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This Shabbat’s parsha is Ki Tissa.  It’s one of my favorite weekly readings of the Torah- after a couple of weeks of tabernacle-building-instructions, we get a reprieve with the storyline, including the sin of the Golden Calf and the subsequent forgiveness.  We also get a rather incredible Haftorah (weekly reading from the Prophets), featuring a divinely ordained BBQ competition.  I’ll be drawing a message or two out of this, as well as showing you some of the tools you can use to examine the Bible on your own.  More after the orange tabernacle’s-incense-smoke doodle.

As noted above, this week’s reading is a packed one- ranging through Exodus 30:11-34:35, it contains multiple narratives, each of which is worthy of its own d’var torah.  The first section, and it’s quite long, continues the building of the tabernacle, also known as the Mishkan.  Though it might seem boring, it’s actually considered to be worthy of a special reading- in a few weeks Shabbat Sheqalim will occur, dealing with the giving of the half-sheqel, a universal tax on everyone alike, both rich and poor.  I’m incredibly, incredibly tempted to address this section this week, but I want to leave that opportunity for whoever writes the d’var torah for March 1st.  

We also get another commandment to celebrate Shabbat.  This is one of the two sections on Shabbat that are said every week, with the commandment of keeping the Sabbath.  This keeping of the Sabbath is supposed to be a sign between the Jews and God- in the words of Ahad Ha’Am, “more than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”

I want to diverge here for a moment so that we can explore a few of the tools that one might use to put together a d’var torah, such as this.  The classic Jewish Bible is sometimes found as a complete text, also known as the Tanakh.  It’s also sometimes found as the Five Books of Moses, or as a Chumash.  Both of these are readily available from Jewish sources; there are dozens of versions, each selecting their own commentaries.  When it comes to translations, however, there are more limited numbers.  Artscroll publishes a chumash and a Tanakh with classic commentaries.  The language of this translation, however, tends to be overly complicated, and the translations often have assumptions built into them.  Artscroll frequently assumes the view of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, better known as Rashi, and its translation will diverge from the literal when it wants to put in a message, without telling you.  Also readily available is the new Jewish Publication Society translation, first completely published in 1985.  The Jewish Study Bible and the Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim chumash both use this translation.

Then we can look for other translations.  Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan put together one known as The Living Torah, which, while easy to read, is still very traditional.  Robert Alter, a secular scholar of the Bible, has his own version, which is beautifully translated and has a lot of his own commentary.  Everett Fox also has a modern translation, published by Schocken, which is part of Random house.  These latter two take non-traditional viewpoints- the latter is heavily influenced by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig- but they’re a pleasure to read and make some fantastic points.  Finally, the old JPS translation, from 1917, is readily available and is out of copyright.  It’s used in the old Hertz/Soncino Chumash, but importantly is also available all over the place online.  If you run into an “old sounding” translation on a Jewish site, it’s almost certainly this one.

To draw out the lessons of the Bible, I often use commentaries as a jumping-off point.  The classic commentaries are collected together in a text called Miqraot Gedolot (essentially “Great Readings”).  This is readily available in Hebrew, but JPS has started publishing them in English, as well- at a hefty price.  Michael Carasik, a scholar of biblical Hebrew, has Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers out at this point.  Finally, we get to the web sources.  For a basic look/translation, check out Mechon-Mamre (which uses the JPS 1917 translation).  It also has other texts available, though mostly in Hebrew.  For a more radical, open source look- which tacks on a number of the commentaries, linking them through a variety of texts,  though most are still Hebrew only- try  I’ll be using as we get back to the d’var torah section of this d’var torah.

The bulk of this week’s section deals with the sin of the Golden Calf and the response to it.  Aaron is pressured by the people to do something, since Moses is up on the mountain and has yet to come back down.  He collects the people’s gold, and turns it into a statue of a calf.  A number of commentators, chiefly among them Rashi, try to lay the blame on the people- Rashi, for example, says that many of the people there were actually Egyptians who had followed the Jews out and who wanted to worship in their traditional mode.

God’s anger is great here, and Moses is forced to plead with God to forgive the people.  And this is where a strong connection occurs between the haftorah, the Torah, and, I think, today.

 The remainder of the parsha, and indeed, the haftorah as well, deal with trying to define what God is and how we relate to God.  On the one hand, we’ve now seen God’s anger.  On another hand, Moses asks to see God’s glory, only to be told that he cannot see God’s face- only God’s back.  Interestingly, the request and answer aren’t actually parallel- the request is literally glory (kevodecha), but the response deals with face and back.  A new pair of tablets is created (the first having been destroyed by Moses in anger at the Calf), and then God passes over, saying the famous “13 attributes of mercy.”

יְהוָה יְהוָה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. 7 נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָו‍ֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה
The old JPS translates them as follows:
‘The LORD, the LORD, God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; 7 keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin;
This set of words is used often in Jewish ritual; it appears on Yom Tovs (holidays) before Torah readings, as well as on Selihot, or prayers for forgiveness, on fast days and before Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur, and for Sephardim, Jews of Mediterranean descent, pretty much every day as well.  What’s interesting is that this isn’t actually the end of the second verse; it continues by proclaiming that God will visit the iniquities on the children and on the third and fourth generations.  To us, that’s profoundly unjust- but I’ll note here the view of Maimonides, the 12th century commentator, who takes the view that consequences are built into the fabric of creation.  The idea of God pushing the big red “smite” button is terrifying and troubling, but at the same time, we have no problem with nations and peoples making up for the wrong they have done- even a generation or two, or even three or four, later.  That’s actually Maimonides’ point of view- that when the Rabbis discuss the destruction of the First Temple and say it was due to worshipping idols, what they mean is that had the people studied war more and idolatry less, they wouldn’t have lost to the Babylonians.

So far, we have a relationship to God as partners (the Sabbath), a relationship to God when God is angry, and a relationship to God when God is merciful.  Those can be tied up with direct divine punishment and reward, or, if one wishes a more rationalist viewpoint, with the makings of the universe.  The haftorah addresses a God-off.  In I Kings 18:1-39, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a sacrificial competition.  The priests of Baal wail and maim themselves, but their god never helps them, never accepts their sacrifice.  Elijah, on the other hand, calls on God, who zaps a bolt of fire down from heaven, consuming a sacrifice that had water poured all over it.  What’s fascinating here, though, is that Elijah calls on God in a very peculiar way.  First he calls on God in the names of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which is pretty standard.  But then he asks for God to help as the one who turned his heart backwards- i.e., who did not destroy the Jews after their sin.

And I think there is the message- or at least a message- to draw out of this week, when there are so many available.  This week’s readings focus on God on the one hand as dangerous and powerful, but also, on the other hand, as merciful and forgiving.  There comes a time when our mistakes have consequences, whether that’s faith in false gods or the destruction of the world’s environment, whether it’s working on the Sabbath or forcing ourselves to work to the bone to provide for ourselves.  But at the same time, there is an opportunity for redemption- and even when the consequences have started to occur, as they do in Exodus 32 and 33, there is still the opportunity to fix things.  In the words of Rabbi in the Talmud, tractate Avodah Zara 17a: there are those who acquire the “world [to come]” over many years, and there are those who acquire it in a single moment!

Shabbat Shalom.

Originally posted to JLan on Thu Feb 13, 2014 at 06:50 PM PST.

Also republished by Street Prophets and Elders of Zion.

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Comment Preferences

  •  On God's face and God's back (4+ / 0-)

    Not being a Torah scholar, it is with some deference that I offer my interpretation of  God's injunction that Moses could not see His face, but only His back.

    I do not take the injunction literally, but propose that seeing a "face" is gaining a fuller understanding of a person's identity, a broader knowledge of who that person is, what he represents, what is his intrinsic substance. When God terns His face from Moses, I submit that He did it to protect Moses from exposure to an infinite knowledge that he could not possible understand but what, literally,would blow his mind like a light bulb that explodes when it is overloaded with too much current.  

    Seeing God's back would hold the promise of this infinite knowledge without destroying the human who was exposed to it.

    •  Nice one (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Navy Vet Terp, mettle fatigue, ramara

      I think that makes a lot of sense, especially because Moses' request isn't actually to see God's face- it's to see God's glory.  God is the one who uses the "face"/"back" language.

    •  might 'face'=confront & 'back'=follow? (0+ / 0-)

      just a thought, and not so much in a sense limited to this situation but perhaps a paradigm for teaching and learning, that in one's earliest learnings one must follow the teachers (including those who wrote the materials one reads in being scholar, besides those who lead classes if one is fortunate enough to be able to attend.)

      confronting the full face of the subject/its glory could easily be more than the student could deal with and could end studying right there - the overwhelmed student gives up trying to be a scholar at all.

      and possibly takes instead a rigid, cardboard-cut-out shallow position of the entire subject, unwillingness or unable to incorporate details, facts, nuances, concepts, that constitute complexity and depth as reality really is.

      we see that around us so our own 'family' and among the 'cousins' of the world.

  •  Translations (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Amber6541, mettle fatigue

    When I do one of these, lazy as I am, I go to the first translation I can find after googling the cite, and copy and paste.  This is on the basic understanding that we Jews have no problems with the "Christian" translation 98% of the time.  If I see an issue, I do something else.  As you point out, no translation is perfect.  

    Thanks for a superb and very thoughtful diary.

    "Corporations exist not for themselves, but for the people." Ida Tarbell 1908.

    by Navy Vet Terp on Fri Feb 14, 2014 at 05:06:22 AM PST

    •  I have a number of translations (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Navy Vet Terp

      including the King James and Revised Standard (which the old JPS is largely based on), but mostly use the Jewish Study Bible and Etz Hayim. It helps sometimes to compare.

      A piece of translation important in this parsha is that after building the golden calf, Aaron says the next day will be a celebration to God (in the singular), which to me shows that he meant the calf to represent God rather than any other god. It's a transitional object; they couldn't see God, and now they couldn't even see Moses; they needed to see something.

      Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

      by ramara on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 12:11:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  I'd like to have (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Navy Vet Terp

      the Everett Fox, which is poetic and lovely; I've read parts of it.

      Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

      by ramara on Sat Feb 15, 2014 at 12:14:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  the science inherent in Rambam's view (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    as in this

    the view of Maimonides, the 12th century commentator, who takes the view that consequences are built into the fabric of creation.  
    has to remind us that he, a physician, was a scientist product of a highly scholarly era and culture (the Golden Age of Moorish Spain - Cities of Light is a wonderful dvd) 10 centuries ago looking backward to another 13 or 14 centuries seeming to point out that as ancient as that people also were careful observers before drawing conclusions - the further back they were, the greater the survival necessity to look carefully and develop understanding and test it, and convey it to following generations and onward, religion as the vehicle because there was no other, and if the vehicle affects expression of that understanding there is study to provide clarification.

    i'm surely repeating this deep sense of appreciation from past drashes that have also cited Rambam's science, it just always strikes me again as so valuable, so important to recognize that people no matter how ancient weren't just inventing primitive fictions to calm their fears in the dark at night, they were always intelligent perceptive minds working with all the materials available to understand the universe and to tikkun it as best they could, for themselves and future generations to live in with less struggle and conflict, and greater peacefulness.  in Rambam's earliest years, it was in a culture in which differences of religion and of ancient sources were studied by differing scholars together, unifying the materials in a way that eventually led to the Renaissance.

    it always gives me hope.

    toda raba for the encouraging drash.
    shabat shalom.

  •  I dread Ki Tissa (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    JLan, mettle fatigue

    I have never been able to appreciate the Golden Calf tragedy as anything but cold-hearted and stultifying.  People feel abandoned in the desert and turn to their leader for comfort.  The leader creates an idol, but bears no consequence for his act; to the contrary, his heirs are given the priesthood.

    Calling G-d merciful in these events is a bit of a stretch.  True, He didn't smite everyone, but as part of the bargain, the Levites created a death squad that drenched the encampment in blood.  

    It is hard to see anything in this dreadful sequence of events that inspires reverance.  I am inclined to the view that it was written by antagonists of the Aaronite priesthood to attack the progenitor.

    However, I do love the cook-off in the Haftorah, even if is fruit from the awful tree of animal sacrifice.

    •  a rabbi yrs ago said aaronides as priests were (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      a very late-contributed material that was edited into the earlier materials not long before codification, in an era of hellenism when there was deep dissatisfaction and misgiving about sadduceean levites in office tendering more allegiance to the dominating empire (for whatever reason, could have been personal upper class gain, could have been a strategic attempt of protection for the entire population) than met their 'job description'.

      it was in a very interesting class that this was discussed. how prevalent that opinion is of aaronide material I really don't know.  wikipedia's page about "Aaronites" is actually headed "Kohen", which becomes dizzyingly circular, but kind of fascinating.

      •  I think of the Priestly source (0+ / 0-)

        as being later than the Deuteronomic; the D source is from the late kingdom, after the fall of the northern kingdom, when things seemed to be falling apart, and see it as a companion to to Prophets, while I see the P source as being after the exile, when the Ezraites are trying to bring worship back to the Temple, and to give more power to the priests. In exile, of course, sacrifice was abandoned, and prayer became to medium of worship.

        In the Jewish Study Bible there is a commentary that the Priestly version of the story at Sinai might very well be that Moses went up the mountain, got the instructions for the Mishkan, and afterwards got everything else in Torah in the Tent of Meeting. This stresses the need for an intermediary. No revelation, no Ten Commandments, no Golden Calf. It also says that the golden calf might originally have been a positive thing put in early in the split into two kindgoms. One of the first kings of the northern kingdom put up two golden calves in different places so the people would travel there rather than back to the Temple to make sacrifices, and wrote the story into the Torah as an authority for doing so. Of course, the priests would never let that pass without making it a horrible sin.

        Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

        by ramara on Sun Feb 16, 2014 at 09:56:18 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  thnx, that's extremely interesting! n/t (0+ / 0-)
          •  I should mention (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mettle fatigue

            that I have also read that the P source came before the D source, but I don't see that as making sense. But I'm no scholar.

            Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be ... almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die. - Jonathan Safran Foer

            by ramara on Tue Feb 18, 2014 at 11:46:35 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

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