Parshat Ki Tissa
By Rabbi Michael Cohen
How sad not to be at liberty to gather together as we’re accustomed to welcome the Sabbath, and in all the many capacities we normally enjoy. A first thought of overwhelming appreciation for that liberty we have enjoyed, and we shall again, when our communities get up to speed with ways to respond to this new threat to our health — Ken Yihi Ratzon — May it be God’s Will!
After conference with the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas, all participants agreed for the safety of the community we are suspending services and gatherings for the time being — the only exception being live stream several congregations are offering. We at Legacy are heeding warnings from Medical experts to limit gatherings, so here are my thoughts for this Shabbat.
This Shabbat’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, includes some of the most powerful moments in all of Torah, so appropriate to this moment we face as a broader community. Moses and the Israelites gather at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses ascends to the mountain top and spends 40 days in communion with Adonai, who engraves the Commandments on two tablets which Moses has hewn. Meanwhile, the people panic at the absence of their security — the leader who has led them out of their misery in Egypt. In their panic, the Israelites lose heart and their better judgment, abandoning their sense of the awesome experience of the Red Sea having just parted for their march to freedom. Aaron heeds their frantic call to build them an idol — a calf he forms from the gold that he bids them to bring. When Moses descends, he hears the wild frenzied dancing and worship from a distance, and realizes the people have already sinned and turned away from Adonai, and he smashes the tablets to the ground.
A Midrash from oral tradition explains that as the openness to God in the hearts of Israelites was obscured with anxiety, the letters of Torah engraved on the tablets fled and ran away. Thus it was empty tablets that in his anger, Moses smashed to the ground. This lessens the culpability for sin, when Moses’ anger engulfed him. But, another Midrash explains that Moses, when he asks God to forgive Israel, had deliberately smashed the tablets, so his fate too, would be tied to the sin of the people. This second Midrash shows Moses choosing not to offer God the choice to start over again — without the backsliding Israelites, but only him. His leadership is of such love for his people that Moses affirms he is covenantally one, with his people. Moses understood the fear of abandonment that drove the panic of the people. Moses understood that the children of Israel, like we, their descendants, need a God of second chances.
The passage which follows, Moses in dialogue with God after the Golden Calf, strikes me as the most intimate encounter in Torah. Moses asks God to let him see God’s face, to which God replies — No one can see my face and live, but I shall place you in a cleft of the rock and pass by, and you shall see my glory from that side. That Moses, who has served the Lord with all his soul, courage and might since the encounter at the burning bush, who has gone into the heart of Pharoah’s empire, braved the Israelites’ doubts and scorn, and faced down that most powerful human on earth, that Moses needs this assurance from God — speaks to our own need for a sense that God is watching, that God cares about our choices and actions. That God so loves Moses that God will place Moses in safety, and reveal God’s self in this way, speaks to me of the love God has for his servant, and for all of God’s flawed human creatures.
In this Torah portion we glimpse Moses’ dedication, both to his people and to God, and in turn, God’s extraordinary love and trust for us, despite our sometimes weak human natures. May we take courage in this time when we need courage. May we channel our trust and care for each other, when our community so needs these loving human qualities to go forward through the fearsome time we face. And may God bless each one of us, with Shalom — Peace.
Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen is an ACPE Certified Educator and Director of Rabbinical Services and Pastoral Care for The Legacy Senior Communities.