Tag Archives: Ten Commandments

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)

Parshat Va’etchanan (2012)

Parshat Va’etchanan
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

The Formlessness of our G-d: Not Making G-d in Our Image

I’m always fascinated by the discussion about what it means to be made in the image of G-d, as described in the creation story of Genesis. There we see the term used b’tzelem Elohim – that we are like an approximate copy or projection of the Divine; like a shadow, or a traced copy (צל; tzel). We are not exactly like G-d, say anatomically, but we are reflections of the Divine Nature. G-d is incorporeal and above any physical likeness, therefore we cannot say that we are exactly like Him. It’s very important that we remember this or else we get caught up in a simplistic way of thinking, where tzelem takes on another meaning in the depths of our minds even if we don’t know it; that of an idol. (צֶלֶם).

Here near the start of Moses’ final declarations being documented here in Deuteronomy he begins to give his final summary of their experiences in order that they reflect upon the lessons that they have learned. Right away he pauses and explicitly goes into detail regarding one notorious occurrence, that of the giving of Ten Commandments. He reminds of how G-d gave us the Torah:

And Hashem spoke to you

from out of the fire

you heard the sound of words

but saw no form,

there was only a voice.”

| Vayedaber Hashem aleichem

| mitoch ha’esh

| kol devarim atem shom’im

| utmunah einechem ro’im

| zulati kol

Deuteronomy 4:12

Then Moses begins to talk about the paramount moment of the giving of the “Aseret haDivrot / The Ten Commandments;” or as the Torah explicitly calls them here, the “Aseret haDevarim / The Ten Words,” or the ten sayings. (v. 13). Moses defines his mission to Israel as teaching them how to follow these laws and rules for when they cross over into the Promised Land they can live by them. (v.14)

But then here he circles back to deal with one point again. Moses says:

Watch yourself very well,

for you did not see

any type of image

on that day that Hashem spoke to you

at Horeb from out of the fire,

lest you become corrupt

and make you

an image that depicts the form of a figure,

[do not make] a form in the image of

a male or a female…”

| Venishmartem me’od

| lenafshoteichem ki lo re’item

| kol-temunah

| beyom diber Hashem aleichem

| beChorev mitoch ha’esh

| Pen-tashchitun

| va’asitem lachem

| pesel tmunat kol-samel

| tavnit

| zachar o nekevah…

Deuteronomy 4:16

I like most people begin to trail off at this point because we all know where this is going. Moses explains that we are not to make any icon in the image of an animal, bird, of things that prowl and swarm on land (creeping-things), or even fish of the sea. (v.17-18). Interestingly the only thing that is left out from this type of prohibition is the making of the form of angels and cherubs; but only by means of omission. (see Parshat Chukat 2012)

Quite honestly for the most part we as modern people don’t have a problem with the latter part of this prohibition. Iconography is something that is foreign to all but the most primitive of people. Even our modern experiences of outright object veneration is considered merely symbolic and has most often been embraced as some sort of revivalism of ancient pagan ways. Modern people just don’t worship any form of animal or beast.

But us modern people should not feel less convicted by this call to pure and depiction-less worship. If anything, more so. We are so advanced in our thinking we seem to realize the role that we play in the “animal world,” but still in this respect we seem to exclude ourselves. Most of us think it foolish for a person to worship a cow for instance, or a bird. We can clearly see that is not divine, and that the concept of deity transcends any single form or representation in creation. But many of seem to have no problem with imaging the Divine in the form of humans; after our own likeness, in the form of the human animal.

I don’t want to drivel on with too much philosophy, our great teachers such as the Rambam wrote extensively on the subject of the almost iconoclastic call of Judaism, one that only sees parallels in the Islamic empire of his age. I can not do justice to his great way of describing it through his body of work. Ones in which he greatly stresses those shared beliefs that we have with Islam, that G-d is above depiction and that even the use of anthropomorphisms are a compromise of the transcendence of the Divine Nature.

Sure we often have to use mundane and human terms when trying to explain G-d, but fully with the understanding that G-d is not a person and that we are at best estimating in terms we can relate to. But that’s it. We try to be careful to keep that understanding because if we stray too far we may begin to think that we understand the mind of G-d. We can begin to think that G-d thinks and acts like us.

People want a G-d they can relate to. So we use approximations, but they are bad descriptions of G-d’s nature. He is above being mad or angry; above being pleased or happy even. G-d is transcendent above all. But in order for us to understand sometimes the scripture have to use these types of terms to get the point across, using feelings and ways of relating we all have in us.

The problem arises when we try to think that we understand the way G-d “thinks” or “feels” by reason of deduction in own mindset and sentiments. We project our likeness on to G-d. And that’s really what it is often times, people who think they have the mind of G-d just find a lot of ways saying G-d thinks like them. And that is utterly ridiculous, and we need to avoid such tendencies. Besides it’s just odd for us to do so anyhow.

For example, many years ago I worked for the Reformed Jewish movement in America. Our interim-director at the time was someone who was quite a feminist. Even though I was Orthodox, I didn’t have problems with her feminism. But what I did find odd was that when leading in the liturgy one at an event she changed the liturgy of Psalm 136; “Thank the L-rd for He is good,” then she changed the well-known response to, “for Her kindness endures forever;” exchanging the masculine of the text to the feminine back and forth. The older people looked at each other with a look of, “Oh how interesting.” Us few younger people looked at each other like, “That’s really lame.”

In a way we all could understand why she did that. We were all Americans, and we understood the statement that she was making. We all grew up in a pseudo-Christian America where G-d is understood as an old man. I emphasize man, because the image of G-d as Father to us all is not just symbolic but quite literal to people in this nation. The Almighty is the father of their god, and thus their idea of G-d is a male with all the trappings that entails. Only recently have some of the brave in their ranks begun to embrace and teach upon the female-like characteristics of the Divine. The “sacred feminine” was purposefully excluded. Not just merely for their theological convenience, but also to accommodate the sexism of the age we were raised.

However inclusive her intentions were, it showed a childish compromise of our tradition on her part. You see, her attitudes in having to utilize this unusual and almost provocative wording were reactionary to an immature concept of Deity on the part of our host society. Her way of reacting to that was with a response that was just as childish, stepping away from thousands of years of understanding G-d and the godliness of Elohim as being above gender and therefore utilizing the Hebrew masculine, plural; which is normative for things that are of genderless or in crowds of mixed genders. G-d is not man or woman, therefore we use a term that is above that, a lofty tense that holds the weight of both. Her engendering of G-d seemed to most people to fall short of that lofty concept. It seemed silly in the company of obviously dedicated religious intellectuals, in an age where embracing of Hebrew was so normative even in the far-liberal circles that the language change seemed more like a gimmick and projection of her own psychological need to have a G-d she could relate to by making it out to be like her. Mostly because such a sentiment was typical for people of her persuasion in that respect, that if G-d could not be like her then she didn’t want to have any part of it.

One should understand that why this is silly to people like me is because we have already seen this in our history. In fact going on throughout the history of the Jewish people in the Tanach we are going to see other competitive expressions of deity arising many times. One of the most infamous would be the Ashtarot; the chief goddess of the bronze age in the middle-east, her name being in the feminine, plural; as opposed to our G-d who is the masculine plural, though gender inclusive. The reason is quite clear if we understand who she was, in that she was responsible for restraining the wrath of the male god Baal who was lower in the pantheon. She was the ancients response to a harsh patriarchal system. But she, would be a female that would come with all their cultural hangups of gender in the end, and would find herself competing time and time again with male challengers for the lead of the pantheon of gods. Continuously in successive generations the battle would go back and forth between the male gods that were warlike and disciplinarian; and the female gods that were compassionate symbols of fertility, but overbearing and volatile. The people’s leanings would swing back and forth as they became tired of one extreme and would default back to the other again.

But here in this parsha Moses points out that a central purpose of this giving of Torah was to liberate us from this type of foolish constraints upon our understanding of G-d by limiting the Divine into any form. G-d is nothing, He is not one thing; and at the same time He is everything; all things in creation are reflections of G-d’s nature, but G-d is not like any one thing alone. We cannot study and try to pattern the behavior of the Divine like we are watching a subject on Animal Planet. We can’t try or claim to understand G-d’s mind and motivation like people try to with a mouse in a maze study.

We cannot not limit G-d, as the Divine is bigger and more than we can ever comprehend or describe. G-d is the Encompassing-All, everything exists in Him and through His will alone; even though “He” isn’t a complete description without qualification of its gender inclusiveness in our Hebrew language and mindset. This need of rising to this higher understanding is not just so we can have a mature idea of G-d, but also so that G-d can be more mature than the trappings of petty human characteristics in our own mind as well. If we can’t do that, the inevitable result is that we start projecting more and more of our own qualities and fickleness upon G-d. That is just as much an idol as limiting G-d in the form of a mamash beheima – an actual animal.

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