Ki Tisa: Parsha Commentary

Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-34:35)

Longer Essays

Transfiguration (2016 audio inter-faith sermon)

A Grandmother’s Wisdom (2015)

Hiding Behind the Veil (2015)

Kabbalah Revealed (2014)

Impossible Speech (2014)

Hearing Into Speech (2013)

Letting Go of Anger (2008)

Short Takes

How Should We Pray? (Ki Tisa, 5777/2017)

Moses said to God, “Please show me your ways, that I may know you – and see that this nation is still your people.” God said to Moses,  “I will pass all my goodness before you, but you won’t be able to see my face.” God passed before him and he cried out, “Compassionate! Gracious! Patient! Great in Love and Faith!” (from Exodus 33: 13-20; 34:6) 

Medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides explains:

Here Moses asks for three things: (1) to know God’s essence; (2) to see God’s ways; (3) to receive God’s forgiveness for the nation.

And God answers each request in turn. (1) No one can know my essence. (2) I reveal my ways in the created world, in each thing I call good (Gen. 1). (3) Yes, I forgive, as I am filled with forgiving qualities.

Our sages call these forgiving qualities God’s middot — a word they also use for human ethical qualities. With that word, they affirm the particularity of Moses’ experience of God. Moses sees God as the source of ethics and morality, and as the spirit of forgiveness. This vision flows right from Moses’ public role as lawgiver. It reflects his lifelong struggle with his own anger.

Even though our experiences of God are subjective, we Jews must agree on a shared liturgy. There’s no better source than the subjectivity of Moses, our greatest prophet. In fact, our Talmudic sages grounded our liturgy in Moses’ words.

Contemporary poets, however, depart from Moses’ words. They borrow language from lesser Biblical prophets to describe their own subjective spiritual experiences. These sources are fine for poetry, but subjective spiritual experience should not be imposed on the community as liturgy!

Do you agree with Maimonides? Should writers, singers, and prayer leaders embellish the liturgy with personally relevant poetry? Why or why not? How can it be done well?


Wash Those Dirty Hands! (Ki Tisa, 5774/2014)

Traditional Jewish mealtime practice includes a blessing before each meal. When the meal includes bread, we also wash our hands with ceremonial intent. As Dr. Gregg Gardner taught at Limmud Vancouver, the washing custom brings Temple practice right into our homes, and holiness right to our dinner tables. The Temple — and its earlier prototype the desert mishkan —featured a table piled with bread and a washstand where priests washed before entering.

What is the original meaning of the hand-washing custom? What should be our spiritual intent as we wash? Torah says: When they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water, that they may not die…they shall wash their hands and feet…it shall be a law (chok) for them…throughout the ages (Exodus 30:20-21).

Astute Torah readers know that when Torah calls a practice a chok it does not explain the reason behind the practice. But fearless commentators do speculate.

Nachmanides/Ramban (1194-1270) offers three explanations.

(1) Cleanliness: “Some people’s feet are hideously filthy.”

(2) Respect: “Anyone who comes to the king’s table to serve and handle the king’s food, must wash his hands.”

(3) Spirituality: “The true interpretation: the whole human body between hands and feet symbolizes the ten sefirot (divine spiritual qualities).

Our bodies, Ramban teaches, are the vehicles through which we experience all the qualities of a spiritual life. Negative experiences, deeply felt, can taint our bodily sense and thus harm our souls. When we wash our hands, we express intent to re-set our body’s interface with the world, a hope that all our interactions may bring us into the Divine presence.


Is Imagination Bull? (Ki Tisa, 5773/2013)

Depth psychologist James Hillman reviews stories about bulls in ancient Near Eastern mythology. He concludes that the powerful bull represents imagination. Bulls run wild, challenging established orders. The modern bullfight and the eradication of the North American bison represent this “historic distrust of imagination.”

To Hillman, the Torah’s Golden Calf represents polytheism’s creative multifaceted representations of God, which Moshe must squash in favor of one fixed God. The priestly ritual of offering the red heifer, whose ashes make the recipient ritually pure but the administering priest impure, confirms the symbolism. Hillman says, “you cannot touch the bull without becoming perplexed” and therefore without stimulating imagination.

Hillman’s celebration of imagination is lovely, but it seems opposite to the way bovine symbols actually work in Torah. In Torah, cow and bull are grounding forces, rescuing us from the burden of too many imaginative possibilities.

The people build the golden calf because they cannot stand the open-ended ambiguity of waiting for Moshe. After Moshe grinds the statue to dust, he too tries to escape ambiguity, and asks to know God specifically. But God says, no one can see my Essence, so I will allow my appearance of goodness to pass before you.

In the context of mishkan (sanctuary) practice, a person becomes ritually impure after an upsetting brush with death. Priests sprinkle the red heifer’s ashes to help reset a shaken psyche and restore ritual purity. It should not be perplexing if the administering priest who absorbs disturbed energy becomes temporarily ritually impure himself.

In contemporary Judaism, what does it mean to see imaginative possibilities? What does it mean to run from them? Do you imagine possibilities for your own life? How might you embrace them?



Projections (Ki Tisa, 5772/2012)

When Moshe had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face. But when he entered the Presence of God, he removed the veil. — Shemot/Exodus 34:33-34

The Israelites have received the Ten Commandments; Moshe has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah he is to teach; the Israelites have become impatient at his slow return; Aharon has formed  the image of a golden calf, and sarcastically said, “This is your God, Israel!”  At this point in their development, the Israelites are concerned with material comfort. They miss Aharon’s critical message telling them to look beyond the gold into matters of the spirit. Instead, they party around the golden sculpture. Moshe confronts them violently; then works out his anger in himself and with God. After the healing, he comes down the mountain, his face shining and, eventually, covered with a veil.

How might we understand the veil? At Mt. Sinai, the Israelites asked Moshe to speak with them, so they did not have to speak directly with God. Perhaps this was a mistake, leading the Israelites to project all their spiritual yearnings and anxieties onto the person of Moshe. Instead of seeing that they were impatient to receive guidance, they “saw that Moshe tarried” (Ex 32:1). Instead of asking themselves, “How can we receive  revelation in our lives?” they asked, “When will Moshe come back?”  Perhaps the veil demonstrates, symbolically and literally, Moshe’s refusal of their projections. When Moshe wears the veil, they cannot see their own needs written on Moshe’s face; their projections bounce back at them, encouraging them to examine their own inner lives.

The tenth commandment spoken at Mt. Sinai hints at an important  inner process of spiritual refinement: Do not covet. In other words, begin to recognize what properly belongs to you, and what belongs to other people. Of course this is a lifelong task, but beginning the practice is easy. Take your cue directly from Parshat Ki Tisa. When you next find yourself impatient because “someone else is slow,” ask yourself what need, anxiety, or yearning drives your impatience. Instead of perceiving something about the other person, use the opportunity to perceive something about yourself.

You may find that this practice of mindfulness opens into compassion for yourself and others.


Understanding Impatience (Ki Tisa, 5771/2011)

At the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa, Moshe is camped atop Mount Sinai, connecting with God. God speaks to Moshe about two beautiful tangible and immediately rewarding Jewish practices: attending a beautifully designed communal place of worship, and experiencing Shabbat.

Meanwhile, the Israelites wait at the foot of Mount Sinai. As they have not seen Moshe in many days, they do not know where he is. They beg Aharon to make an Elohim, a prince or a God who will lead them. The men give Aharon their gold and he fashions it into the icon of a calf. And then some people begin to say, “This is your God, Israel!”

I have always imagined these words said with cynicism and disgust, as if to express, “You are thoroughly materialistic! You are immature! You don’t have patience for the spirituality you idealize, or for the slow, real-life pace of acquiring wisdom.” At the same time, I believe these words express an unfairly harsh judgment. Even God and Moshe understand the people’s impatience. Only one moment earlier, they were discussing the need for tangible symbols and weekly spiritual practices with instant gratification. But the people have no way of knowing they are understood so deeply.

We can find many lessons about patience, compassion, and communication in this story. Sometimes, when we lack direct evidence, we create painful imaginary scenarios. If we act on them too quickly, we may damage the relationship we so value. Sometimes we are loved and understood more deeply than we know, more deeply than anyone is able to tell us. This belief has sustained me through many difficult times. May it sustain you.


Bringing Compassion Home (Ki Tisa, 5770/2010)

The Israelites betray Moshe’s teaching by building the golden calf. Moshe confronts, berates, humiliates, and orders executions. And then, in that emotional state, he goes to straight to his place of meditation where he approaches God to ask for forgiveness for the people.

The first answer Moshe receives in prayer is “I’d rather send a messenger to lead them, because I want to punish them!” Moshe realizes this answer is a reflection of his own thoughts and feelings. So, in desperation he prays, “Well, then, if I have to lead them, show me Your ways!” To this more internally congruent prayer, God responds, “I will show you tuvi, my goodness.”

HaShem! HaShem! God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and remitting!

Moshe’s process of integrating these qualities into his psyche and letting go of his anger takes time – 40 days and 40 nights of meditation. But the aftermath is dramatic. Moshe shines! His face so changed that people don’t recognize him.

What happened? Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, sixteenth-century Kabbalistic teacher, explains what changes when we imitate God’s Thirteen Attributes of Mercy: how we hold our foreheads, how we listen with our ears, how we see with our eyes, the quality of the smile in our cheeks, the quality of our breath as it passes through the nose, the quality of the speech that comes out of our mouth. Cordovero teaches that any one of us can do this, if we use Moshe’s techniques of introspection, time, and prayer.


The Peshat of Shabbat (Ki Tisa, 5768/2008)

Meet Avraham ibn Ezra (1093-1167): philosopher, poet, Hebrew grammarian, Torah commentator. He dug deeply into the words of Torah in order to bring out the Peshat, the plain meaning of the text.

Torah: you must keep My Sabbaths (Shemot/Exodus 31: 13)

Ibn Ezra: One of our great sages says that, since only the first Sabbath of creation can literally be called God’s, the plural here must mean that the world will last 6,000 years, and the seventh millennium will be God’s “sabbath.” But in fact the sabbatical year is a sabbath, and there are many Sabbaths throughout each year.

Torah: a covenant for all time (olam) (31:16)

Ibn Ezra: Some interpret the phrase “a sign for all time” as “a sign about the world” – it is a sign that the world was created. But I have searched the entire Bible and have not found the word olam with a meaning other than the one of “all time.” The world olam means “world” only in rabbinic Hebrew.

Torah: on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed (vayinafash) (31:17)

Ibn Ezra: Literally “refreshed” means “resouled,” like one who feels so tired that he needs rest to restore his soul. Admittedly, God “never grows faint or weary” (Isaiah 40:28), but the Torah speaks here in human terms so that even the foolish can understand.


The Calf, The Cow, and The Symbolism of Symbols (Ki Tisa, 5767/2007)

Today we read Parshat Ki Tisa, in which the Israelites, impatient for Moshe to return from Mount Sinai, make an idol in the shape of a golden calf.  Moshe talks God out of killing them all and punishes them himself.  The ringleaders are executed, all the people drink the ground-up ashes of the idol, and then their relationship with God is reaffirmed.

Today we also read about the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, a sacrifice whose ashes have the power to ritually purify a person after they have come into contact with someone else’s death.  Some readers have understood the heifer’s ashes as a reminder of the Golden Calf story – that we can return from the brink of death and reaffirm our faith in God.  Others have suggested that the ashes of the red heifer recognize the finality of death and thus acknowledge the bereavement of a mourner.  Still others link the ashes with ancient Canaanite religious rites acknowledging the sacredness of life’s cycles.

Traditional Jewish commentary labels the ritual of the red heifer’s ashes a chok, an incomprehensible ritual practice commanded by God, the obedient doing of which develops spiritual commitment.  In contemporary psycho-spiritual language, perhaps a chok refers to a symbol so powerful its meaning cannot be reduced to a single interpretation.  As scholar Lawrence Hoffman says, “symbols symbolize”  – but they don’t symbolize any one thing.  Rather they open our minds and hearts to a journey into ideas, feelings, questions, memories, meanings – right where we need to be at times of loss and change.


Moshe the Theologian (Ki Tisa, 5766/2006)

“Why, O G-d, should Your wrath burn against Your people?”(Exodus/Shemot 32:11)

The sages whose voices speak to us through rabbinic midrash wondered, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why would God be upset by our sins?  Couldn’t God control circumstances or at least predict our actions?  In their commentary on the Golden Calf incident, they put this question into Moshe’s mouth:

Moshe arose to appease G-d’s anger and said, “Master of the Universe! They have given You a helper, and You are annoyed with them? Why, this Calf which they have made will be Your assistant: You will cause the sun to rise while it will cause the moon to rise . . .You will make the rains come down, while it will be responsible for the growth of plants.”  Said G-d to him: “Moshe! You err as they do! There is nothing real in it.” Said Moshe: “If this be the case, why should Your wrath burn against Your people?”

Moshe said: “Master of the Universe! I asked You what their merit was that You should redeem them, since they are idolaters.  You said, ‘You see them only now as idolaters, but I can foresee them departing from Egypt, Me dividing the Red Sea for them, bringing them into the wilderness, giving them the Torah and revealing Myself to them face to face, and them accepting My kingship — yet denying Me at the end of forty days by making the Calf!’ Master of the Universe, since You told me of their making a Golden Calf long ago, why do You seek to slay them now that they have made it?”


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