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 sefaria.org. I’ll be using Sefaria.org 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 וְנַקֵּהThe 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!