Ki Tissa 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

Parshat Ki Tisah is much less thematically consistent than the previous two Torah portions. It begins with instructions for taking a census and a half shekel contribution from the Israelite adults, and continues with more instructions for making the worship implements for the Mishkan, telling us along the way about the craftsmen who will make them and how to dedicate these unique objects. After that, God reminds Moshe to tell the people about the holiness and importance of Shabbat. The largest part of the chapter is the story of the Golden Calf: the people, upset at Moshe’s delay up on the mountain, make a statue of a bull or cow and venerate it as their liberator, apparently with Aaron’s cooperation. Both God and Moshe are rather upset by this, and although Moshe rebukes the people harshly, he also prays on their behalf to God, Who speaks of punishing them. Finally, Moshe goes up the mountain again and beseeches God to reaffirm the Covenant and give Moshe a unique experience of God’s presence. With great drama, God shows Moshe God’s “back” but not God’s “face,” and does reaffirm the Covenant and its ritual and ethical stipulations.

“And God spoke to Moshe: You shall speak to the Israelites, telling them that they must guard my Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you through your generations, to know that I am God who makes you holy.”

(Exodus 31:12-13)

In this passage, from 31:12-17, God restates the centrality of Shabbat, the seventh day, for the religious life of the people. It is not only a “sign” of the Covenant between God and Israel, but also a reminder of God’s role as the Creator, who finished Creation in six days and “rested” on the seventh. Although we who live today would consider Shabbat to be part of our religious or ritual lives, and thus separate from the legal structures of society, the ancient texts list severe punishments for the violation of the Shabbat laws. Our passage tells us that Shabbat violators were to be put to death; the post-Biblical rabbis made so many rules of evidence and intention that it would be almost impossible to carry out such a sentence. Still, in the Biblical conception, Shabbat was not merely a day of rest for personal enjoyment, but a fundamental norm of Israelite life.

There is an interesting ambiguity in verse 13, above; it’s not clear who is the subject of the verb “to know.” Clearly, the Israelite nation is the subject of “guard my Sabbaths,” but at least a few medieval commentators thought that it was other nations who would then know that Shabbat was the sign between Israel and God. The 10th century philosopher, communal leader and Torah scholar
Saadia Gaon, in his commentary on Exodus, merely points out that “to know ” in our verse implies the future tense; he doesn’t specify who will know that Shabbat is the sign of the covenant.

However, Ibn Ezra, in his “short” commentary, written a few centuries later, says that Saadia’s interpretation is that Jews will be known through the observance of Shabbat- other peoples will see the Jewish shops closed and nobody working on the seventh day and will come to understand the unique character of the Jewish people. Rashi’s perspective is similar: he writes that “to know” means that “the nations will come to know that ‘I am God who makes you holy.’ ” In this interpretation, Shabbat is a “sign” between God and Israel so that everybody else will know about the covenant; we might also assume that the public observance of Shabbat is also a demonstration of the goodness and wisdom of the Torah, and therefore praise for the God who gave such a Torah. In a sense, if we follow this interpretation of our verse, Shabbat is part of the Jewish mission to be “a light unto the nations,” or living demonstration of faithfulness to the Holy One.

However, although Ibn Ezra reports to us what he thinks Saadia meant in Saadia’s commentary, he himself has a different approach. Ibn Ezra says that the meaning of our verse is “that you will come to know that you are made holy to Me.” Ibn Ezra backs this up by pointing out that there is a known practice to study Torah on Shabbat. Presumably, studying Torah, which a person can do with greater freedom and dedication on Shabbat when they’re not at work, is a way that we come to “know” about our relationship with God.

I would propose another possible nuance to Ibn Ezra’s reading. Ordinarily, one might assume that a religious person would take on a particular observance or practice because she felt that God commanded her (however we understand that process to happen) to do so. Yet maybe sometimes we come to “know” God- that is, feel close to or experience holiness on an emotional or spiritual level- through the actual practice of rituals and observances themselves. It’s like a cycle that builds on itself; we reach out to God through ritual and observance, and in those very moments of extending ourselves we come to know for Whom we are reaching. An example might be two lovers who take a weekend holiday together; they clearly love and desire each other before they go away (one hopes) but in the very act of creating special space for each other and spending time together they come to know and love each other more deeply (again, one hopes.)

It seems to me that the in Saadia’s and Rashi’s reading of our verse, the spirituality of Shabbat comes from a sense of being dedicated to our task in the world around us- by observing Shabbat, after the manner of our community, we witness to the world that there is a greater truth than economic activity and material well-being. In this perspective, the crucial observances of Shabbat are the “don’ts” , or negative commandments: don’t work, don’t buy and sell things, etc. In Ibn Ezra’s reading, the spirituality of Shabbat is more in the “do’s”, or positive commandments: do study Torah, do pray with your community, do eat festive meals with loved ones and guests, do take the time to appreciate with wonder the world and people around you. In this way of looking at things, the “don’ts” create the space in which the “do’s” can happen, rather than being ends in themselves.

Ideally, Shabbat, or any other Jewish observance, has both an outer form and an inner experience; sometimes we can’t get to that more “spiritual” or inner quality of the practice until we’ve done it a bit and feel comfortable with it, at which point the relationship between outer forms and inner experience becomes clearer to us. Abraham Joshua Heschel said that a Jew isn’t asked to take a leap of faith, but a leap of action, alluding to the kind of “knowing” that comes after the doing. “Knowing” God can be like knowing a person; one has to take the time and make the space for any intimate relationship to grow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: