Parashat Ki Tisa – Erev Shabbat 6 March 2021
Week of 28 Feb-6 Mar 2021
Torah portion: Exodus 30:11-34:35 Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38
Theme: The Mystery of the Divine
This week’s parashah presents us with many opportunities to reflect on the Mystery of the Divine, at the heart of the Sacred Scriptures which we share with the Jewish people. The portion begins with the Eternal (Yhwh) speaking to Moses about a series of additional instructions concerning the Tabernacle (30:11-31:11) and the importance of the Sabbath (31:12-17), before giving him the two stone tablets of the covenant inscribed with the “finger of God” (ʾetsbaꜥ ʾelōhîm, 31:18). This is the first of several anthropomorphic depictions of the Divine that punctuate this parashah, along with references to God’s face and back, in chapter 33 (Eskenazi, 501).
What follows, in the episode of the Golden Calf (Heb. eigel, more correctly “young bull”, Plaut, 588), might be seen as an expression of the human need to have some tangible connection with the Divine. Concerned that Moses has been missing for some time now, the people entreat Aaron to make them gods (ʾelōhîm) who shall go before them (32:1). All of the people then contribute gold jewelry, which is cast into the form of a calf, before proclaiming, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (NJPS). Aaron then builds an altar for sacrifices to be made, before proclaiming a festival of the Eternal for the following day (32:3-5).
What is one to make of the connection between the name of the Eternal, invoked by Aaron, and the generic use of ʾelōhîm by the people? Might the calf not be a “visible symbol of God’s presence”, rather than a replacement for the Eternal? Whatever the answer, the people of Israel soon lose sight of the connection symbolized by the object and begin to worship the object itself, limiting and compromising their relationship with the Eternal (Eskenazi, 502).
What follows are terrible scenes of punishment juxtaposed with Moses pleading for God’s mercy and finally bargaining with the Eternal to accompany the Israelites on their journey (33:12 ff.). This is followed by an extraordinary request from Moses to see the Presence of God, to which the Eternal agrees, with the proviso that he cannot see God’s face. Instead, God will shield Moses with God’s hand before revealing God’s back to him (33:18-23). These anthropomorphic images reveal “a vision of God that is simultaneously dangerously transcendent and intimately protective” (Eskenazi, 509).
The Eternal now stands with Moses and proclaims what has become known as the Thirteen Attributes, beginning with a repetition of the divine name, which is synonymous with God’s mercy: Yhwh, Yhwh (34:6-7). Some Sages hold that repetition of the name signifies that the Eternal is merciful both before and after humanity has sinned and repented. This is in contrast with Elohim (ʾelōhîm, God), the name associated with divine justice (Plaut, 601).
For Reflection and Discussion: Like Moses, Jewish traditions have chosen to focus instead on God’s “magnanimous” qualities, rather than God’s “punitive” action, with these verses becoming part of Jewish liturgy as a prayer for forgiveness during the High Holy Days (Berlin, 180). In what ways do you wrestle with the Mystery of the Divine? How do the Shared Scriptures help you grasp divine mercy and justice?
Bibliography: Eskenazi, ed., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: 2008); Berlin and Brettler, eds., The Jewish Study Bible: Second Edition (Oxford: 2014); Plaut and Stein, eds., The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised (New York: 2006).
This week’s Parashah Commentary was prepared by
Mark David Walsh, Australia, Bat Kol Alumnus: 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013