Yom Chamishi, 18 Iyyar 5779
Lag B Omer Thursday, 23 May 2019
Parashat Ki Tisa 2012

Parashat Ki Tisa by Rabbi Danny Rich
6 March 2012

Parashat Key Tissa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) begins with a census of the Israelites before returning to the theme of the last few parashiot: the building of themishcan, the tabernacle which was to serve, according to legend, as the temporary, mobile home of God and the centre of the cult during the Hebrews’ wanderings in the desert.· The details include: the making of the anointing oil and incense, the appointment of an artisan, and verses on authentic and inauthentic worship and on the celebration of festivals.

At the heart of the parashah (32:1-) is the incident of the Golden Calf during which – and in breach of the second Commandment- the Israelites worship a physical being, an idolatrous image.· God is so angered that God is prepared to renege on the covenant and Moses is forced to prevail upon God not to do so.

One might argue that the story was inevitable.· The Children of Israel consisted of Israelites who had perhaps only known the idolatrous ways of Egypt ·and a mixture of others for whom religion might have been of no interest at all, and thus the disappearance of Moses (for 40 days) causes a panic and a moment of lack of faith.· Perhaps for many Moses was their God but his absence leads to their demanding that High Priest Aaron, Moses’ brother, should ‘make for (us) a God’.· Facing the mob, Aaron seems relatively complicit as those who had shown such generosity for the mishcan donate similarly for the calf.

Moses is informed by God of what is happening and hurries down the mountain- having first persuaded God not to destroy the Children of Israel- whereupon he smashes the tablets, burns the calf, grinds it into powder and forces the people to consume it with water.

What lessons might we learn from this portion? I want to suggest two.· The first is an obvious one.· In the absence of leadership, the mob or the weaker leader takes charge and the ensuing consequences may be far reaching.

The more interesting question, however, concerns Moses’ decision to ‘hurl the tablets from his hand and shatter them at the foot of the mountain’ (32:19).·Perhaps Moses was simply angry and unable to control himself or more deliberately the smashing of the tablets was a symbolic method of demonstrating the possibility that the covenant between God and the Children of Israel might be over.

A nineteenth century commentator, Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926) known as ·Meshech Hochmah suggested that Moses intended to make the point that there is no intrinsic holiness in material things.· Only God is intrinsically holy.·Physical objects can attract holiness insofar as they lead people to God.· When Israel disregarded the words on the stone tablets, they became merely stones.

I have just returned from a trip to Israel, part holiday and part leading a mission on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights.· Whenever I am in Jerusalem I always go to the kotel and walk its length.· I am afraid it leaves me uninspired on each and every occasion.· I remind myself that it is, after all, merely the wall which Herod constructed to hold up the mound he had created and on top of which he reconstructed the Second Temple.· But I walk it because I want those who are there and those who see the kotel on television or in newspapers to be reminded that Jewish history belongs to all Jews, not just those in exotic dress or who ‘worship’ walls, graves and other sites with a particular fervour.

The more serious point is this.· However ancient and beautiful are our buildings, our dress, our customs or other trappings, the real test of Judaism is how its adherents behave which is precisely why, despite all the demanding details of the construction of the mishcan God does not dwell in ·it but rather ‘amongst the people’.

God is only a reality when humanity responds to the Divine voice.