As we know, the days marked as holy for recalling and reliving the Exodus from Egypt have marked the Jewish people and Jewish culture profoundly; for thousands of years the Jewish story has been retold every year as part of our human celebration of the spring season.
We need to tell this story; we need to share this story.
We begin to remind each other of the approach of Pesakh way back before the month of Adar begins, with Shabbat Shekalim, which served as a public service announcement to Jewish communities that the new year would soon begin (it was tax time for them, thus the reference to shekels). No less than four special Shabbatot keep our attention turned to the preparations for what was arguably the most significant holy day our ancestors celebrated.
No matter what we are reading as the parashat hashavua, every year for many generations the question has gone around the community at this time of year:
What are you doing for Pesakh? Where will you hear this story? How will you tell this story?
Parashat Ki Tisa begins with a count of the People of Israel. That it is read as a special extra Torah excerpt added to Shabbat Shekalim, way back before Purim, should draw our attention to it now as it comes around again. What is so important about this reading that we should read it twice in such proximity?
The answer is in how one says “count” in Hebrew: tisa is part of an idiom which literally means “lift up the face.” In English we might “count heads,” but in Hebrew each person is counted by the act of lifting up the face to make eye contact, it seems, with the one counting. Imagine that moment of eye contact: it is a recognition of the individual soul. And it’s more – it is the recognition of the gift of one’s presence. In the same way, we count ten for a minyan, and we notice exactly who has gathered to be with each other. Jewish tradition teaches that this gathering evokes a synergy that brings the Presence of G*d into our midst.
This kind of counting is an act of taking account of each other. It is the same gesture by which we have learned as a community to notice each other’s situation and ask: do you have a place to go for Shabbat? What are you doing for Pesakh?
This year especially, let’s take account of each other. The way you tell this story counts; it needs to be heard.
Start with the people you know best – your family, your friends, your havurah. What are they doing for Pesakh? Where will they encounter our story?
What are you doing for Pesakh? Is it your turn to host a Seder? It’s not difficult: you can potluck it just as you do a Shabbat dinner, and invite someone who knows how to lead if you don’t feel you can. Just make room for the telling of the story.
All it takes is a Haggadah, and the symbols of matzah (even if you’re gluten free you need the symbol there), maror, and a representation of the zaroa (shankbone). All the rest is improvisation.
What are you doing for Pesakh? On Pesakh, we take account of those with whom we share the journey all year along the Jewish path, and we listen to each other’s version of the story we carry together into our future.
It’s not a story if no one hears it. This Pesakh especially, may you recognize your ability to ensure that every voice is heard – including yours.
This parashat hashavua is famous for a terrible breach in the relationship between G-d and the People Israel. That golden calf tends to overshadow the rest of the parashah even for those of us on the Triennial Cycle, who only read that specific passage once in three years!
This year we read the first third of parashat Ki Tisa, which begins with concluding instructions for creating the Mishkan, the sacred space the Israelites are about to build. We have spent weeks already talking about the design, the volunteers who will coordinate, and the resources that must be gathered. Now, when we seem just about ready to begin, and excitement is building, suddenly we are confronted with what seems like a non sequitur. Suddenly, it’s Shabbat:
יב וַיֹּאמֶר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר.
12 G-d spoke to Moses saying:
יג וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ: כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי ה’ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
13 Speak to the People of Israel. Tell them: You must observe My Shabbat, because it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that it is I, HaShem, that makes you holy.
יד וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.
14 So observe the Shabbat, for it is holy for you; anyone that dismisses it will die, and whoever does work on it, will be cut off from the people.
Suddenly we are brought up short with a serious warning. Don’t get distracted by your enthusiasm for this task, we are told. The message is clear and simple:
1. Building the holy space cannot be allowed to take precedence over what makes the space holy. That is, the means must be aligned with the end. A Jewish sacred space cannot be constructed on Shabbat. Nor can it be constructed unethically.
2. What makes Shabbat holy is that it is a sign between the Jewish people and their G-d. The Mishkan is going to be a visible sign of the Jewish people’s dedication to HaShem, and even though concrete, touchable signs are comforting to us human beings, we are being told here that the visible and tangible is not “more” of a sign than Shabbat. The day of rest, of rising above one’s work and one’s week, is the most profound sign of all.
3. Anyone who dismisses its importance will end up “dead” to it. This is simple human logic. It is demonstrably true that those who diminish the Shabbat are diminished in their attachment to the Jewish people, Jewish causes, and Jewish community. Those Jews who choose to work on Shabbat, making it no more than one more day, are by way of that choice also cutting themselves off from belonging to the People of Israel in a real way.
It is, of course, forever true that any Jew, no matter how distanced, alienated, and turned off, will be welcomed back to belonging if they wish to turn toward it. As the poet put it, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
All who are thirsty, there is water here for you. As the mystics observed, the only thing that gets in our way is our “I” – statements such as “I don’t have time”, or “I don’t fit in”, or even the unspoken feeling of not being comfortable in some way. Get that “I” to lie down for a while and you may find that you, too, are a simple human being who needs to belong, and who needs a rest.
This is the Shabbat of parashat Ki Tisa, the most famous part of which is the debacle of the Golden Calf. On one foot (the Jewish idiom for “in a nutshell”): We have just lived through the glorious commitment ceremony between us and G-d, and received the promise of the Torah (at least the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”) as our ketubah. We begin to build a sacred space to celebrate that relationship and seek its intimacy. Then Moshe goes up to Mt Sinai to get the Torah from G-d – and there our troubles begin.
According to the midrash, it was all due to a misunderstanding:
When Moses ascended the mountain, he said to them: After forty days, in the first six hours of the day, I shall return. They thought that the day of his ascent should be counted as one of the forty, while he meant forty full, 24-hour days. In truth, the day of his ascent – Sivan 7 – should not have been counted, since it did not include its previous night, meaning that the forty days ended on Tammuz 17.
On the 16th of Tammuz the satan came and filled the world with darkness and confusion. Said he to them: “Where is your teacher Moses?” “He has ascended on high,” they answered him. “The sixth hour has come,” said he to them, but they disregarded him. “He is dead”–but they disregarded him. So the satan showed them a vision of Moses’ bier. This is what they said to Aaron, “For this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.” (Rashi; Talmud, Shabbat 89a).
The appearance of the satan in this story is fascinating, because in Jewish midrashic tradition, the satan is expressed as that which sabotages the relationship of the Jewish people with G-d, or between two Jews. In this story, the satan does nothing creative to bring about the disaster of the Golden Calf – it simply amplifies and “tempts” into hysteria something that is already there.
What could have caused our people to stray so utterly, and commit so painful a betrayal, so quickly after the joyous Sinai moment of “we will do and we will hear”? Perhaps it was really nothing more than letting themselves get caught up in a never-ending loop of mutual concern, which turned into escalating fear, which turned into catastrophic fantasy – thus we might all find ourselves falling down a big, black rabbit hole of our own making and without any reality other than that of our own, utterly unfounded conviction.
It’s too bad that they could not hear Aaron trying to tell them: there’s nothing wrong with Moshe; he’s on his way. All you’ve done is get nervous and mistake the time.
Where does the satan come to amplify your own fears or misgivings, and turn them into a stumbling block before which no good intention can possibly get through to you? Is it a feeling that you haven’t been heard, when if you checked you’d find out you had? Is it an ill-considered desire for your own definition of perfection that gets in the way of the communal good? If it keeps you away from G-d and feeling distanced from those with whom you share community, then maybe you need to try thinking outside yourself and your own, already formed convictions. Maybe you are wrong. Maybe there’s another perspective. Maybe you need to open your heart and listen.
The wonderful thing about community is the trust we are offered, and the chance to turn to someone and say “please check my thinking here”. Where one may be lost in the dark, two or more have a better chance of finding the light again.
The middle third of the parashah on this Shabbat, Ki Tisa, begins with Moshe on Mt Sinai receiving the Word of G-d in the form of “tablets of testimony written with the finger of G-d.” (Exodus 31.18) At the same time the Israelites, who are waiting below in the valley, become restive. What’s taking so long?
For the literally mind-blown Moshe, time had ceased to exist. According to one midrash, for forty days he neither ate nor drank, but simply existed, basking in the Divine Presence. It is the first example in Jewish tradition of a state of being which is now called a mystical experience. Moshe was no longer of this world; as the Israeli Nobel laureate in literature Shai Agnon put it in his story HaSiman, “The Sign”, in words informed by the language of the Zohar, the primary text of Jewish mystical expression:
“Thought on thought was engraved, holy thought within my thought. And all the communicated words were etched in letters, and the letters joined into words, and the words formed what was to be said….My flesh crawled and my heart melted and I was annihilated from being and I was as if I were not.” (Agnon, HaSiman, cited by Rachel Elior in Jewish Mysticism: The Infinite Expression of Freedom, p. 16)
Down below in the valley of the shadow of doubt, the Israelites were having no such peak experience. The leader who was their emotional anchor had asked them to wait for him, and in their anxiety, the time cannot pass quickly enough. They are looking for leadership; they are nervous about the lack of communication; in short, they are not feeling serene and trusting. As the Torah relates, G-d was aware of this and the awareness communicated itself to Moshe, who hastened down the mountain to respond.
When Moshe returned, things had gotten a bit out of hand, but that’s been well-described and analyzed elsewhere by many; I want to concentrate for a moment on the day of his return. “You said you’d be back yesterday!” said the people who loved him, who had waited for him, and who had quickly turned on him when they felt let down. “No, I said I’d be back on the fortieth day,” said the leader. “I’m back right when I said I would be!”
The waiting Israelites cannot relate to the fact that Moshe was having a fantastic experience; they only know that he was not there for them, and they are in pain.
Both felt let down; both experienced a sense of being misunderstood, of being lied to, of being betrayed. And both sides, each in their way, were right.
Here are several chasms: between mystical experience and the everyday, between leader and follower, between the one leaving and the one waiting to be returned to. It is so easy to get caught up in one’s own experience – which is, after all, paramount by definition – and so difficult to remain aware of those others who are waiting for word. But it is necessary to do so if one would move in the world ethically. Note the description of being close to G-d: “I was as if I were not.” That does not mean that one who is close to G-d ceases to exist; just that one who is close to G-d ceases to be blinded by the ego, the “I”, and is given a new ability to see, and take note of the reality of others.
There is a wonderful midrash about staying aware of the feelings of the other:
Once upon a time Rabbi Preda was teaching a student when he was told that he was going to be needed for a mitzvah related to tzedakah.
Rabbi Preda taught the student as usual, but on this day the student could not grasp the material as usual.
He asked, “what is the matter?”
The student answered, “from the moment they said to you there is a mitzvah to be done,
I could not concentrate because I thought, ‘now he will have to go. Now he will have to go.’
Rabbi Preda reviewed the material to the student four hundred times.
A Voice from Heaven was heard to ask, “Would you prefer to have four hundred years added to your life,
or that you and your entire generation be assured life in the World to Come?”
“May my generation be given life in the World to Come”, Rabbi Preda answered.
The holy Voice was heard to say, “give him both rewards.” (BT Eruvim 54b)
The essence of Jewish ethics is to be able to put ourselves in the place of others; to empathize with them, not to judge them in their vulnerability. May we be humble enough to be alert to those who are waiting for a word from us, distracted by anxiety and afraid of betrayal, and may we recognize our own needs for reassurance in theirs.