental cosmic cycles.]
“They have turned aside quickly from the path that I commanded them, they have made for themselves a molten EGEL and they are prostrating to it and sacrificing to it and they said, These are your gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 32:8).
Whatever this EGEL was intended to represent, it was a deviation from the pathway of absolute monotheism taught at Sinai, which prescribed any kind of graven image. Unlike the path of Sinai, which was intended to lead to the holiness befitting a nation of priests, the festivities around the EGEL ended up in “play” (Ex. 32:6) — the three cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder (see Rashi ad loc.). The molten image, with its sophisticated associated “theology”, was at root a wizardly rationalization for material lust.
How it came about that Aaron, Moses’ older brother, played a part, albeit unwillingly, in the manufacture of this calf is one of the profound mysteries of the Torah. The two previous parashah’s dealt with the elevation of wealth through the incorporation of gold, silver and other symbols of wealth into the Temple service. In TETZAVEH we saw that at the very center of the Temple service is the High Priest, with his beautiful garments (expressing “splendor”, HOD, kabbalistically the characteristic quality of Aaron). Yet suddenly we find that Aaron himself took the gold offered by those who wanted to make the calf, symbol of the ultimate degradation of wealth! This implies that there is a “fatal flaw” in HOD — that splendor, even in the service of true religion, may lead to corruption.
[And thus it was that in the time of the Second Temple, the priesthood became corrupt. The “fatal flaw” in Hod corresponds to the sciatic nerve that “jumped” when the angel who struggled with Jacob touched his thigh.]
While Moses was “blotted out”, as it were, from the previous parshah of TETZAVEH (as discussed in last week’s commentary), he is the central figure in our present parshah of KI TISA. In the previous parshah we saw that the role of the Priest, as epitomized in Aaron, is to secure atonement. But how can atonement come when the priest himself is in need of atonement — when the splendor of religious service itself has become corrupted because of the inherent “flaw” in this-worldly glory?
KI TISA teaches that ultimately, atonement can come only through from the Sage, as epitomized in Moses (whose characteristic quality is NETZACH, “Victory” — as when he “argues” with G-d when pleading for forgiveness, see Likutey Moharan I:4). Moses alone “found favor” in G-d’s eyes, eliciting the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (Ex. 34:6): Both before the sin and after the sin, G-d does not change. He is always the same: “loving and gracious, patient, and abundant in mercy and truth.” True atonement comes from practicing these same virtues: “And you shall go in His ways” (Deut. 28:9).
Repentance is not very glorious — it is hard to admit that one did wrong, to have to accept the consequences, atone and struggle to change while living with shame and contrition. In order to escape the ignominy of sin, practitioners of religion are sometimes tempted to present an outer face of sanctimony and irreproachability to others and even to themselves, thereby blinding themselves to their own flaws.
This is not the path of religion and repentance taught by the Torah, which gives naked exposure to people’s real flaws and shortcomings, including even the errors of an Aaron, a Moses or a David, none of whom were spared from criticism.
The Talmud states: “It was not really consistent with what David truly was that he should have sinned with Batsheva, and it was not really consistent with what the Children of Israel were that they sinned with the golden calf. Then why were they made to sin? It was a decree of the King in order to give penitents an excuse” (Avodah Zarah 4b and Rashi there). They were made to sin in order to teach others the ways of repentance (“I will teach sinners your ways”, Psalms 51:15). If they could sin, and still bear the pain and repent, then so can others.
While the sanctimonious nations of the world never cease berating and criticizing the Jews and Israel for their supposed sins, the actual followers of the Torah continue with the inglorious work of Teshuvah, scrutinizing themselves for flaws and striving to correct them instead of denying and papering over them. “And He, being compassionate, will atone for sin”.