Parshat Ki-Tissa (2013)


Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

How G-d is an Expert at Working with Second Chances

This look at Parshat KiTissa is not going to be a very intellectual undertaking, because intellectualism doesn’t comfort the realities of our pain. This is a look through the eyes of belief; belief that our lives matter, and we deserve dignity, and as dignified beings our sufferings have purpose and merit. May you be strengthened!

brokentabsAs we know, even the name of the Torah portion has a hidden meaning that sums up the entire essence of the whole portion. The Parsha begins with the words, “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor, ‘Kitissa et-rosh benei-Yisra’el…‘ / And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, ‘When you take a census of the children of Israel…’”

Our parsha is named after these key words, “kitissa et-rosh” in reference to the commandment of taking the census, however literally these words mean “when you lift the head.” This is also a colloquial phrase that we see similarly used in Genesis 40:13, where we see the phrase, “yisa Paroh et-roshecha / and Pharaoh will lift your head,” meaning to be singled out, given special consideration, to be put on the spot. If we look closely maybe we can find direction for what to do when situations in life seem to be singling us out, when difficulties seem to be squarely directed at as.

In Parshat KiTissa we find that the children of Israel are engaged in the Exodus from Egypt and are encamped at the base of Mount Sinai. This is one of the most pivotal points in all of Jewish history.

As wonderful as the story is of Moses descending with the tablets containing the Law of G-d on them should be, this account is almost immediately overshadowed with the tragedy of the destruction of the first two tablets of the Ten Commandment. And too often we quickly glance over the second part of the story, as the revelation of Torah is redeemed from the catastrophe and a second set of tablets are made.

But before we get there let us familiarize ourself with where we are at, both in the story of the Exodus, as well as our timing in the order of the readings of the Torah portions. Because even in this account there is an amazing lesson.

Bezalel and The Wise-Hearted Person

In this parsha we find that Moses is on Mount Sinai and is communing with G-d. During this time of discussion between Hashem and Moses the entire Torah is being revealed. For 40 days and nights Moses is audience to G-d’s voice and revelation there. When Parshat KiTissa begins we find that a census is being ordered in order to raise money for the rectification of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. Torah law prescribes that a census is taken by each person contributing a certain set amount money; the number of people is known by the sum of the money collected. In this respect census was akin to a form of taxation. The preceding sections of Parshat Tetzaveh and Parshat Terumah were entirely about the service of the Tabernacle, and this mention of a census is just a logical stopping off point on its way to explaining how this is all going to come into being. (see Parshat Terumah 2013)

But more than just explaining the finances of how this was all going to come into being, Hashem also elaborated on the human element of how all the holy vestments and items were going to be made. We read with at the beginning of chapter 31:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

I have called by name

Betzalel son of Uri, son of Chur,

of the tribe of Judah

I have filled him with divine spirit,

and with wisdom,

and with insight,

and with knowledge,

and with all forms of craftsmanship.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor:

| Re’eh karati veshem

| Betzal’el ben-Uri ven-Chur

| lemateh Yehudah

| Va’amale oto ruach Elohim

| bechochmah

| uvitvunah

| uveda’at

| uvechol-melachah

Exodus 31:1-3

I find this to be such a beautiful statement.

As one reads through the Torah’s descriptions of the Tabernacle and all its elements it all begins to seem so overwhelming, so awesome in form and sheer size that it seems almost impossible to imagine, let alone build. Even to this day, great minds stumble on trying to conceive of this holy place in all its wonder. I can only imagine that even more so to our ancient ancestors this must have seemed something miraculous to perform. But if it didn’t already lean on the miraculous, it most surely must have when G-d reveled His choice of architect, Bezalel son of Hur. We are told in Talmud Sanhedrin 69b that he was 13 years old when he made the Tabernacle!

In G-d’s choice of selecting a craftsman He selected a mere boy to make the holy vessels and His places of worship. In doing so G-d was displaying His ability to guide man by imparting all form of wisdom, insight, and knowledge to him. He was displaying His desire to impart into man character and ability. All these things He imparted to Bezalel, displaying this young boy as a vessel of otherworldly ability; displaying him to the nation as whole of what He could do through us all! I love the commentary of Artscroll on this verse which explains, “G-d showed that He had not merely redeemed Israel from slavery. He had endowed them with the capacity to serve Him beyond their ordinary human potential.”

But of course, there are the nay sayers, those who like to limit G-d by saying that either it was a one time event, or a special act He only performed for one person. For those people the Torah elaborated saying, in verse 6:

“And I, behold, I have assigned with him

Oholiav son of Achisamach,

of the tribe of Dan,

and I have endowed the heart

of every wise-hearted person with wisdom,

and they shall make all

that I have commanded you.”

| Va’ani hineh natati ito et

| Oholi’av ben-Achisamach

| lemateh-Dan

| uvlev kol-chacham-lev

| natati chochmah

| ve’asu et kol-asher

| tziviticha

Exodus 31:6

In the scriptures we see that G-d empowers people with chochma, with wisdom; we also understand this word to correctly mean “natural ability.

Herein we find one of the key factors in the tragedy of the Gold Calf, it was entirely unnecessary. The creation of the Tabernacle itself was in order to rectify the need for a tangible place of worship in order that the people feel a closeness to G-d, there was no need for them to create an oracle in the form of a Gold Calf. The solution was presented before the problem presented itself, in the form of the Tabernacle. Sadly the people’s need to take action into their own hands displayed two terrible characteristics of doubt:

  1. Out right doubt: the people did not believe that G-d was truly able to guide man through his natural abilities to do something truly supernatural and extra-ordinary

  2. Impatience as doubt: the people were so crippled by doubt that even if they could accept that G-d could divinely work through them, they looked at Bezalel as a mere boy and incorrectly assumed that they would have to wait for him to grow to be a man before he could complete his work. They were unwilling to wait, this is reiterated in the people’s inability to wait for even 40 days for Moses to descend from the mountain and instruct them.

The true tragedy is that in the people’s choice of creating the Golden Calf they were seeking out what was fast and easy; an image that was familiar to them, in the form that was immediately available.

It is my hope that as we read this section of the Torah we grasp on to the truth that G-d is still in the business of refining His people! It is my sincere hope that we all learn to grasp hold of a youthful heart like that of young Bezalel, that is malleable and open to being guided by the natural wisdom and ability placed in us by G-d to rise to the challenges presented to us in this life.

The Two Sets of Tablets

Of course as the story goes on we find that Hashem commands Moses to go down from the mountain carrying the tablets of the Law presented to him by G-d Himself, as the people had broken out into adoration of the Gold Calf. As we know, the first set of tablets are destroyed.

This parsha becomes very personal to me at this point. I have often considered the situation surrounding the presentation of the tablets. What should have been a time of rejoicing seemingly turns into a disaster. It appears as though when the tablets of G-d’s Law are smashed so too are the promises and hopes for them. And this is where my heart has been reflecting. How often have our dreams taken form in amazing shape and color, only to crash down and left in a smoldering heap?

Let us understand that the tablets Moses descended with were miraculous and truly wondrous. Of them the parsha reads:

“Moses turned and descended

from the mountain,

with the two Tablets of Testimony

in his hand,

Tablets inscribed on both their sides;

they were inscribed

on one side and the other.

The Tablets were G-d’s handiwork,

and the script was the script of G-d

engraved on the Tablets.”

| Vayifen vayered Moshe

| min-hahar ushnei

| luchot ha’edut

| beyado

| luchot ktuvim mishnei evreihem

| mizeh umizeh

| hem ktuvim

| Vehaluchot ma’aseh Elohim hemah

| vehamichtav michtav Elohim hu

| charut al-haluchot

Exodus 32:15

This statement can also be correctly read to meant that the writing was not necessarily written on all sides, but that it was visible from both sides, thus the Midrash suggesting the tall tale that the tablets were made out of Sapphire. Both the Torah and our Tradition suggest that these tablets were something unique and wondrous.

And for many fundamentalists the story usually ends with the destruction of the first set of tablets. They like to stop and give their commentary on the grave tragedy, but go no further. They can’t get beyond the loss of the “ideal.” But this story, like life, doesn’t just end in face of a tragedy. We find after the fallout of the people’s wrongful acts had passed G-d renews and reinforces His covenant with Israel! Thus we read:

“Hashem said to Moses,

‘Carve for yourself two stone Tablets

like the first ones,

and I shall inscribe on the Tablets the words

that were on the first Tablets,

which were shattered.’”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe:

| Psol-lecha shnei-luchot avanim

| karishonim

| vechatavti al-haluchot et-hadevarim

| asher hayu al-haluchot harishonim

| asher shibarta

Exodus 34:1

As I read this parsha I began to be comforted, and I started to understand the position of Chassidut (mystical tradition) that the second set were superior to the first. I had always wondered how this was so. How could this be? One would think that because the first set were priceless and heavenly in composition they would be superior to a set made out of ordinary stone cut by the hand of man. But it is precisely because this second set were “ordinary” in origin that they were far more extraordinary than the first. Something created by the Divine is wondrous, but that is what we would expect, so it is not surprising. But what is surprising is when G-d takes ordinary things, in fact second chances of crude means, and elevates them to holiness equal to anything He could miraculously create.

In Chassidut we learn that every descent is for the purpose of an ascent. That sometimes things in life, challenges and failures are merely a vehicle that Hashem has sent our way to get us to a higher spiritual place. Something things have to be broken in order for us to appreciate the intervention of G-d in our lives!

We go on to read that Moses did in fact carve two stone tablets like the first and carried them in hand up the mountain. (v.4). Then we read that G-d sealed a covenant with Israel, and then lays out the major traditions and holidays of the Jewish people. (v.10-25) When these things are spoken G-d then tells Moses to write the words of this covenant down for himself (v.27). But I love how the Artscroll translation correctly changes the inflection at this point when it comes to the Tablets and goes on to say, “vayichtov al-haluchot et divrei habrit aseret hadevarim / and He wrote on the Tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is in agreement with verse 34:1 when G-d says, “I shall inscribe on the Tablets.” This position is also supported by the Rashbam and Ibn-Ezra.

And this is one of the most beautiful lessons of the Torah. That if we take our second chances, no matter how crude and mundane they appear, and present then before Him He will reach in and touch them with His own hand and make them holy! And this, after all, is the purpose of Torah and very meaning of holiness; to take ordinary things and elevate them to greatness!

This is how Hashem makes His words ring true, “I will place My Torah within them and I will write it onto their heart.” (Jeremiah 31:32)

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