What a week of learning, both inside and outside the walls of Pardes! A particular highlight for me was picking oranges for an organization called Leket Israel, which provides for Israeli children who are hungry and/or do not received proper nutrition. This volunteering project was organized by Pardes students in loving memory of two former students, Marla Bennett and Ben Blutstein (z”l = of blessed memory) who were killed in a terrorist attack at Hebrew University in 2002. Earlier in the week, Larry Roth (Nachum Eliezer ben Ester Rachel), a long-time Pardes supporter and the father of my teacher at Pardes (Daniel Roth), was hit by a bus on Emek Refaim.
As such, I would like to dedicate this week’s dvar Torah in the merit of Larry Roth’s speedy and complete recovery and in loving memory of Marla and Ben (z”l).
There is so much to discuss in this week’s parsha that it is hard to know where to begin or what to explore. Parshat Ki Tisa includes the census of the Jewish People in the desert, known as the machatzeet hashekel because the people were counted by the half shekel they donated to the Tabernacle treasury. Bezalel, the leading Israelite craftsman imbued with wisdom and divine spirit, is introduced and begins his work in designing the Tabernacle. God warns the People to keep Shabbat and not to prepare the Tabernacle on this day of rest. And then, we are confronted with the tragedy of the Golden Calf and the consequences that follow, most famously Moses’ shattering of the “tablets of the Pact” (luchot ha-edut) and the reconfiguration of God’s relationship with the Jewish People in order to rehabilitate the damage done in the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ breaking of the luchot (tablets).
As I read the parsha, there are many things that jumped out at me, some of which I have noticed in previous study and others totally new to me. What stands out to me the most are the following verses:
ה) וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אַתֶּם עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף–רֶגַע אֶחָד אֶעֱלֶה בְקִרְבְּךָ, וְכִלִּיתִיךָ; וְעַתָּה, הוֹרֵד עֶדְיְךָ מֵעָלֶיךָ, וְאֵדְעָה, מָה אֶעֱשֶׂה-לָּךְ
5) And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Say to the children of Israel: You are a stiffnecked people; if I go up into the midst of you for one moment, I shall consume you; therefore now put off your ORNAMENTS from you, that I may know what to do to you.’
ו) וַיִּתְנַצְּלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת-עֶדְיָם, מֵהַר חוֹרֵב
6) And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ORNAMENTS from Mount Horev onward. (Exodus 33:5-6)
Of all the reactions and demands that God could make of the Jewish People after the sin of the Golden Calf, why does God require them to remove their “ornaments”? What difference does it make if they dress in fancy clothing? How is this command to strip themselves of their ornaments be a form of reprimand or rebuke for the nation?
The Hebrew word for an “ornament” or “finery” (Etz Hayim translation) is עֲדִי (adi) . The root letters of this word ע ד is common to other Hebrew words. Let us examine these root-related words as they may aid us in answering the aforementioned question.
- The Hebrew word for a “witness” is עֵד (ed)
- The Hebrew word for an “ethnic group” is עֵדָה (eda)
- The Hebrew word for testimony is עֵדוּת (edut)
- The Hebrew word for the tablets Moses brings down from Mount Sinai are called לֻחֹת עֵדוּת (luchot ha-edut)
- The Hebrew word for “eternity” is עַד (ad)
Now, looking back at our parsha, how might these words help us understand God’s command of the Jewish People to strip themselves of their finery?
Well, if we look back at the beginning of the parsha, Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the words of God in his hands. The Torah states:
טו) וַיִּפֶן וַיֵּרֶד מֹשֶׁה, מִן-הָהָר, וּשְׁנֵי לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת, בְּיָדוֹ: לֻחֹת, כְּתֻבִים מִשְּׁנֵי עֶבְרֵיהֶם–מִזֶּה וּמִזֶּה, הֵם כְּתֻבִים
15) And Moses turned, and went down from the mount, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand; tablets that were written on both their sides; on the one side and on the other were they written.
טז) וְהַלֻּחֹת–מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים, הֵמָּה; וְהַמִּכְתָּב, מִכְתַּב אֱלֹהִים הוּא–חָרוּת, עַל-הַלֻּחֹת
16) And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets. (Exodus 32:15-16)
Why does the Torah describe these words of God as “tablets of testimony”?
This is our first clue that the words recounted earlier in the parsha are both linguistically and thematically connected.
My reading of this linguistic pattern (the recurring use of the root ע ד) is as follows: God and the Jewish People have entered into a covenantal relationship with God, to become a cohesive purposeful unit (an עֵדָה) . Now, if the nation heeds God’s word, God will provide for them. But when Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive God’s word, the Jewish People become increasingly anxious and restless awaiting his descent. They are yearning for divine communion, especially after the revelatory experiences at the foot of Mount Sinai. Patience and abstraction are not the strong suits of the Jewish People, and as such they fashion a physical object into which they can channel their spiritual fervour.
Their hope is, that in creating this physical representation of God, they can band together and strengthen their ethnic identity (as an עֵדָה), so that their connection to and covenant with God can remain forever (עַד). [I think this is clear throughout the narratives of Exodus that the Jewish People are constantly struggle to define and express their covenantal relationship with God.] When the nation makes the gruesome mistake of building the Golden Calf, God responds with anger and disappointment.
Rebuking the nation, God implores them to remove their ornaments (עֶדְיָם). God makes it very clear to the people that if they are to be in this relationship with God and want to live as an עֵדָה with a divine mission that will live for all eternity (עַד), then their beliefs must correspond the actions. They cannot pledge allegiance to God and promise not to make physical representations of the divine and then create a Golden Calf! God sharply reminds the Jewish People that this alignment is critical to the perpetuity of the covenant. Therefore, the לֻחֹת עֵדוּת – the tablets of testimony are not described as the words of God, but rather the “work of God”. (מַעֲשֵׂה אֱלֹהִים)
In other words, God is interested more in our ACTIONS, than in our dogma. In demanding that the nation remove their ornaments, God is saying: ‘Don’t you dare deceive me with your ornaments and pretend that you are honouring Me in the world! I am not fooled by your meaningless garb. A external symbol is only worth something if it represents something accurately and truthfully. I don’t care if you meant well. If you want to be My people, you’d better read over the handbook carefully! Around here, the proof is in the pudding!! And so far, yours isn’t following my recipe.’
From my own experience, I think this is true in many relationships, with God or with people. We can “talk the talk” about expectations and responsibilities, say that we love someone, respect their choices and/or believe in a cause. But it doesn’t mean anything until we “walk the walk.”
As I read this parsha, I am asking myself: do my actions reflect my values? do I act toward my family and friends in a way that parallels my love and respect for them? do my commitments to my community, to the Jewish People and to God match my behaviour?
Are my values and beliefs consistent with my deeds? If not, what steps can I take to ensure that they are in line with one another?
I believe that this parsha urges me to ask myself this fundamental question and I encourage all of us to courageously confront this difficult question, in order to strengthen and enhance relationships with others and with the divine that are לָעַד (everlasting).