Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Ki Tisa Exodus 30:11-34:35
Efrat, Israel - This week’s Torah portion raises the most complex and controversial theological issues with which all seekers of faith must wrestle: the definition of G-d, and the question of theodicy (Divine justice in a world in which the righteous often appear to suffer and the wicked often appear to prosper). These challenges present themselves within the context of Moses’ seemingly sacrilegious act of shattering the stone Tablets of Testimony, the holiest object in the world. I believe that a careful reading of our Biblical text will illuminate the Torah’s approach to these very significant and sensitive issues and events.
Chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus opens with two contradictory scenes happening simultaneously. Moses receiving from the Almighty the sacred Tablets of Testimony in his hideaway with the Divine Presence, and the Israelites’ worship of the golden calf in their encampment down below. G-d informs Moses that he must descend from his lofty heights “for your nation has acted corruptly”- combining an awful threat with a personal promise: “Now leave Me alone (do not try to stop Me) when I unleash My wrath against them to destroy them, and I shall (begin again) by making from you a (new) great nation” (Exodus 32:10).
Moses defies the Divine command and offers a heartfelt prayer, emphasizing the fact that Israel is G-d’s nation and not Moses’ nation and invoking the Divine covenant with the Patriarchs as well as the desecration to G-d’s name in the eyes of the Egyptians as reasons for His not destroying the Israelites. We are immediately informed that “G-d refrained from doing the evil that He planned for His people.”
Moses then descends from the mountain with the Tablets of Testimony, sees the Israelites dancing in front of the golden calf, and smashes the two Tablets. In effect, Moses is graphically responding to G-d’s earlier command that the prophet “leave Him alone” and He will establish a new nation from Moses himself. In breaking the Tablets, Moses is declaring: Better a broken Torah and a whole nation than a broken nation and a whole Torah!
And why? Because the nation must be harnessed and energized in order to complete the Torah. This new understanding of G-d is magnificently explained in chapter 34, when the almighty commands Moses: “Hew out for yourself two tablets of stone like the first ones…”(Exodus 34:1) After all these second Tablets are not like the first - at least not in design. The first Tablets were the writing of G-d by the Finger of G-d; the second Tablets are the writing of man by the finger of man. The Midrash teaches that these second Tablets included the Oral Law, a corpus of teachings which would develop throughout the generations and which would add the interpretations and decrees of the pious scholars of Israel to the initial words of the Divine.
It is as though G-d is explaining that just as He created an imperfect (incomplete) world awaiting its completion by humanity whose task is to “perfect (complete) the world in the Kingship of the Almighty”, so did He decide to give Israel an incomplete Torah awaiting its completion at the hands of the Israelites. Only with such a Torah, which empowers the Israelites with partnership-ownership, is there a chance of Israelite compliance, is there a possibility that the worship of a golden calf only forty days after the initial Revelation at Sinai will not repeat itself. If the world is to be redeemed, humanity must take responsibility for the world, and Israel must take responsibility for Torah!
All of this comes as a result of Moses’ second prayer to the Almighty, after he smashes the Tablets and after he has the 3,000 men who are primarily responsible for the calf desecration killed: “And it happened on the morrow… And Moses said, You have sinned a great sin. I shall go up to the Lord. Perhaps I shall gain forgiveness for your sin” (Exodus 32:30) Moses is not satisfied with his having averted the disaster of the destruction of Israel; he wants the Israelites to be forgiven, to be purified. He asks from G-d the very antithesis of what G-d had planned to do, to destroy Israel and start a new nation from Moses. “If You don’t forgive their sin, blot me (Moses) out from your book”; remove me from recorded history but purify our people.
G-d responds by explaining to Moses that the people must purify themselves! The process of redemption is apparently going to be a lengthy one, fraught with trial and error, a historical process of education which is predicated upon a partnership between G-d and Israel. G-d will not deal with us directly; for Him to do so would mean immediate reward and punishment, which would more likely result in immediate destruction following a national transgression. G-d will operate through intermediaries: people who will lead, and a Torah which will give direction. There is a special relationship between G-d and Israel, there is an ultimate promise of redemption, but G-d’s face will be hidden behind the curtains of the stage of world history and the Israelites must learn to assume responsibility for the world.
And so G-d reveals His name: Y-HVH, the G-d of historic process, of future becoming; the G-d of patience and forgiveness, who has the cosmic time to wait for humanity to repent and for the world to ultimately redeem itself. (Exodus 34:6,7 and B.T. Yoma 69b) In the month of Sivan was the public Divine Revelation at Sinai, in the month of Tammuz (forty days later) the smashing of the Tablets, and on Yom Kippur (80 days later), the second Tablets and the new covenant based on Israel’s repentance. Israel must come of age by taking responsibility for their actions and for the world; G-d is hidden behind the curtains of the Holy of Holies in the Sanctuary - Temple. The mask, which covers Moses’ face when he descends from the mountain for the second time, reflects the mask which will hide the Almighty from directly guiding His people and His world. Neither Israel nor humanity are yet ready for such direct Divine intervention. The new paradigm for G-d-in-world is not to be the direct revelation at Sinai but is rather to be the Israelites’ repentance on Yom Kippur, or, - even more to the point- the masquerade of Purim, when G-d’s name is frontally absent from the Scroll of Esther (literally, hiddenness). The Israelites must now carry their new responsibility of Oral Law and human activity into their long march towards redemption!