Parasha Ki Tisa


Parasha Ki Tisa

The main story of this parasha, ‘Ki-Tisa’ is about one of the most embarrassing stories in the beginning of the history of the people of Israel, the story of the ‘sin of the golden calf’.  It was when Moses went up to Mount Sinai and stayed there for forty days to receive the divine instructions written in the Torah.  The people waited at the foot of the mountain, but when the days passed and Moshe didn’t return, there were people who did not free themselves from the idolatrous Egyptian culture and sought to create a replacement: An idol in the form of a golden calf. Then they gathered around the golden calf and cried out in ecstasy: “Israel, this is your God, who has taken you out from the land of Egypt.”

It is not difficult to imagine Moshe’s disappointment and frustration.  In the year that passed, Moshe stood before the Egyptian king, Pharaoh, with great courage, and demanded he free the Jewish people from slavery and allow them to leave Egypt.  With the help of visible miracles and the ten plagues, Moshe succeeded in his mission and brought the people out of Egypt.  He led them through the sea, and arrived with them to Mount Sinai, where the people experienced a divine revelation, the only one in history, in which the ‘Ten Commandments’ were spoken.  And now, as it turns out, the people have returned to their Egyptian idolatry to dance around a golden calf.

Moshe began a series of actions.  First, he broke the Tablets of the Covenant that he brought down from Mount Sinai, with the understanding that a people who worship a golden calf might also make the tablets into a type of idol.  He then burned the calf and punished those who initiated the sin.  Then, Moshe turns to God and begs Him not to punish the entire people of Israel for their sin.  During his prayer, a fascinating dialogue took place between Moshe and God.

Maimonides devoted a long chapter in his monumental book ‘The Guide For The Perplexed’ to this dialogue:  Moshe asked God for two requests.  One: “Please let me know your ways so I’ll be able to know you and also I will affirm to myself that I have found grace in your eyes”.  The second request was: “Please show me your glory”.

Maimonides explains that God answered negatively for the second request.

Moshe sought to know “the glory of God” in how God leads the world and being able to grasp God itself with his own intellect.  A human being, even if it is the most exalted person like Moshe Rabenu, is not able to grasp the essence of God with his intellect.  It is beyond human reach.

But for the first request God answered affirmative.

So, what did God teach Moshe about his ways of leading the world?  He taught him the measures of mercy which represent the divine leadership.  Here, Maimonides adds a significant insight: Why did Moshe ask to know the ways of God?  Because Moshe understood that a human leader should adopt these ways when he relates to people.  The severe disappointment that the people instilled in Moshe by making of the golden calf, led him to demand the godly instrument in which a leader should apply.

These instruments are the thirteen measures of mercy.  As God is able to bear the sins of man, so man is called to bear the sins of others towards him.  A worthy leader is one who is guided by compassion. This is what Moshe learned after the sin of the calf, and this is what we also seek to learn and internalize.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Refael Cohen

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