The Torah/Ki Tisa

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Summary[edit]

Bezalel (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

As told in Exodus 30:11–34:35, this is the story of the Torah reading Ki Tisa:

Building the Holy Place[edit]

God instructed Moses that when he took a census of the Israelites, each person 20 years old or older, regardless of wealth, should give a half-shekel offering. God told Moses to assign the proceeds to the service of the Tent of Meeting.

God told Moses to place a copper laver between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, so that Aaron and the priests could wash their hands and feet in water when they entered the Tent of Meeting or approached the altar to burn a sacrifice, so that they would not die.

Moses Receives the Tablets of the Law (1868 painting by João Zeferino da Costa)

God directed Moses to make a sacred anointing oil from choice spices — myrrh, cinnamon, cassia — and olive oil. God told Moses to use it to anoint the Tent of Meeting, the furnishings of the Tabernacle, and the priests. God told Moses to warn the Israelites not to copy the sacred anointing oil’s recipe for lay purposes, at pain of exile.

God directed Moses make sacred incense from herbs — stacte, onycha, galbanum, and frankincense — to burn in the Tent of Meeting. As with the anointing oil, God warned against making incense from the same recipe for lay purposes.

God informed Moses that God had endowed Bezalel of the Tribe of Judah with divine skill in every kind of craft. God assigned to him Oholiab of the Tribe of Dan and granted skill to all who are skillful, that they might make the furnishings of the Tabernacle, the priests’ vestments, the anointing oil, and the incense. God told Moses to admonish the Israelites nevertheless to keep the Sabbath, on pain of death. Then God gave Moses two stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God.

Worshiping the Golden Calf (illustration from a Bible card published 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company)

The Golden Calf[edit]

Meanwhile, the people became impatient for the return of Moses, and implored Aaron to make them a god. Aaron told them to bring him their gold earrings, and he cast them in a mold and made a molten golden calf. They exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” Aaron built an altar before the calf, and announced a festival of the Lord. The people offered sacrifices, ate, drank, and danced.

God told Moses what the people had done, saying “let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” But Moses implored God not to do so, lest the Egyptians say that God delivered the people only to kill them off in the mountains. Moses called on God to remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and God’s oath to make their offspring as numerous as the stars, and God renounced the planned punishment.

Moses Destroys the Tables of the Ten Commandments (watercolor circa 1896–1902 by James Tissot)

Moses went down the mountain bearing the two tablets. Joshua told Moses, “There is a cry of war in the camp,” but Moses answered, “It is the sound of song that I hear!”

When Moses saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged and shattered the tablets at the foot of the mountain. He burned the calf, ground it to powder, strewed it upon the water, and made the Israelites drink it. When Moses asked Aaron how he committed such a great sin, Aaron replied that the people asked him to make a god, so he hurled their gold into the fire, “and out came this calf!”

Seeing that Aaron had let the people get out of control, Moses stood in the camp gate and called, “Whoever is for the Lord, come here!” All the Levites rallied to Moses, and at his instruction killed 3,000 people, including brother, neighbor, and kin.

Moses went back to God and asked for God either to forgive the Israelites or kill Moses too, but God insisted on punishing only the sinners, which God did by means of a plague.

God’s Nature Revealed[edit]

Then God dispatched Moses and the people to the Promised Land, but God decided not to go in their midst, for fear of destroying them on the way. Upon hearing this, the Israelites went into mourning. Now Moses would pitch the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, and Moses would enter to speak to God, face to face. Moses asked God whom God would send with Moses to lead the people. Moses further asked God to let him know God’s ways, that Moses might know God and continue in God’s favor. And God agreed to lead the Israelites. Moses asked God not to make the Israelites move unless God were to go in the lead, and God agreed. Moses asked God to let him behold God’s Presence. God agreed to make all God’s goodness pass before Moses and to proclaim God’s name and nature, but God explained that no human could see God’s face and live. God instructed Moses to station himself on a rock, where God would cover him with God’s hand until God had passed, at which point Moses could see God’s back.

Moses with Radiant Face (1638 painting by José de Ribera)

God directed Moses to carve two stone tablets like the ones that Moses shattered, so that God might inscribe upon them the words that were on the first tablets, and Moses did so.

God came down in a cloud and proclaimed: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

Moses bowed low and asked God to accompany the people in their midst, to pardon the people’s iniquity, and to take them for God’s own. God replied by making a covenant to work unprecedented wonders and to drive out the peoples of the Promised Land. God warned Moses against making a covenant with them, lest they become a snare and induce the Israelites’ children to lust after their gods.

God commanded that the Israelites not make molten gods, that they consecrate or redeem every first-born, that they observe the Sabbath, that they observe the Three Pilgrim Festivals, that they not offer sacrifices with anything leavened, that they not leave the Passover lamb lying until morning, that they bring choice first fruits to the house of the Lord, and that they not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.

Moses Became Radiant[edit]

Moses stayed with God 40 days and 40 nights, ate no bread, drank no water, and wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant. As Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets, the skin of his face was radiant, and the Israelites shrank from him. Moses called them near and instructed them concerning all that God had commanded. When Moses finished speaking, he put a veil over his face. Whenever Moses spoke with God, Moses would take his veil off. And when he came out, he would tell the Israelites what he had been commanded, and then Moses would then put the veil back over his face again.

Questions[edit]

Here are a few of the questions that the Rabbis raised about this Torah reading:

  • If God commanded Moses to take a census and collect the half-shekel tax, why doesn’t the Torah say so?[1]
  • Did the people get something out of paying the half-shekel tax?[2]
  • Why would taking a census cause a plague?[3]
  • Why would a “ransom” stop a plague?[4]
  • Why are the Israelites told in Exodus 31:13 to keep the Sabbath as part of the instruction about the Tabernacle, when God had already commanded the Sabbath as part of the Ten Commandments?[5]
  • How big were the stone tablets?[6]
  • Why did Aaron make the Golden Calf?[7]
  • Did the prayer of Moses in Exodus 32:7–14 change God’s harsh decree?[8]
  • What does the example of Moses teach about the best frame of mind for prayer?[9]
  • What did the stone tablets look like? What did it mean that they “were written on both their sides”?[10]
  • Why did Moses break the stone tablets?[11]
  • Why did Moses grind the calf to powder and make the children of Israel drink it?[12]
  • What was the relationship between the sin of the Golden Calf and Bezalel’s work on the Tabernacle?[13]
  • How was Moses able to face God and live?[14]
  • How do we reconcile God’s telling Moses in Exodus 33:20 that he could not see God’s face with the report of Numbers 12:8 that with Moses, God spoke “mouth to mouth” and that Moses beheld “the likeness” of God?[15]
  • Why is it that God carved the first tablets but Moses carved the second?[16]
  • How do we reconcile the inconsistencies among God’s attributes in Exodus 34:6–7? What do these attributes tell us about God?[17]
  • What is the extent of God’s forgiveness?[18]

Notes[edit]

  1. Abarbanel.
  2. Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 10b.
  3. Abarbanel.
  4. Abarbanel.
  5. Abarbanel.
  6. Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 14a.
  7. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 7a.
  8. Babylonian Talmud Moed Katan 16b.
  9. Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 30b.
  10. Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 104a.
  11. Exodus Rabbah 43:1. Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 87a.
  12. Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 44a.
  13. Exodus Rabbah 48:5.
  14. Shlomo ben Eli Leib.
  15. Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 7a.
  16. Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:17.
  17. Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah 17b. Judah Halevi. Kitab al Khazari, part 2, ¶ 2. Toledo, Spain, 1130–1140. Reprinted in, e.g., Jehuda Halevi. The Kuzari: An Argument for the Faith of Israel. Introduction by Henry Slonimsky, 83–84. New York: Schocken, 1964. ISBN 0-8052-0075-4. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, part 1, chapter 54. Zohar, Bemidbar, section 3, pages 146b–47a.
  18. Tosefta Yoma 4:13.