Parshat Ki Tisa: Weekly Torah Portion Summary, Questions, Resources

Later, after the dust settles, God speaks to Moses: "Uplift the people. Let each give one half Shekel as soul atonement. Twenty years and older. Rich and poor. All give the same."
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Editor's note: The HuffTorah is an overview of the Torah reading of the week, which is found in the Book of Exodus 30:11-34:35, and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. Read the full text of Parshat Ki Tisa with interlinear Hebrew/English.

Later, after the dust settles, God speaks to Moses: "Uplift the people. Let each give one half Shekel as soul atonement. Twenty years and older. Rich and poor. All give the same. This way, you won't count them directly, and there will be no plague."

"I don't understand," Moses says, "Why a half Shekel? What's the meaning of this?"

So God reaches under God's Throne and produces a coin of fire. God shows this to Moses. And Moses understands.

God goes on and on: Use the silver donation to make sockets for the Tent of Meeting, God says. You should make an urn of copper -- an urn for washing. Place it to the side, between the Tent of Meeting and altar. Fill it with water. Aaron and his sons should wash their feet and hands in this water of lovingkindness when they enter the Tent and before they make a sacrifice. Or else they will die. This law is eternal for them.

Take fine spices: myrrh, fragrant cinnamon, aromatic cane, cassia herb. Take some olive oil. A professional perfumer should make this into holy anointing oil. Use it to anoint the vessels of the Tabernacle so that whatever touches them becomes holy. Anoint Aaron and his sons. Tell the people it is holy anointing oil and that they should not pour it on their flesh or use it or make any more. Or else be cut off.

Take balsam sap, onycha, galbanum, frankincense and other spices. Make this into pure, fine, holy incense. Place some before the Ark for God daily. The people should not replicate or else be cut off.

I have appointed Bezalel to do the work. The spirit of wisdom is upon him. The spirit of insight. The spirit of Divine inspiration. He is the master weaver. The smith. The gem setter. The wood worker. I have given him Oholiab as an assistant. And to all the wise-hearted I have given knowledge for making these objects. The Tabernacle and everything within it is holy. They should do as I have commanded.

Speak to Children, God says. Tell them to keep My Sabbath even when they build the Tabernacle. The Sabbath is an eternal sign between Me and all your generations. Keep the Sabbath. It is sacred. Those witnessed desecrating it shall be put to death. Or else have their souls cut off from the people. Six days of work. On the seventh, rest.

Questions and resources:

Why can't Moses count the people directly? Coin of fire and all, how does the half Shekel atone for their souls? Why must everyone give the same amount -- a reason beyond the census-taking? What is the connection between creative work and the Sabbath?

Rashi explains why Moses can't directly count the people and why the donation equals atonement. The donation also provides an example of mindful use of material wealth. The Jazz Rabbi offers his insights on the fine line between creativity and idol worship.

Before the dust settles, Moses is on the mountain. God gives him the two stone Tablets of Testimony, written in black fire on white fire by the hand of God.

Down below the mountain, the people are getting antsy. They gather around Aaron, saying, "Make gods to lead us for we don't know what's become of Moses."

Hoping to buy time, Aaron tells the people to gather gold. The men comply, and Aaron ties all the gold up in a cloth. The sorcerers from Egypt, the mixed multitude that joined the Exodus, turn the gold into a molten calf and declare: "These are your gods, O Israel, who have brought you up from the land of Egypt!"

Aaron's still trying to buy time. He builds an altar in front of the calf to push the people back. He declares that the next day should be a festival to God. On that day, the people arise early, sacrificing offerings to the new gods. They eat and drink and become depraved.

On the mountain, God alerts Moses: "Go down, for your people have become corrupt. Already, they abandon my ways. They made a molten calf, bowed down and offered sacrifices to it. They petition other gods. I have seen this, their stiff-neckedness. No, go away from me. My anger against them is burning. I will annihilate them. I will make you alone into a great nation instead.

"God!" Moses pleas. "Why kindle your anger against them? Why give the Egyptians a reason to think you are evil, that you brought us out of Egypt only to kill us? Withdraw from the fire. Do not do this evil. Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Remember your promise."

And God changes God's mind.

So Moses descends from the mountain bearing the fiery stones made by God. And Joshua hears the shouting and rejoicing and laughing at the bottom of the mountain: "It sounds like a battle!"

"Nay, Joshua," Moses says. "That is the voice of blasphemy."

And he now sees for himself. The golden calf. The idolatrous dancing. The profane revelry. Moses throws the Tablets from his hands. They shatter instantly.

Moses leaps down the mountain, plunges toward the idol and burns it in fire. He grinds the gold into a fine powder, scattering this on the surface of some water, which the Children must drink.

"They tortured you, didn't they?" Moses asks his brother, Aaron, his eyes glowering.

Aaron replies: "Do not be angry, my lord. You know these people. They always screw up. They said they needed new gods because they didn't know what happened to you. I asked them for their gold, which they gave to me quickly, which I threw in the fire, which turned into the calf.

Moses knows the people have been disgraced. He shouts to the camp: "Whoever is for God, come to me!"

All the Levites gather around. Moses reminds the people that idol worship is punishable by death. He orders the people to kill those who asked for the idol. The Levis obey, killing 3,000 men, and Moses informs them that they can now be ordained as priests. On the next day, Moses returns to the mountain after telling the people that he will ask for their atonement.

"Please forgive these people though they have sinned terribly," Moses pleads with God. "Forgive them or erase my name from your book."

"I will erase whomever has sinned against me," God says. "Now, go lead the people. My angel will go before you. I will never forget this. Lead the people to the Promised Land. But I will not go with you, or I may do something I'll regret." And God strikes the people with a plague.

When the people understand that God will no longer accompany them, they take of their crowns.

Questions and resources:

How could the people submit to idol worship so quickly? Is there a difference between the original intention behind making the idol and the sorcerers' declaration after it is made? And why does Moses become so angry only after seeing the idolatrous revelry Does Aaron really make an effort to stop the idol worship? And what crowns?

There's a psychological explanation for the sin of the golden calf and Moses' reactions. Aaron is a prophet and his (in)action was not "wrong." The Children did not wear literal crowns -- this is a Jewish mystical metaphor for union with the Divine.

Moses pitches his tent outside the camp. Anyone seeking God goes to Moses' tent. When Moses leaves the camp, all the people stand and remain standing until he is out of side. When Moses enters the tent, a pillar of cloud descends at the entrance. And God speaks to Moses. When the people see the pillar, they bow in reverence. God speaks to Moses like a friend. Face-to-face. When Moses leaves the tent to teach the elders all that he has learned from God, Joshua remains inside.

Moses says to God, "You tell me to lift these people up, you tell me I am special, that I have found favor in your eyes. But how do you work? How do I know what this favor means? If indeed I have found favor, tell me."

God: "I will go with you instead of my angel. I will give you rest from your enemies."

Moses asks, "Are we not distinguished from other nations because of your presence?"

God: "You have found favor and my presence will not rest on other nations."

Moses sees an opportunity, "Show me your glory!"

God: "I will pass before you, proclaiming my name. I will favor whomever I wish to favor. You will not be able to see my face. No man sees my face and lives. When my glory passes, I will place you into the rock and cover you with my hand. When I have passed, you will see my back."

And God descends in a cloud, calling out with the holy name, passing before Moses. These attributes of mercy God proclaims: "I am the God of the sinner, of the penitent. I am merciful, compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, overflowing in lovingkindness and truth. I preserve the kindness of people. I forgive intentional sin and rebellion. I forgive unintentional sin. I absolve. I do not allow the guilty to go free, even if it takes a few generations."

Moses hurries to bow and prostrate on the ground, saying: "If I have found favor, go with us, God, even if we are stiff-necked. Forgive us! Make us your own!"

And God says all of this: I will make a covenant in the presence of all your people. I will distinguish you from all nations as I have never done before. And all will know my awesome works. Listen carefully and do what I say: I will drive the people out of the land before you. Do not become trapped by them. Demolish their altars, their monuments, their sacred trees. You should not bow down before another god. I am a zealous God. Do not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land. They will sacrifice to their gods. You will eat their offerings. You will intermarry. You will be led astray.

Do not make gods of metal. Observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Every firstborn male is mine. Redeem every firstborn donkey with a lamb. Break its neck if you do not redeem it. Redeem every firstborn son. Appear before me in Jerusalem with an offering. For six days you work. Rest on the seventh. Make a festival for the first fruits. Make a festival of the harvest. Appear before me three times in the year. If you possess anything leavened, do not make the Passover offering. Eat all of the offering. Bring your first fruits to the my house. Do not cook a kid in its mothers milk.

"Write these words," God says. And Moses writes. For 40 days and 40 nights, eating and drinking nothing, Moses writes the words of covenant and the Ten Commandments.

Moses comes down from the mountain with the Two Tablets. But Aaron and the Children won't come near him. They are afraid. Moses' face is beaming, radiant, splendrous.

In this way, Moses conveys the word of God: He calls, and the leaders come near. He tells all that he has learned and then covers his face. He comes before God again with his face uncovered. He goes back to tell the people, who see his radiance while he speaks. Moses covers his face until he speaks to God again.

Questions and resources:

Why does it say that Moses talked with God face-to-face but then recount God showing only his back to him? How can God command the Israelites to cut down "sacred trees" when there is a well-known Jewish imperative to not cut down the trees of enemies? Why are some of the laws from Mishpatim repeated here? Why is Moses' face beaming and why does this terrify the people? Why does Moses go back and forth taking on and off the face covering?

Rashi explains the light-filled face of Moses. He also makes points out a distinction about which kind of trees the people are told to cut down. The leader of the Israelites had compassion on them.

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection:

  • Haftorah Ki Tisa Summary -- In the supplemental haftorah, found in Kings I 18:1-39, Elijah the Prophet comes out of hiding to challenge the prophets of two foreign Gods. And fire descends from on high. (My Jewish Learning)

  • The Animated Parshat Ki Tisa A psychological explanation of the sin of the golden calf. (G-dcast)
  • The Coin of Fire: Rectification of Material Wealth In this parsha, material wealth is used for idol worship. Similarly, in synagogues and communities today, wealth is valued above all else. The half-Shekel donation at the beginning of this portion is a more just use of money. (Canfei Nesharim)
  • Rashi on Parshat Ki Tisa -- The classic commentator in all his interpretive glory. (Chabad)
  • Speak Out or Remain Silent? -- An interactive text study focusing on the connection between how Moses reacts to the sin of the Golden Calf and how we choose to react to crises. (American Jewish World Service)
  • Details, Details -- The creative instinct must be suppressed on the Sabbath in order to strengthen ... the creative instinct. (Sixth St. Synagogue)
  • Reconnecting to Our Ideals -- The atonement offering of one half-Shekel calls on each person to look past the image -- the money, the power, the idol -- and see the underlying source. (IYYUN)
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