Ki Tissa: Built by Heart

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa , Shmot/ Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Special Reading: Shabbat Parah

Ki Tissa continues the details of the building of the Mishkan, but then takes a dramatic turn as the Israelites build an idol, a golden calf, and Moshe has to go back up the mountain to plead for the people to be forgiven.

Good afternoon!

Things go a bit wonky for the Israelites in the Torah portion this week: upset by Moshe’s delay in coming down from Mt Sinai, they press Aharon into building an idol, which causes Moshe to smash the tablets of the law and starts a minor civil war.

Countless theories and interpretations have been offered as to why the Israelites built their golden calf, but it strikes me that the Torah itself is quite deliberate in contrasting the details of building the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary, with the building of the golden calf- with one crucially important detail stuck in-between the two narratives.

In the beginning of the portion, we get the laws of the incense for the Mishkan; after the laws of the structure itself and the priestly garments are given in previous portions, this is one of the final details of the project. Then, in chapter 31, we are told that Bezalel, a skilled craftsman, will be in charge of the building of the Miskhan and all its wooden, cloth, metal, and jeweled implements. As I read it, the episode of the golden calf is a kind of inversion or perversion of the idea of the Mishkan; rather than being built and used with great deliberation and discipline, it arises out of mob behavior, a group anxiety which grabs at quick actions rather than thoughtful practices.

Yet right in-between the commission of Bezalel and the mob pressing on Aharon to make them an idol, we have set of verses about Shabbat:

“Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does work on the sabbath day shall surely die. The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time: it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.” (Shmot 31:15-17)

The latter two verses are recited in the synagogue every Friday night, right before the Amidah, and are often sung as a preface to the Shabbat morning kiddush [prayer over wine.]

To me, these verses are a key conceptual link between the story of the Mishkan and the story of the golden calf, because it is Shabbat itself which keeps us from turning that which we build into an idol. Shabbat is about ceasing our building so that we can focus on being. It is about patience, quiet, reflection, community, prayer, reading, and relationships- with each other, the earth, and the Source of our being. Shabbat is a clearing away of the distractions so that the greater unity of life is perceived, which in turn allows for reflection on the labors of the previous six days.

Shabbat is the antidote to idols (though perhaps it can become one itself) because Shabbat reminds us that nothing we build is as important as humility and joy; that is, what is most important to build is not built by hand but by heart. True service in a sanctuary is not defined by the gold or silver used to build it, but by the hearts of those who draw close to God within it.

Shabbat Shalom,


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