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Parshat Ki Tissa - Shemot (Exodus) 30:11 - 34:35

Updated: Mar 6, 2021

More There Than a Golden Calf

There is a lot to unpack in Parsha Ki Tissa.

The parsha opens with HaShem calling for a census of all the Children of Israel. Notice that this counting of the peoples does not include the mixed multitude that left Egypt with the Israelites. [SEE: Exodus 12:38]

This particular group was comprised of former slaves of Egypt from various nations that had been conquered by the Pharaohs over the years. It also included Egyptians, members of the royal court of Pharaoh and those members of his courtiers and sorcerers not willing to go down with the ship. These would become a source of great falling away a little further in the narrative.

Normally a census is forbidden by HaShem; but only when it is done by anyone’s own command other than at the direction of HaShem. In this case He ordered it for three reasons:

[1] So that Moshe would have an accurate knowledge of the actual number of real Israelites in the camp.

[2] How many men of fighting age were available for combat in case of war.

[3] And, a means to raise funds for the building, upkeep and needs of the Mishkan. A Temple tax of sorts.

This 1/2 shekel census tax not only served as a revenue source for the upkeep and functions of the Tabernacle but also served to uplift or elevate both the spiritual and humanitarian awareness of Israel.

“When a man gives without knowing to whom he gives and the beggar receives without knowing from whom he receives…” Bava Basra 10b

This 1/2 shekel (equal to ~ 0.51 troy ounce pure silver) was the same for all Israelites regardless of station or status from age 20 years upward.

“The wealthy shall not increase and the poor shall not decrease from the half a shekel — to give the portion of Adonai to atone your souls.” — Exodus 30:15

After giving instruction for the census HaShem proceeds back to the Mishkan itself and one other necessary element in it — The Copper Laver — a basin or utensil filled with water to be used by Aharon and his sons to ritually wash their hands and feet before entering the Holy Place and for the High Priest once a year, the Holy of Holies. They do not place their hands or feet into it as this would profane it and no longer make it set-apart for HaShem. It is filled with clean water and had spouts near the bottom that allowed the water to flow over the kohan's feet and hands. This ritual was not done for cleansing of the hands and feet but for the purpose of sanctification. Setting apart the hands and feet of the priests for full dedication in the service of HaShem, since it is man’s hands and feet that are swift to transgress.

“…Their hands commit lawless acts, their feet run after evil…” — Isaiah 59:6-7

HaShem now gives direction for the making of the sacred anointing oil, its spice mixture (Hebrew text purposefully oblique), its uses and prohibitions. Originally this oil had to be made by Moshe only. After his death this oil was no longer made, its whereabouts unknown, its ingredients lost to antiquity and according to our Sages of Blessed Memory will remain so until Mashiach arrives — may he come in our days.

Next HaShem instructs Moshe on the making of the incense to be burnt on the incense altar twice a day (morning and afternoon). These ingredients are known to this day, as well as their compounded measurements.

For the actual construction and oversight of the building of the Tabernacle HaShem hand picked a young thirteen year old boy He has filled with His wisdom and made him a master craftsman in all types of skills. His name — Bezalel son of Uri, son of Hur of the Judah.

Why would HaShem chose a thirteen year old to be supervisor of the building of His Tabernacle among men? I can think of several reasons. One is implied in his name and his genealogy. Bezalel means “hidden in the Almighty,” literally saying that this boy is completely enfolded by the wings of HaShem. His genealogy is also of import — according to Rashi he is the son of Miriam the prophet and older sister of Moshe. One other point can be made:

All Israelites would know that it will be HaShem Himself in charge of the project because who but Adonai could impart such wisdom, knowledge and skill to a lad who just became of age (bar mitzvah)? No person of adult age and skill could boast of “his” accomplishment. In this way HaShem is recognized and understood as the true Master of His House.

Now comes the real biggie — a reiteration and further detail of the sanctity and obligation to keep Shabbat holy. In verses 12 through 17 HaShem through His prophet Moshe reminds His people Israel to always observe Shabbat “for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I am YHVH, Who makes you holy.”

The Shabbat is not only holy to HaShem; He commands us to see it as holy in the same way He does. It is one of the few commands that is so important in the life of Adonai and Israel, that those of His people who defile or desecrate it “shall be put to death.” Why? “It is sacred.” Shabbat is so sacred that even the work done in the Tabernacle and later Temple cannot be performed on Shabbat. The only exceptions are:

[1] To save a life — “That he shall live by them and not that he shall die by them.” Yoma 85b

[2] Performing a circumcision if the 8th day after birth falls on Shabbat. [SEE: Shabbat Tractate 132a]

When HaShem states “You must observe all My Shabbats” — He is referring to every Shabbat throughout the year including the Shabbat of Shabbats - Yom Kippur.

Verse 31:14 reveals two distinct penalties for violation of the command to observe Shabbat:

[1] “Shall be put to death”

[2] “Shall be cut off from among his people”

The death penalty applied to one who desecrated Shabbat, was warned of his sin but continued to willfully transgress. This person is liable to a court ordered death sentence.

Being cut off from his people is reserved for those who knowingly and intentionally violated the commandment but was not warned or even seen doing the transgression. In this case it is HaShem Himself Who cuts the soul off from the nation and people Israel. The transgressor is Kares — Excised by Adonai.

Anyone reading these six verses and not understanding the importance of keeping Shabbat holy as a day of complete rest is unworthy of having HaShem’s Presence in their lives.

Now we’ve come to the point in the narrative that everyone loves to talk about — The Golden Calf Incident.

Why would a people who had witnessed first hand the Ten Plagues against Egypt, the parting of the Sea of Reeds and drowning of Pharaoh and his army of chariots, being led by a miraculous cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, being fed by the mercy of Adonai with quail and manna; and heard the booming Voice of G-d and the fire and smoke from Mount Sinai succumb to worshipping a small man-made gold calf idol simply because their leader Moshe was perceived to be slightly overdue for his return down from the mountain? Sounds absurd doesn’t it?

And then, there is Aharon who appears to easily succumb to the wishes of the mob and seemingly participates in this adulterous idol worship. I mean, he is Adonai’s appointed High Priest for goodness sake. What’s that all about? What’s really going on here?

From a cursory reading of Chapter 32, especially from less than reliable translations of the Hebrew text, one may walk away shaking your head and wondering the same thing. Minds filled with visions of Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments with white haired Charlton Heston descending the mountain, stone tablets in hand, irate and outraged tossing them onto the graven image destroying it and all who partook in the abomination of idolatry. Well, as cinematic as that may appear on the big screen, that isn’t quite how it all happened.

First one must come to realize that as High Priest Aharon could not and would never participate in idolatry. Had that been the case he would have been removed immediately as High Priest upon Moshe’s return and likely been put to death. That never happened to him.

Also, the majority of the people of Israel were not party to this abomination. They were not looking for a new god to worship, after all, the fire and smoke were still billowing on the Sinai mountain top as a testimony of HaShem’s Presence among them. They weren’t looking for another god to follow, but some were looking for a new leader to get behind since they assumed Moshe was overdue and likely dead or taken away by HaShem.

So then, who were these people — also called by HaShem Moshe’s people (not called Adonai’s people) being referred to here? Remember that mixed multitude spoken of earlier? The other non-Hebrew escapees from Egypt who came along for the ride?

With the supposed delay of Moshe they and several Israeli overseers from the slave days of Egypt saw an opportunity to take control of the situation and violently pressed for, not a new leader, but a new god to follow and worship. Notice the wording of the text:

“These O Israel are your gods who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” — Exodus 32:8

Not “These are our gods,” but ‘your gods.”

I thought only one golden calf was miraculously fashioned, not several. These mixed multitude and some of Israel as well who desired to return to the fleshpots of Egypt were just beginning in the effort to derail HaShem’s plan for His people. First one idol — followed by many and eventually the removing of the One True G-d from the minds and lives of the people. It always starts small but if left unchallenged will grow and spread like a weed suffocating all life it covers.

Why then did Aharon appear to participate? He was biding his time. He knew Moshe must return and needed to ensure that time would be given. He took time to gather the gold, the time necessary to melt the gold. He thought he could slowing mold and fashion the idol after more time to allow the gold to cool. But something happened he wasn’t expecting. Remember some of those sorcerers, magicians and wizards he and Moshe had to deal with in the court of Pharaoh over a year ago in Egypt? Some were with the mixed multitude and were stirring up the mob to violence. They also stirred up their magic.

“Moshe said to Aharon, ‘What did this people do to you that you brought a grievous sin upon it?’ Aharon said, ‘Let not my master’s anger flare up. You know that the people is disposed toward evil. They said to me,’ “Make us a god that will go before us, for this man Moshe who brought us up from the land of Egypt, - we do not know what has become of him.’ ‘So I said to them, Who has gold? They removed it and gave it to me. I threw it into the fire, AND THIS CALF EMERGED.’ (emphasis mine)

Aharon was surprised by what happened. This was not part of his plan. He hoped to give Moshe time to return before he could mold and fashion the idol and before the people could further cause their downfall. But the sorcerers had other plans and like their turning staffs into snakes in Pharaoh’s court they caused a fully fashioned and intact idol to “emerge” from the boiling cauldron of gold.

Moshe in his righteous and understandable indignation takes the two tablets of the Law written by the Hand of Adonai and smashes them at the foot of the mountain. There is no way he could institute this covenant of Law under these conditions. It would destroy the people forever as they would all be held in judgment. Judgment is unleashed on all who participated in the idolatry — both by the Hand of G-d and the hand of man.

Once that judgment had been wrought it was now time for Moshe to pray for those remaining, the faithful of HaShem’s people. He receives new tablets written by HaShem, seeks Adonai and asks that He forgive His people.

It is at this point that we can fully appreciate why HaShem chose Moshe to lead His people out of Egypt and to the boundaries of the Promised Land. Moshe implores HaShem to forgive the people and if Adonai is unwilling to do so “erase me now from Your book that You have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

Moshe is literally asking HaShem to take whatever good and righteousness there may be written about him in Adonai’s Book of Life and transfer that over to the ledger of Israel. That is the mark of a real leader. HaShem reminds Moshe that another cannot atone for the sins of a person. That person alone is accountable for their own sinful behavior.

“Whoever has sinned against Me, I shall erase from My book.” - Exodus 18:20 [SEE: Ezekiel 18:20]

HaShem tells Moshe to move on —

“Now go and lead the people to where I have told you. Behold! My messenger shall go before you, and on the day that I make My account, I shall bring their sin to account against them.” — Exodus 32:34

That day came quickly: Then HaShem struck the people with a plague, because they made the calf that Aharon had made.” — Exodus 32:35

After the plague judgment HaShem reiterates his covenant with their fathers Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov promising the land to their offspring. Notice — not to them — but to their offspring. Except for a few, like Joshua, Caleb and a handful of others, none of the original Israelis that left Egypt with Moshe, Aharon and Miriam will be allowed to enter the land of promise. They will all die over the next forty years in the wilderness.

In response to this the people became grief-stricken and sought Adonai in repentance. Moshe also began separating himself more from them. He had the Tabernacle moved outside the tribal camps at some distance. Whenever he would enter the Tabernacle (Tent of Meeting) the people would show their respect for his authority and leadership by standing outside their tents until he entered the Tabernacle. Upon entering the pillar of smoke or fire (depending of the time of day) would descend to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and the people would prostrate themselves until it rose away from the entrance, thereby showing their honor, love, fear and respect for HaShem.

While HaShem had distanced Himself from the nation as a whole — signified by the moving of the Tent of Meeting outside the camp — individuals could still approach and seek out the will of HaShem on any matter.

“…So it was that whosoever sought HaShem would go out to the Tent of Meeting, which was outside the camp.” — Exodus 33:7

How long this separation between the Presence of HaShem and the nation lasted has been debated by our Sages of Blessed Memory. I tend to agree with the view of the Rambam that this period of separation went from the time of the breaking of the Tablets of Stone on 17 Tammuz until Rosh Chodesh Abib (Nissan) at the inauguration of the fully completed Tent of Meeting. Therefore, the Tabernacle remained outside the tribal camps for a period of nine months; the exact time frame from conception to birth of a human being.

The closing of Parsha Ki Tissa gives an intimate look at the special relationship between HaShem and Moshe Rabbenu. Their unique connection is unlike any that came before or after. Avraham avinu was a friend of Adonai but only Moshe knew and related to the Creator of All That Is face to face — not literally seeing the face of G-d for none can see His face and live — but with no need for any kind of intermediary such as, and angel, a prophet, dream, vision or miracle. HaShem and Moshe spoke to each other as one speaks with another human being. Fully aware, alert and conscious. No dream or trance state, but fully cognizant of each’s presence. There never arose in Israel another like Moshe, a prophet who beheld Adonai’s image; and there never will be again until Mashiach — may he come in our days.

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