Parshat Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11-34:35                                                      

Summary 

Ki Tissa means “when you take up,” and refers to the census with which the portion begins. God commands that all Hebrews above the age of twenty must give a head tax of half a shekel – the rich may not give more; the poor may not give less. This money is to be used to maintain the Tent of Meeting, which was part of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary. God then instructs Moses concerning a huge brass water basin in which the priests are to wash their hands and feet while offering the sacrifices. And God also gives Moses the recipes for the spiced oil used for anointing and the incense to be burned in front of the curtain before the ark. Next, God commands Moses to appoint Bezalel and Oholiab to be the chief artisans for the building of the Tabernacle, all its implements, and the special garments to be worn by Aaron and the rest of the priests. Chapter 31 concludes with our being again commanded to keep Shabbat, the sign of God’s covenant with us. 

Moses was about to return with the two Tablets which he had hewn out of rock, and which had been inscribed by the finger of God. But the Israelites were growing impatient and fearful because of his long absence. They demanded that Aaron make a god to lead them. Aaron asked them for their gold jewelry, which he melted down and cast into the form of a golden calf. Then he built an altar before the calf and declared a festival. The people offered sacrifices, ate, drank and danced around the calf. No sooner did this happen then God told Moses to hurry down the mountain because the people were sinning. This horrible rebellion resulted in Moses’ smashing the Tablets in the people’s presence. He then ground up the calf, dissolved the gold powder into water, and made the people drink it. Then he used the Levites to slaughter about 3,000 of them. After he shattered the Tablets, Moses confronted Aaron and demanded to know why he had done what he did. Aaron responded that the calf just popped right out of the fire after he had thrown the gold into it, and that it is really the people’s fault that it was built in the first place! 

In anger, God threatened to destroy the people. But after they atoned, Moses went to a special tent of meeting and pled on their behalf. Moses asked: What would the Egyptians say? Wouldn’t they spread the rumor that God had taken the Israelites out of Egypt only to slay them in the mountains? Moses then reminded God of His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; of God’s promises to multiply their seed as the stars of heaven, and that their descendants would inherit forever the land He had spoken of. As a result of this pleading, God agreed to forgive Israel. 

Moses then headed back up the mountain for another forty days and nights. Moses asked to see God’s glory. God explained that no human – not even Moses – can see God’s face and live. However, God did show Moses His “back” – and the thirteen attributes of God’s mercy. God then commanded Moses to carve another set of Tablets. (For the first time, the Torah refers to this second set of commandments as aseret ha-dibrot – the “Ten Utterances.”) Because Moses smashed the first set of Tablets beyond repair, we have no record of what was written on them. Based on this, the rabbis have debated for generations whether or not the two sets of Tablets contained the same laws. Some say that the first set was composed only of positive commandments, while the second set emphasized negative commandments – all those “you shall nots.” Moses brought the new set of Tablets down, not realizing that his face was emanating rays of light. The people were so frightened that Moses had to wear a veil over his face except when speaking with God or relaying God’s words to the Israelites. 

Commentary 

What was Moses’ intent in shattering the Tablets? Was it mere anger? What right did he have to do it? Two dramatic pictures are painted respectively by Rabbi Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam), a medieval Jewish scholar of Provence, and by the Midrash Rabbah of the 8th century. The Rashbam says Moses in his elation carried the heavy stone Tablets as if they were feathers. Then he saw the people. His heart sank, his strength ebbed away, the Tablets became heavy and cold. He barely had the strength to push them away lest they fall on his feet. According to the Midrash Rabbah, Moses broke the Tablets because he identified with his people and their weakness. When he saw that there was no hope for Israel, he threw his lot in with theirs and broke the Tablets, and said to the Holy One: “They have sinned, but so have I by breaking your Tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me, too … if not ‘blot me out of the book which you have written.’” 

Some Thoughts and Questions  

1.     Modern income taxes are based on the ability of each person to pay. The richer you are, the more you are expeced to pay. In this week’s parasha, each Israelite contributed the same tax – regardless of his or her ability to pay. Is that fair? The rabbis taught that this method of paying emphasized that all individuals, rich or poor, have the same value before God. Do you agree? Find out how your synagogue and other community institutions are financed? Who decides how the money is spent? 

2.     Imagine that you were an Israelite slave who has escaped a harsh and cruel life in Egypt. You were part of the great march across the desert; you witnessed a miracle when you saw the Sea of Reeds split and you were able to walk through the water on dry land. Now you are waiting at the base of Mount Sinai for your leader, Moses, to come down from the mountain with the commandments of God. Moses, who led you out of Egypt, has been gone for a very long time. Many of the people are getting very worried. How might you feel? What might you want to do? 

3.     The midrash exonerates Aaron by explaining that he went along with the golden calf only to buy time until Moses reappeared to lead the people. What do you think? Should Aaron have taken more responsibility for what happened? What could or should he have done instead? Read chapter 32 carefully and see if you can come up with some excuses for him. 

4.     “Peer pressure” is what happens when you make a decision to do something based on what others want you to do instead of using your own judgement. Do you think that Aaron gave in to peer pressure when he agreed to make the golden calf? Have you ever made a decision based on peer pressure which you later regretted? 

5.     The midrash observes that when God informed Moses about the people’s sin, God called the Israelites “your” (i.e., Moses’) people. Previously, God had always spoken of them as “My” people. So, the midrash has Moses reply: “Why mine? They are Yours!” It seems that Moses is challenging God. There is another instance when a biblical figure questions God. It occurred when Abraham questioned God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gomorra. If you had the opportunity to ask God a question what would it be? 

6.     Look at the list of the Thirteen Attributes of God. Count them. How many do you find? 

7.     Consider the rabbis’ debate about the possibility that the two sets of Tablets given to Moses were not the same. What may have influenced the rabbis to think that the second set was changed? Why might the two sets of Tablets have been different? Why might they have been the same?