Ki Tissa 5756
Once more we are celebrating a special Shabbat.
One of the things about anything "special" is that it is out of the ordinary. However, when the special happens three weeks in a row we tend to think that it is not all that special any more... That is not so -- or maybe I should say that we are myopic in our outlook if we lose sight of the specialness of this Shabbat. We are looking at the last couple of Shabbatot instead of looking at the entire calendar. How many Shabbatot in a year have a "name?" Not many! Hence, even if it happens three weeks in a row -- it is still special. Indeed, one may need to consider that Shabbat, itself, is special, for it happens only one seventh of the time allotted to us on earth -- and it is a gift from God. But I digress...
The beginning of this Torah portion speaks of census taking, which had to be done very carefully, along with an offering for atonement. Concerning this offering for atonement, it is made clear that there is to be an equality before God in receiving atonement -- half a shekel, which was, apparently a sum that even the poor could manage. It was to be the flat fee to be charged the poor and the rich alike. There is very great concern in Gods Torah for equality. Israel, Gods people, was established to be a special people set apart for God's purposes, His Chosen People (am bekhira), a holy people. So it is not surprising to read about preparations for the establishment of a sanctuary, the vestments and furniture -- and those who were commissioned to fashion and build them.
All this happens, in our portion, while Moses is on the mountain, in glory, receiving the contents of the entire Torah. The Torah prescribed in detail what God expected of His people. Oh, what love God had for Israel to concern Himself with the details of our lives. The Torah was fashioned by Him to be as a ring worn by Israel to signify their marriage to the Loving God. Outwardly, they were to diligently follow His precepts, while inwardly their heart was to be bonded to Him.
We all know that God is infinite, omnipotent and omniscient, and yet we also must know that God is not impervious, unaffected or uncaring. He is not some neutral, detached, unfeeling source of power. He is a personal God, a father who loves all his children and cares for them -- and who suffers the pain every father of flesh and blood suffers when his children travel down the wrong path. God was deeply affected by the transgression that was going on at the foot of Mount Sinai. While Moses was receiving the Torah at the mountain top, the people were making the golden calf as a representation of the Living God below. How very sad, how ironic that the people who had just been miraculously delivered from Egypt, who had already seen God's hand of glory and provision, who had been promised that Moses was going up on the mountain to receive God's revealed word would grow impatient and wish to have a golden calf. How very short-sighted and immature.
This transgression of the Israelites in the desert brings to mind a fault of character we all have: the lack of patience. Impatience has plagued humanity since the beginning of our history. Abraham and Sarah could not wait for Isaac -- and so used Haggar as a surrogate to conceive a son for them. She gave birth to Ishmael, whom she raised as her son, a threat to Sarahs son when she did finally give birth, and we have been cursed with the enmity of his seed to the seed of Sarah ever since. Moses could not wait for the rock to hear his words, and struck it -- and was doomed to die before entering the land of the promise. Many of us lose patience and drop our faith to take care of some matter or another ourselves. Like these men and women in Scriptures found, we also suffer greatly when we faint in faith and do it our own way! Some of the first pioneers to come to Eretz Yisrael to reclaim it as a national homeland at the turn of the century grew impatient of the coming of independence and moved to Australia and America in the 1930's. Some even returned to Russia. They, and their children after them, missed the chance to be "dor hage'ula" -- the generation of the redemption. In the late eighties, some ten years ago, our brethren in Israel, who had been, literally, at the foot of mount Sinai, and spiritually had seen a miracle of redemption of unparalleled proportions, lost patience, and sought peace at all costs. "Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." [Ex. 32:1]
So they made them a new ally, a new partner, and divided the people, and brought terror and fear and a loss of faith and of conviction to a people that had been buoyed by faith and hope for two millennia of persecution. A people that knew no despair and gave no heed to gloom has become obsessed with "no more killing, no more war" -- as if it was they who dictated the war and brought about the killing.
A covenant with God is a wonderful thing. Yet, no covenant is a one-sided event. On the one hand, God promised to perform wonderful works on our behalf. On the other hand, we were to yield ourselves in loyalty and faithfulness of service. God was fully committing Himself to Israel, Was He not entitled to their full commitment to Him?
And so, today, we have entered into a covenant with -- who? Yasser Arafat? His first name sounds like "yes, sir" -- and it seems to be his favorite answer... You say you want peace -- "yes, sir." You want a holy war to annihilate the Jews -- "yes, sir." You want Jerusalem, and Jaffa, and Haifa and Lod -- "yes, sir." Well, God, our Father, has committed Himself to us. He has committed all spiritual blessings to the people at Sinai, and to all the future generations. We are the true successors of the promises given long ago. Dare we rest or even give-in, and casually forfeit this covenant?
Our forefathers were clearly warned, given the admonition to separate themselves from the idolatry of the land. They were to live in a distinctly separate manner, observing the Torah, observing the prescribed Feasts, displaying their faithfulness to the God who had done so much on their behalf. We cannot stop doing this if we wish to remain Jews, "Am bekhira," Israel.
So we need to rededicate ourselves to our cause, to our covenant, to our unique nature. We must be zealous for God, for the Torah's principles. Some of us may be led by the Spirit of the Lord into a more precise observance of Torah. But all of us are called to live a righteous separated life in observance to the dictates of the Spirit of the One that took us out of Egypt, brought us to Sinai and gave us Torah as a tree of life; who perpetuated and prospered our continuity in two millennia of persecution, and who proffered His blessing upon our new commonwealth in the land of the Promise. We cannot lose resolve, and we cannot compromise principle. The message of God throughout the Torah and the remainder of our scriptures, the words of the prophets and the inspiring poetry of the Writings, is that He is a God who desires us.
If we hear his words, if we follow his teachings, we shall see the fruit of our faith. We shall live to see an end to strife. Then, with God's will, and under His guidance, there will be, truly, no more killing, no more war -- for all his children shall share the knowledge of the Lord and His teachings of peace and brotherhood.
Ki Tissa Shabbat and its opposite
This week we read in the Torah the portion of Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 to 34:35) which begins with a discussion of taking a census -- it is considered "bad luck" to count the population or any portion thereof. I remember, when I was young, the shamash (sexton) in our synagogue used to count the people to see if there was a minyan (quorum): "nisht eyn, nisht tsvey," etcetera -- 'not one, not two...' This way you are 'not counting' rather than tempting fate. Well, the Torah had it own solution to the problem of 'not counting' the people and still having a good count of how many Israelites there were: it was ordained that every soul amongst them shall pay a small 'redemption' fee. Once that fee was paid, the coins were counted -- and the number of coins matched the number of the people, who were NOT counted.
Next the Torah gives proper credit to the chief artists whose inspired work it was to fashion the furnishings and utensils of the Tabernacle. The top artist was Betsal'el Ben Uri Ben Khur, of the tribe of Judaea, and his able assistant was Oholi'av Ben Akhisamakh, a Danite.
After giving credit to the builders of God's sanctuary, the text turns to God's sanctity. We read, "Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my Sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you. Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed." [Ex. 31:13-18] The last two verses of the above quote form the hymn we sing on Friday night and on Shabbat during services, 'veshamru beney yisrael et ha Shabbat...'
We Jews became known the world over even in antiquity as "am mekadshey shevi'i" a people who consecrate the seventh day. The first verse above tells us that we must "verily" -- which means diligently and with great purpose -- keep the Lord's Sabbaths. Why should we do this? "For it is a sign" between the Lord and Israel for all time. A sign of what? A sign that the Lord is the One that sanctifies Israel.
What does it mean, 'God sanctifies Israel?' I have often wandered. The Hebrew word for 'sanctify' is 'mekadesh' and comes from the root 'kodesh.' While there are other words that come from the same root, there are no "related but different" words that could give us a clue to the actual meaning of the word, except to say that 'holy is holy' -- which is NO definition! However, this week's reading gives us a BIG clue, when it says, "Ye shall keep the Sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people." To define the holy, we look at its opposite: everyone that 'defiles' it! The Hebrew for defile is "mekhallel." Shabbat is holy -- the rest of the week is not. The other days of the week are called 'khol.' There is a connection between the non-holy week days and the defiling of the Shabbat, which renders it like a week day -- mekhallel makes khol!
Many people think that the root of 'khol' as a term for week days is the word used in Genesis, "veharbe arbe et zar'akha kekhokhvey hashama'yim vekhakhol asher al sfat ha'yam I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore" [Gen. 22:17] So, khol is sand, and week days are 'sand days' -- as numerous as the sand on the sea shore. But why is sand 'khol?' Well, they don't bother to follow the trail quite that far...
Holy is the quality of God. We are told, "Kedoshim ti'hyu ki kadosh ani adona'y eloheykhem ye shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy." [Lev. 19:2] We must fill ourselves with holiness because of His holiness. To profane or defile is "mekhallel" which relates to the word 'khallal' which we use for outer space. As you know, outer space is a vacuum. There are worlds out there, somewhere -- but space is empty! When someone commits murder, the victim is called 'khallal,' too, just like outer space. Why? Because the body has been emptied of its soul, the spark of God, the essence of life. The sand that is by the sea shore, like the remains of a murder victim, is of no value -- and hence sand is 'khol.' Week days are void of holiness, for the Lord did not hallow them, as he did the seventh day, Shabbat, and therefore they are 'khol.'
Now that we know what the profane is, we can return to the question of the holy. Holy is that which is not empty, "mekhullal," which, of course, is that which the profaner "mekhallel" -- desecrates. In the last two weeks we have been reading about the first Jewish sanctuary, which is called "mikdash," the place of "kodesh." Why is this a "mikdash?" Because God allows His name and His presence to dwell there. Therefore, we can deduce that "kodesh" which is holiness, is that which is imbued with the presence of God. When we marry, the man says to the woman "harey at mekudeshet li... -- Behold you are consecrated to me..." The woman, who is 'just' another human being on the face of the earth, becomes unique and holy to the man who marries her through the ceremony of 'kidushin' the consecration of marriage.
Now we come to the second half of the verse that bids us keep the Sabbath: "every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people." Does this mean that any Jew who does not "shomer Shabbat" -- observe the Shabbat fully and completely deserves a death sentence? Could we live in the year 1997 with such a law? Again, let me draw your attention to the text. "Mekhalleleha Every one that defileth it" -- this means whoever 'murders' it. The Sabbath is holy because it is imbued with the presence of God. Mankind, likewise, is imbued with the spirit, the image of God. "Whosoever doeth any work -- kol ha'ose va melakha" refers to work that specifically profanes God and his sanctity. We must sanctify our labor, and sanctify our lives, so that whatever we do will not kill the holy within us. I believe that it is not suggested in the text that we need must have a "Shabbat police" to keep tabs on Jews who "break the Shabbat" and bring those guilty to the executioner. The "mekhallel," the profaner, by his act of desecration, murders himself, losing his spark of the divide, losing the very meaning of Jewish life -- the life of the Sabbath people.
"Veshamru beney yisrael et ha shabbat," so the Children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. So may it be His will. So may we be strong in our resolve and our knowledge to do it with love and with devotion. Amen!
Ki Tissa 5758
The portion of the Torah that we read this week is "Ki Tissa," in the book of Shemot, Exodus, from 30:11 to the end of chapter 35. The third segment of the reading begins with verse 17 in the thirtieth chapter, and it reads, " And the Lord replied to Moses, "I will indeed do what you have asked, for you have found favor with me, and you are my friend." Then Moses had one more request. "Please let me see your glorious presence," he said. The Lord replied, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, 'the Lord,' to you. I will show kindness to anyone I choose, and I will show mercy to anyone I choose. But you may not look directly at my face, for no one may see me and live." The Lord continued, "Stand here on this rock beside me. As my glorious presence passes by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed. Then I will remove my hand, and you will see me from behind. But my face will not be seen." [Ex. 30:17-23]
I have often asked myself why it was that God did not allow Moshe to 'see His face.' We are taught that it is best to confront friend and foe alike "face to face." Why is it that Moshe, our great leader and teacher, the source of our redemption from Egypt and the great interpreter of the teachings of God to Israel, could not have a face to face encounter with his Master, his Mentor and Employer? Surely, if anyone deserved to have such a face to face meeting with Him -- Moshe was the one! And after thinking about it fora while I came to the realization (how humble of me, you will say,) that God was right. In all probability it was nota good idea for Moshe to become too familiar with Him. Had they met face to face, Moshe may have become presumptuous, and may have seen fit to give some unwanted and unasked for advice. After all, it had happened before! It was one of Moshe's ancestors, Abraham, who was told about the destruction of Sodom in a face to face encounter with God. You probably recall what happened, for we Jews, argumentative folk that we are, pride ourselves on the fact that our Father, Abraham, began a long argument with God, and he said: "Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it?" [Gen. 18:23-24] And that was not the end of it, either! Abraham argued and bargained all the way to ten righteous people before he realized the futility of his effort. Sodom was just not worthy of saving! Likewise, Moshe, our great leader and seer, argued for the continued well-being of God's children, the seed of Abraham.
My thoughts turned from Torah to today. I began to think about the great conflict that was not... The latest crisis over weapons of mass destruction in the hands of that Butcher of Bagdad, Saadam Hussein, who finds it convenient to sacrifice thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians on the altar of 'national pride,' by defying the whole world and perpetuating the sanctions against his country. I thought of the five different times since the Gulf war that the regime in Iraq defied international law and public opinion, and I cringed. I wonder what the final cost of the American buildup of forces and arms in the Gulf theater will be. I know that Israel spent more than one hundred million dollars on preparations for unconventional weapons attack. Gas masks, antidotes to gas and bacteriological attacks all cost money. I also thought of another day, and another situation in the same theater of operations. The year was 1981, and the place was Osyrak. The French were building a nuclear reactor, and the weapons specialists were reporting that Iraq would have a capacity to make an atomic bomb in a matter of a year or two. Shimon Peres, the leader of the Labor alignment and the father of Israel's nuclear research capacity, claimed that we have nothing to worry about. Luckily, he was not the head of government -- Menakhem Begin was. Prime Minister Begin recognized a real and present danger to the future of the State of Israel, and he gave the order for the Israel Air Force to mount the long distance attack to eliminate the reactor and the potential for disaster that it represented.
How many of you recall the international reaction to the Israeli action? Do you recall Thomas Friedman, in the N.Y. Times calling Begin "Son of Sam with a Phantom for a weapon?" Do you remember that Peres himself called the operation an election campaign gimmick to reelect Begin at a price of making Israel an international pariah? Well, now, looking in hindsight, we see things so much more clearly. Now that the world is aware of the danger of the ruling class in Bagdad; now that all know that Hussein will use biological, chemical and nuclear weapons even on his own people, as he did on the Kurds in North Iraq; now that we have seen the rape of Kuwait and the igniting of its oil wells before the Iraqi pullback; now that we have heard of massacres in the Basra area and in the hills of the Kurds' domain; now that we have witnessed the killing of Saadam's two sons in law, who were guaranteed safety if they returned from exile in Jordan -- when we have all this input, we are suddenly aware that Begin was right. One hundred percent, no fault, no nonsense right! How very foolish we were to reproach him.
God said to Moshe, "Then I will remove my hand, and you will see me from behind. But my face will not be seen." Now, I don't suggest that Menakhem Begin is God, or even "godlike" -- quite the contrary! Begin was flesh and blood -- just a man. Begin was a God fearing man, a man like so many others among the Jews in the parade of the centuries who heard the call to lead, to do for the sake of "netzakh Yisrael," the eternity of the People Israel. However, even with Begin, we can only look at him with admiration for his leadership from the perspective of hindsight. His face can lo longer be seen. We cannot go and thank him, face to face, eye to eye. And if we cannot recognize the wisdom of flesh and blood -- why should we be surprised if the Holy One, Blessed be He, shields us from our own folly? Let us learn our history, let us give thanks to our God for giving us His teachings and His special, dedicated sons and daughters, who act to insure our continuity.
Ki Tisa-Para 5759
There are two very important lessons in the Torah reading for this week, Exodus 30:11 to 34:35, which seem to contradict one another. The first lesson comes early in the parasha, and says, "Work six days only, but the seventh day must be a day of total rest. The Lord considers it a holy day, anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death. The people of Israel must keep the Sabbath day forever. It is a permanent sign of my covenant with them. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but he rested on the seventh day and was refreshed."" [Ex. 31:15-17] The last part of this quote is part of the Shabbat liturgy, "Veshamru veney Yisrael et Hashabbat..." Many of the sages of the Jewish people have stated that the greatest gift God gave the Jewish people. However, the passage from the Torah this week makes us wonder... God makes a demand, "anyone who works on the Sabbath must be put to death" that is a little harsh, wouldnt you say? Yet, in a society that is just beginning its way under Gods teaching, if you dont set boundaries for people, can you imagine how far off they will stray? If you have any question at all look to the child of Judaism to Christianity. Since they did not consider the Torah as important as their new book, they changed their Sabbath to another day of the week. Were they put to death? Obviously not, else how do we explain the fact that they are still around? However, the early Jewish followers who were Jews, are no longer around as Jews, and therefore we may well say that Gods mitsvah was fulfilled, and they have, for Judaism, died. The second lesson comes towards the end of the parasha, and has become part of our High Holiday liturgy. It is called the "thirteen attributes" of God: "Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness and truth; who keeps loving-kindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations." And Moses made haste to bow low toward the earth and worship. And he said, "If now I have found favor in Thy sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do Thou pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Thine own possession."" [Ex. 34:6-9] These attributes of God, are for us to observe, revere, and emulate so that we may become better people, so that we come closer to Him, and so that we may help Him improve His world (tikun olam).
The Mishna, the Oral Teaching, tells us, "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel taught: The world rests on three things, on Justice, on Truth, on Peace. As it is written, "With truth justice and peace shall you judge in your gates." [Avot 1:18] What does it mean? It is in reference to our quotes from the Torah, concerning the Shabbat and the attributes of God. Justice means mitsvot, that we must learn to live by; Truth means accepting Gods teaching, learning His nature and fashioning ourselves to be more like him, understanding that Gods word is truth, and His truth liberates us from danger and from fear. Peace is our goal if we live by Gods mitsvot, and we know his truth our reward will be peace. Amen
Ki Tisa 5760 - Leadership for Redemption
This Shabbat we read in the Torah in the book of Shemot, Exodus, from 30:11 to 34:35, a portion that is packed full of passages that we know and consider very holy. The first is the one we recite in the service of Shabbat eve and morning, "Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed." [Ex. 31:16,17] Another is the "Thirteen Attributes" of God, which we repeat during holidays before taking the Torah out, and during Slikhot services on the High Holidays: "And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the childrens children, to the third and to the fourth generation. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped." [Ex. 34:6-8] Between the beginning of the reading and the first passage I mentioned, we read about the counting of the People of Israel and about Moshe going up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah on the Tablets of stone. We read of the making of the Golden calf, and of the wrath of God at this betrayal. We read about the plague that spread in the camp because of the calf, and of Moshes request of God to forgive the people, in relation to which the second quote, the Thirteen Attributes, are mentioned.
Now, at the end of the Torah reading on Shabbat, we read a portion from the Prophets, the Haftarah, which complements and completes the "lesson" of the day. This week the Haftarah is from First Kings, Chapter eighteen. There we read about the great prophet, Eliyahu, or Elijah, and how he defeated the "prophets" of the idol Baal. Now how does this passage relate to this weeks portion in the Torah? The sages tell us that we have had two great leaders in our history: Moshe and Eliyahu. Each encountered God, each loved his people Israel, each faced Israels infidelity to God, and each tried to leave an indelible message of the need to serve God. The first great leader, Moshe, delivered Israel out of its first bondage. The second was removed from this earth in a chariot of Fire, to await the time of the beginning of the second redemption. Then he will return, to be the harbinger of that second redemption.
It is interesting to compare and contrast Moshe and Eliyahu in our text of this Shabbat and in the remainder of the information we have on the two. Moshe is "invited" to come up the mount of the Lord to receive the Torah. Eliyahu escapes the wrath of Queen Izevel (Jezebel) and ends up in the desert at the mount of the Lord, who asks in surprise, "behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, What are you doing here, Elijah?" [I King 19:9] Moshe spent forty days on top of the mountain, and Eliyahu took forty days to arrive at the mountain. Moshe and Eliyahu both were in close proximity to God, but Moshes eyes were covered by God, and Eliyahu covered his eyes with his garment to avoid "seeing" Gods glory. Moshe was placed in the cleft of the Rock, and Eliyahu hid in the cave in the rock.
The text this week tells us of the way in which both leaders fought for the honor of God against idolatry. Moshe faced the nationas it worshiped the Golden calf and called out, "who so ever is for God, come to me." Only the sons of Levi heeded his call. Eliyahu spoke to all the Israelites who came to mount Carmel "Geshu elay" (come near to me) and all the people approached. Moshe built an altar, as we read, "And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and built an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars, according to the twelve tribes of Israel." [Ex. 24:4] And Eliyahu built one, as we read, "And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be your name;" [I Kings 18:31]
Eliyahu slays the prophets of Baal, and has to flee for his life, for fear of the queen. Moshe slays the Egyptian who beat an Israelite and has to flee for his life for fear of Pharaoh. Moshe dies alone in the valley near the mountain of Nevo, whence he saw the Land of the Promise - and Eliyahu is taken to God from whence he will return to announce the promise of return to the land. Leadership and faith, service and zeal, these are the hallmarks of our great teachers and liberators. May we always be lucky and fortunate enough to have such leaders, and may we always have Gods blessings upon these leaders and upon all of us.
Ki Tisa 5761
This week we read in the Torah the portion of Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 to 34:35) which begins with a discussion of taking a census -- it is considered "bad luck" to count the population or any portion thereof. The census had to be done very carefully, along with an offering for atonement. Concerning this offering for atonement, it is made clear that there is to be an equality before God in receiving atonement -- half a shekel, which was, apparently a sum that even the poor could manage.
Later in the portion we read that Moshe goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah for the Children of Israel While he was receiving the Torah at the mountain top, the people were making the golden calf as a representation of the Living God below. How very sad, how ironic that this people who had just been miraculously delivered from Egypt, who had already seen God's hand of glory and provision, who had been promised that Moshe was going up the mountain to bring back to them God's revealed word would grow impatient and wish to have the golden calf to worship. How very short-sighted and immature.
This transgression of the Israelites in the desert brings to mind, to me at least, a fault of character we all share: lack of patience. Impatience has plagued humanity since the beginning of our history. Abraham and Sarah could not wait for Isaac -- and so used a surrogate, Haggar, to birth a son for them. She bore Ishmael, whom she raised as Abraham and her son, a threat to Sarah and the son she eventually gave birth to - and we have been cursed with the enmity of his seed to the seed of Sarah ever since. Moshe himself evinced impatience with the rock who would not give water on hearing his words, and struck it -- and was doomed to die before entering the land of the promise. Many of us lose patience and drop our faith to take care of some matter or another ourselves rather than waiting for its time.
Now, Moshe was told by God that the Israelites had made the golden calf, "And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, and the two tablets of the Testimony were in his hand; the tablets were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written." [Ex. 30:15] What did Moshe do when he approached the camp? "And it came to pass, as soon as he came near to the camp, that he saw the calf, and the dancing; and Moses anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands, and broke them beneath the mount." [Ex. 30:19] Did you ever hear such unmitigated desecration? After all, "And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets." [Ex. 30:16] I have often asked myself: is this the act of a faithful servant of God? Could Moshe have been so angry? After all, he had been informed by no less than God himself of Israels transgression.
However, studying commentaries about the events of the action of Moshe when he returned to the camp, I came upon the explanation that Moshe did not act in haste or in anger. Quite the contrary! Moshe acted deliberately and with respect to Gods teaching. Coming towards the camp and seeing the calf-worshipers, he reasoned that they may well accept the tablets as holy - with complete disregard to the message they contain. That is why they had to be broken. He was teaching the Israelites a lesson: It is not the tablets that bear witness to God - it is the words of Torah. It is not "Ten Commandments" with Technicolor and Stereophonic sound in a Cecil B. DeMill production - it is, as the prophet Eliyahu was told, "Kol dmama daka" - the sound of silence, pure and unadulterated.
What was true in the days of Moshe and Israel in the desert at Sinai is ever so true today. We are the physical and spiritual heirs of the people that stood at Sinai. Some of us are worshiping the golden calf, or the calf of gold - we are slaves to mammon, the desire to accumulate gold and all that gold buys. Others worship the concept of God - the "Holy tablets," the scroll of the Torah, the beautiful binding of the Book of Books. In the fever of passion for the object of love, the content of the text is lost. "Shimeon the righteous was one of the last of the men of the Great Assembly. He used to say: "the world is based upon three things: the Torah, Divine service, and the practice of kindliness." [Avot 1:2]
Moshe wanted the people to know God, and follow His teachings. He did not want them to fill themselves with pride because God owns them, or have the audacity to think that they "own" Him. Breaking the tablets did not reduce their importance, just as desecrating Torah scrolls does not remove their holiness. The consecration is in the act - in the "avodah," the service, and in its power to direct us towards the doing of good deeds, deeds of love and of kindness. That Moshe taught. That God inspired him to teach. Ahavat hashem - love of God is manifested in Ahavat habriyot - loving all mankind. The best way to show this love of mankind is by bringing them to love God.
Ki Tissa 5762
This Shabbat we
read in the Torah in the book of Sh'mot, Exodus, from 30:11 to 34:35, a portion
that is packed full of passages that we know and consider very holy. The portion
begins with a census - which had to be done very carefully, along with an offering
for atonement. Concerning this offering for atonement, it is made clear that
there is to be a total equality before God in receiving atonement -- half a
shekel, which was, apparently a sum that even the poor could manage. It was
to be the flat fee to be charged the poor and the rich alike. There is very
great concern in God's Torah for equality. Next we read about Moshe going up
Mount Sinai to receive the Torah on the Tablets of stone. While he's up on Mount
Sinai receiving the Torah, his brother makes the Golden calf at the demand of
the Israelites, and the wrath of God at this betrayal of what the Israelites
had only just been taught - "Thou shalt not make an image...". Moshe
makes a request of God to forgive the people and allow them to continue their
destiny to be "his" people.
There are two great and famous passages in this week's portion. The first is "Veshamru," which we recite at Shabbat service evening and morning. "Therefore the people of Israel shall keep Shabbat, to observe Shabbat throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant. It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever; for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed." [Ex. 31:16,17] The other is the "Thirteen Attributes" of God, which we repeat during High Holidays at Slikhot services and before taking out the Torah from the Ark on Holiday weekdays. "And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, to the third and to the fourth generation. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped." [Ex. 34:6-8]
It is in relation to this "deviating from God's teaching," the "sin of the Golden Calf" - that the prophet Ezekiel, whose words we read this week in the Haftarah for Shabbat Parah, promises God's forgiveness: "For I will take you from among the nations, and gather you from all countries, and will bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your filthiness; and from all your idols, will I cleanse you. A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put inside you; and I will take away the heart of stone from your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit inside you, and cause you to follow my statutes, and you shall keep my judgments, and do them. And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God." [Ezekiel 36:24-28]
For the prophet's words to come true there is a need for interaction between God and Israel. He has to perform His miracle - and we have to keep faith with Him - to stay Jews! That is by no means a sure thing these days. Having survived to two millennia, we are fast becoming extinct these days. The American Jewish Identity Survey 2001, a demographic snapshot that was recently released in full after publishing selected highlights this fall tells a rather dismal story.
The core American Jewish population has declined from about 5.5 million in 1990 to about 5.3 million. However, the number of persons who are "of Jewish origin" - including those who have another religion - has increased from 6.8 million in 1990 to nearly 7.7 million. A very sad loss for our future. More core Jews - 30 percent - identify with Reform than with any other movement. Some 24 percent identify with Conservative, 8 percent with Orthodox, 1 percent with Reconstructionist and 1 percent with Humanistic Judaism. However, those who identify with Conservative Judaism and Orthodoxy are far more likely to be synagogue members than those who identify with Reform.
The rate of new intermarriages has not risen - 51 percent of Jews who wed in the past 10 years married non-Jews, compared with 52 percent in the five years preceding the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey - but the effects of years of intermarriage are being felt. Thirty-three percent of core Jews are married to non-Jews, compared with 28 percent in 1990. In addition, almost one-third of core Jews do not have a Jewish mother. That means that with the exception of those who are converts, they would not be recognized as Jewish by Conservative or Orthodox leaders. Then, of course, you have the new fashion of couples not marrying...
Among unmarried Jews living with a partner, 81 percent are living with a partner who is not of Jewish origin. Those who say they are Jewish by religion are older, more affluent, more likely to be Democrats and more clustered in the Northeast than those who are of Jewish parentage but have no religion or who identify with a religion other than Judaism. The average Jew who says Judaism is his or her religion is age 51 with a household income of $72,000, while the average Jew with no religion is age 44 with a household income of $58,000.
Non-core Jews, or those with Jewish origins but who identify with other religions, tend to be younger, have lower incomes and vote Republican. The Northeast still is home to more Jews than any other region of the country, but the percentage living there - 38 percent - is decreasing. Meanwhile, the percentage in the South is growing, and the percentage in the West and Midwest has remained fairly stable in the past decade.
Ezekiel is the prophet who had the vision of the valley of the dry bones - given the demographic picture presented in this latest survey, we may find that God will need to find those dry bones to bring back the People of Israel into the land of the promise on the Day of His deliverance. Unless - unless we see the writing on the wall and rededicate ourselves to being His people and serving His cause of Tikun Olam - the perfection of the world by His blueprint.
Ki Tissa 5763
This week we read
in the Torah the portion of Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 to 34:35) which begins with
a discussion of taking a census -- it is considered "bad luck" to
count the population or any portion thereof. It was ordained that every soul
amongst the people would pay a small 'redemption' fee. Once that fee was paid,
the coins were counted -- and the number of coins matched the number of the
people, who were NOT counted.
Next the Torah gives proper credit to the chief artists whose inspired work it was to fashion the furnishings and utensils of the Tabernacle. The top artist was Betzal'el Ben Uri Ben Khur, of the tribe of Yehuda, and his able assistant was Oholi'av Ben Akhisamakh, of the tribe of Dan.
After giving credit to the builders of God's sanctuary, the text turns to God's sanctity. We read, "Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my Sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the Lord that doth sanctify you." [Ex. 31:13] We go on to read, "Veshamru beney yisrael et ha Shabbat Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed." [ibid. 31:16,17]
Well, you may think, this is a great portion, where we have nothing but good news... But in fact, we continue to read and come upon one of the most shameful passages in the Torah. The people's ears have not quite recovered from the sound of God speaking to them from the midst of the flaming mountain, and while Moshe is up on the mountain getting the tablets inscribed by God, we read, "And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron, and said to him, Arise, make us gods, which shall go before us; and as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him." [ibid. 32:1] And Aharon, Moshe's less than perfect brother, to avoid strife, demands that they bring him their gold, and he fashions for them a "holy cow" the famous golden calf that the people worshiped, as they proclaimed, "These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt." [ibid. 32:4]
Moshe understood very well God's message, when God announced to him that Israel must not make graven images that they will take to represent the deity that brought them out of bondage and gave them a life giving teaching, the Torah, to live by and be blessed and be a blessing. Moshe learned from his experience in Pharaoh's house, where he grew up, that riches do not make for wisdom, or for kindness, or for social justice. Beyond that, he knew that riches don't buy fidelity or love. Only one who comes to make a commitment out of deep conviction and understanding, maybe even at a cost or peril to him/her self only such a person will stay strong in that conviction, and do, as the Torah says, "that which is right in the sight of God." One cannot be "a little bit wrong" if you break out of the mold, you are out, gone, finished, wasted. If you bend God's prohibitions even a little, they are broken, and not only "out of line."
This evening and tomorrow we are celebrating the bar-mitzvah of Jordan Berlin, and we could not have chosen a better lesson with which to launch him on his cruise through Jewish life. We hope that he will go on from one Jewish milestone to another. We hope that in the coming years he will again and again look back on this occasion, remember the lesson of the portion and make the right choice for himself, his family, and his future as a Jewish responsible adult in the twenty first century. It will not be easy.
But then, it has not been easy for the last thirty five hundred years, either. Moshe did not have it so easy, standing on Mount Sinai, in the Presence of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and "learning Torah..." Nor was he particularly thrilled when God informed him that "his" people, led by his smooth speaking brother, "have corrupted themselves." It was not easy to conquer the Land of Canaan, to survive the encroachment of the neighboring nations, to survive the split in the kingdom of David and the eventual loss of the kingdom of Israel. It was certainly no picnic to be exiled to Babylon or to Rome and beyond. We did not have it easy in North Africa, in Germany and the British Isles in the middle ages, in central and eastern Europe in the dark ages, or in south and north America in the first three hundred years of its settlement.
Yet there was something so very excellent and enduring, so profound and vital, so life giving and enriching of the spirit that all the hate, all the persecution, all the cruelty and all the danger could not turn us away from it. We have endured and we have survived as Jews, and we can be proud of the unique and amazing contribution we have made to the advancement and well-being of western civilization. If people live free in our times, if they no longer suffer from lawless government and a physical privation brought about by dog eat dog behavior we can rightfully claim to be the inspiration and example of civility.
Judaism is "Lekakh tov [a] good doctrine," [Proverbs 4:2] Therefore, one should live by it, and "do not forsake My Torah." [Proverbs 4:2]
Ki Tissa 5764
This week, the portion we read in the Torah is Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11 to 34:35) which begins with a discussion of taking a census. You may recall that ancient people felt it was "bad luck" to count the population or anything else for that matter. How many of you witnessed the custom of the shamash (sexton) in your old synagogue counting the people to see if there was a minyan (quorum): "nisht eyn, nisht tsvey," etcetera -- 'not one, not two...' This way you are 'not counting' rather than tempting fate or so the theory went. Well, the Torah had it own solution to the problem of 'not counting' the people and still having a good count of how many Israelites there were: it was ordained that every soul amongst them shall pay a small 'redemption' fee. Once that fee was paid, the coins were counted -- and the number of coins matched the number of the people, who were NOT counted. You may recall that I mentioned this on Shabbat Shekalim, just a couple of weeks ago so enough said about that.
Next we read in the Torah a text that gives proper credit to the chief artists whose inspired work it was to fashion the furnishings, utensils and vestments of the Tabernacle. The top artist was Betsal'el Ben Uri Ben Khur, of the tribe of Judaea, and his able assistant was Oholi'av Ben Akhisamakh, a Danite.
Finally we come to the meat of the portion, as we read that Moshe goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah for the Children of Israel. While he was receiving the Torah at the mountain top, the people, worried that Moshe was not coming back, commissioned Aaron to make for them a representation of the Living God they had just heard in that awesome revelation. Moshe brother, unable to quell the Israelites' fears, ended up making the golden calf. How very sad, how ironic that this people who had just been miraculously delivered from Egypt, who had already seen God's hand of glory and provision both at the sea and at the mountain, should lack the patience to receive the Torah that Moshe went up the mountain to bring back to them.
However, I would like to suggest to you that it is not altogether unexpected. A people who had rebelled against Moshe and his God right after the splitting of the sea, at the "quarrel wells" saying "Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for you have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger." [Exodus 16:3] a people whose leader was so insignificant in their eyes as to say, "Arise, make us gods, which shall go before us; and as for this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what became of him." [Ibid 32:1]
But I don't want to talk about this today, either. Rather, I want to point out to you something about "this Moses, the man who brought us out of the land of Egypt" his ability to communicate with God.
You are all familiar with the verse with which our portion begins, "And the Lord spoke to Moshe..." Well, can you guess how many times it reoccurs in the Torah? One hundred times! And another five times without the "and."
What do we learn from this? I, for one, learn how very easy it was for God to communicate with Moshe and for Moshe to communicate with God. The reason for this is found in a most profound verse close to the end of this week's portion: "Vediber Adona'y el Moshe panim el panim, ka'asher yedaber ish el re'ehu And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend." [Ibid 33:11] This is, of course, not to be taken literally, for God has no "face" as do humans but it teaches a lesson that the Rabbis learned from and took to teach us a message concerning how to conduct human social intercourse. No one in history ever had a relationship with God such as Moshe had. All other seers and prophets heard God speak to them in their head or in their heart, they experienced Him in visions and in nature but only Moshe had that "face to face" encounter. Even Abraham our father, who was visited by the Almighty in the heat of the day while recovering from his circumcision, did not know that it was the Lord God of the Universe who was paying him a sick-call. Moshe knew before whom he stood, and he held his ground, and listened, and argued, and bargained for God's people.
In fact, Moshe's close encounter with the Creator was so intense and affecting, that eventually his face began to glow with the Light of the Shkhina and he had to fashion a mask that he could wear when he went among the people, to avoid their being damaged by his "radiation."
The great sages of Israel interpreted the passage in our portion to tell us that each one of us, in our dealings with one another, must communicate "panim el panim" - "face to face." We cannot treat our neighbors with lack of eye contact, busying our eyes and mind on something else while they try to communicate with us. This lack of "panim el panim," the sages said, brings about deviation. It was the fact that they had averted their "panim" from God at Sinai that cause the people to search for the false symbol for what they believed in. We are all aware that those who "look us in the eye," which is, of course, "panim el panim," are really tuned in to us, and can better comprehend what we hope to communicate to them. Face to face suggests respect, and yes, intimacy.
Let us hope that we can so live our lives that we, too, will be privileged to commune with God "panim el panim." Amen
Ki Tisa 5765
This week, we read in the Torah the portion of Ki Tisa, which is found in Shmot, Exodus, 30:11 to 34:35) which begins with a discussion of taking a census. Next we read a text that gives proper credit to the chief artists whose inspired work it was to fashion the furnishings, utensils and vestments of the Tabernacle. The top artist was Betsal'el Ben Uri Ben Khur, of the tribe of Judah, and his able assistant was Oholi'av Ben Akhisamakh, a man from the tribe of Dan.
Finally we come to the difficult segment of the portion, as we read that Moshe goes up Mount Sinai to receive the Torah for the Children of Israel. Moshe stays on the mountain face-to-face with God for forty days and forty nights. He does not eat, nor does he drink – he becomes like God’s angels, his earthly needs are totally superceded by his holy work of learning God’s teaching, the Torah. While he was receiving the Torah at the mountain top, the people of Israel, worried about Moshe’s tardiness, thinking that maybe – as they had told him – no one can hear God and survive, and now he was not coming back, commissioned Aaron to make for them a representation of the Living God they had just heard in that awesome revelation. Moshe’s brother – whose nature was well-known to God when he told Moshe “V’ha’ya hu yi’hye lekha lefe v’ata tih’ye lo l’elohim – And it shall come to pass that he shall be your mouth (meaning spokesman), and you shall be to him instead of God” [Ex. 4:16] – was unable to quell the Israelites’ fears, and to keep them from open rebellion he ended up making for them the golden calf.
When the people saw the calf, their reaction was predictable: the text tells us, “and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’” [Ibid. 32:4] There are many commentaries regarding the enormity of the transgression thus committed by the Israelites. The question that comes up right away to my mind is, why was Aharon not taken to task for his role in the making of the golden calf?
One explanation that is given is that Moshe was not meant to be with God for all of that time. Actually he had promised Aharon and the elders of Israel that he would be back promptly – and he tarried too long. The Midrash says that he lingered six hours. Why six hours? Perhaps because six hours separate the different offerings that were to be made in God’s sanctuary. You could begin the morning offering at the crack of dawn or up to six hours after that. If you did not fulfill the obligation for six hours - you were too late. The text says, “avar zmano batel korbano – its time lapsed and its offering was cancelled.” Had Moshe been on time, possibly Aharon would not have been put to the text and found wanting.
Moshe pleads with God to forgive His people. He challenges God, saying that should He punish his people with extinction, Egypt will claim that God had killed them in the desert because He could not fulfill His promise to them to defeat their enemies and give them the Land of the Promise as an inheritance. God relents and promises Moshe that he will judge the people, and will condemn those who are guilty and punish those who deserve to be punished. Moshe requests of God to deal with the people with the measure of pity rather than the measure of the law, and God agrees. He then gives Moshe a “formula” to teach the people – the thirteen attributes of God. “And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, – Adona’y adona’y el rakhum v’khanun, erekh apa’yim v’rav khesed v’emet, notzer khesed la’alafim, nose avon vafesha v’khata’a venake to yenake; poked avon avot al banim v’al bney banim; al shileshim v’al ribe’im – The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, to the third and to the fourth generation. And Moses made haste, and bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.” [Ibid. 34:6-8] This passage has become the core of penitence prayer in our faith. The words are uttered to remind us and to remind God that eleven of the thirteen attributes are positive, that He was God (1) and always shall be God (2), that He is full of mercy (3), that He rules with grace (4), that He does not hasten to judge (5), He is good (6) and Truthful (7), that He is merciful to a multitude (8), forgives avon – a petty sin (9), and pesha – a more serious transgression (10), and khata’a – a terrible breaking of His law (11); non-the-less, God does not clear the guilty (12) – nor forgives transgressions (13) even to second third and fourth generations.
The very term, “Thirteen Attributes,” gives us pause. How many of us can be so positive in our spirit and our sense of balance and fairness towards the world around us, our neighbors and even our God. The good that we do is so out of proportion with our failings and our disappointments. We must resolve to improve ourselves so that we are worthy to be in a true relationship with the Holy One, blessed be He – to share in His Attributes as partners in His everlasting covenant with Abraham, Yitzkhak and Ya’akov.
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