Archive for Ki Tissa

Ki Tissa: Show Me Your Presence

Copyright 2017 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

And he said: “Show me, now, Your glory!” The Holy One replied: “I will let all My goodness pass before you; I will proclaim the Divine Name before you . . . . (Shemot/Exodus 33:18-19)

Good morning! Good to be back. So much going on in this week’s Torah portion, most famously the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets, but also Moshe’s plea, after the post-Calf reckoning, on behalf of the Israelites and himself. Moshe asks God not to destroy the Israelites, reasoning that it would be bad PR to destroy a people that God had just liberated from slavery.

As for himself, Moshe to see God’s “glory,” or kavod, which usually means something like direct or revealed presence. The response, quoted above, is interesting: God says, I will pass my goodness, tuvi, before you, not kavod, glory or immanent presence. Perhaps Moshe was caught up in the same need for some sort of defined external experience or perception of the Holy that caused the people to build the Calf, and God instead redirected him to experience the Holy in internal moral and spiritual qualities. In other words- you need not look for the Holy out there when you can experience the Holy in good and giving relationship.

If that were all these verse taught- dayenu, it would be enough! Yet as usual, our friend Rashi brings a deeper dimension to God’s reply to Moshe’s request. You can find the full translation here, but the basic idea is that God wanted to teach Moshe the order of prayer, which began with Moshe’s invocation of the merit of the ancestors but needed to include the qualities of Divine goodness and mercy, which God proclaimed while Moshe was hidden in the rock. (These are prominently quoted in our prayers on the Days of Awe.) Rashi says that Moshe thought that the “merit of the ancestors,” or zechut avot, was depleted or finished, and therefore there was no more hope, so God revealed Divine goodness and mercy, which doesn’t depend on the merit of our matriarchs and patriarchs.

On the one hand, this is a midrash, or interpretation, which explains the one of our central prayers: you may remember that the Amidah, or standing prayer, begins with calling out to God as the God of our ancestors Avraham, Yitzhak and Yaakov- and in my versions our matriarchs Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah as well- and has a central section, during the week, asking for goodness and various forms of blessing. The idea is Moshe thought that the merit of our ancestors wasn’t enough, so God showed Moshe that there is Divine goodness which doesn’t depend on it. Therefore, our prayers begin with zechut avot, but don’t end there.

On a deeper level, I think Rashi’s comment speaks directly to our greater Jewish experience in the modern world. How many of us do Jewish because it was something our parents or grandparents did, as a way of honoring them and furthering their legacy? How much of contemporary Judaism is taught as a historical practice which obligates merely out of accumulated precedent? Moshe suspected, and in Rashi’s reading, God confirmed- that’s not enough. We also need the experience of the Holy in our own lives, not just in the memory of the lives of those who came before.

Many of us have ancestors who lived extraordinary Jewish lives of courage, devotion and sacrifice- but it may not be enough to sustain a life’s journey. Like Moshe, who suspected that the merit of the ancestors was exhausted, to truly revitalize ourselves and our communities we each have to find and feel the Divine Presence for ourselves, in our lives and our loves and our deeds and our doing, if we’re going to make it on the long journey forward.

Shabbat Shalom,



The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Ki Tissa: Moments of Decision

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa
Then fire from the Lord descended and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the earth; and it licked up the water that was in the trench. When they saw this, all the people flung themselves on their faces and cried out: “The Lord alone is God, The Lord alone is God!” (1 Kings 18:38-39)
Good morning! 
I hope them’s that celebrated Purim this week had a happy and healthy holiday. 

We’re back to our weekly Torah reading and reaching one of the most dramatic moments of the entire Torah: the episode of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s subsequent encounter with the Divine Presence while stationed in the rock on the mountain. (You can see a summary of these events here.) In the haftarah, or prophetic reading, there is also an powerful theophany* narrative, this time orchestrated by the prophet Eliyahu (aka Elijah), in which the people are asked to choose between worship of the God of Israel and worship of the deity Ba’al. To demonstrate to the people that Ba’al is an empty idol, Eliyahu sets up a contest in which the God of Israel brings fire from heaven to burn his offering, while the offering of Ba’al is untouched despite the great efforts of Ba’al prophets. 
At that moment- when the people see the fire from heaven- they “fall on their faces and say, the Lord alone is God,” or, as you might have heard before, Adonai, hu ha’Elohim. That phrase becomes part of at least two important Jewish liturgical moments: the end of Yom Kippur, and the end of life, as part of the deathbed vidui, or confession. (You can see variations on this text here. Not every version includes this phrase, but most I’ve seen do.)
Now, what links these three things- a dramatic story of faith renewed on Mount Carmel, the conclusion of Yom Kippur, and the final moments of life itself? Perhaps this phrase- Adonai, hu ha’Elohim, or literally Adonai is the God or Deity- is meant to evoke the urgency of making spiritual choices. The story in Kings has Eliyahu urging the people to choose the God of Israel rather than a foreign god, and that text itself is linked thematically to the Torah portion, in which the people choose idolatry mere weeks after leaving Egypt. 
In our lives, we rarely have those kinds of fire-from-heaven moments, but we do have to make choices and commitments. (As Bob Dylan famously said, you gotta serve somebody.) At the end of Yom Kippur, after 25 hours of fasting and a day-long marathon of prayer and confession, this phrase suggests: you’re ready to make a real choice for the coming year. You can choose empty things, or Godly things. You can choose your higher nature, aligned with your Source, or you can choose business as usual. 
That choice becomes even starker at the deathbed. The dying one has so little time to choose anything but the most real and essential things, and for the families and loved ones, death is a stark reminder that the hours of our lives are finite, and may someday be reviewed with either regret or satisfaction. Adonai, hu ha’Elohim means; don’t make anything but God- the most real of all realities, the deepest Source, the truest truth- your god, or that which you serve. 
It is not likely that fire will pour down from heaven today in my vicinity (but if it did, it would sure help clear ice off the driveway.) It is inevitable, however, that I, along with everyone reading this, is given a choice about how to orient our precious, holy, and finite time and energy, which is another way of saying life itself. Judaism reminds us to choose wisely, before time runs out for choosing. 
Shabbat Shalom, 
*a ten-dollar word that means palpable revelation of God’s Presence.)
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Ki Tissa: Just Wait

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa/ Shabbat Parah 
“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.’ “ (Shemot/ Exodus 32:1)
Good afternoon! The story of the Golden Calf is so strange: only a few weeks before, the people had seen the amazing revelation at Sinai, and just a short time before that, they had experience the miracles of the Exodus. Why on earth would they build an idol while waiting for Moshe? 
Many Torah commentators ask just that question, and one answer is: the Israelites were confused about where Moshe was and why he was late. If you go back to the end of chapter 24, we find that Moshe went back up Mount Sinai to receive the tablets and the law; before he goes up, he tells the elders to wait for him, putting Aharon and Hur in charge. Chapter 24:18 says that Moshe went up for “forty days and forty nights;” this is taught again in Deuteronomy 9:9, with the added detail that he was fasting the whole time. (!)
Now we can get to the misunderstanding that the ancient rabbis say caused the building of the Golden Calf: according to Rashi and others, Moshe told the people that he’d be back in 40 days, and they assumed that the day he left was day one of the counting. Yet from the verses above, which say he was gone “40 days and nights,” the rabbis learn that Moshe meant complete days, including the night, so the day he left was not the first day of the counting. (We discussed another midrash last year related to Moshe’s delay.)
Well, fine, that explains why they thought he was delayed- because they expected him on the wrong day- but it doesn’t explain why they would build an idol in response to his absence. Perhaps we should have more compassion on the Israelites; yes, they had just experienced Sinai but they were still only a few months away from being uprooted from the life (albeit a miserable one) they had known for centuries. In just a few months time they had experienced the plagues, the Exodus, the crossing of the sea, the manna, the miracles of water and the giving of the law- so much in so short a time might leave anybody shaken and confused and needing time to process and fully integrate their experiences. 
So perhaps it’s not so surprising that a delay in Moshe’s reappearance caused such a drastic reaction; could we really expect the Israelites to understand that they would be fine in the wilderness without him? With so much change associated with one man, it’s not hard to believe that the slightest indication of his absence would provoke huge anxiety; we must remember that the Golden Calf was probably a substitute for Moshe, whom the people may have understood as a divine being, rather than an idol of another god. They may have been worried that he abandoned them or died on the mountain, and panicked at the thought of being leaderless in the wilderness. 
What do we learn from this reading of the story? First: how many terrible problems have arisen from misunderstandings! It’s funny to think, but according to this understanding, if the people had only asked “hey, Moshe, are you coming back on the 40th day or after 40 days?” the great sin of that generation might not have happened! 
We also learn that sometimes at the moments of greatest anxiety the best course of action is simply to wait, to become mindful and calm ourselves. If the Israelites had simply waited one more day (or according to other understandings, as per last year’s discussion, even just one more hour), it would have all been fine. That, to me, is the challenge of this story: a reminder that impatience can be our undoing. I have made so many mistakes because I acted too quickly, without reflection, without judgment, without discernment, without faith in others or myself. It is not surprising that the anxious Israelites would rush to make an idol to replace Moshe. Perhaps with patience, pausing and openness, we might avoid similar mistakes. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Ki Tisa: Idolatry from Forgetting

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa 

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.’ ” (Shmot/ Exodus 32:1) 


I hope those who just celebrated Purim had a most happy one! Sorry about the lapse in parsha output last week; things got away from me but we’re back on track. This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, is one of the dramatic highlights of the entire Torah: after laws concerning the vessels of the Mishkan and the commission of Betzalel to be its chief craftsman, everything goes kablooey. (This is the technical theological term.) 

As per the verse above, the people are worried about Moshe not returning from the mountain where he is receiving the laws of the Torah, and in their confusion and anxiety, they press Aharon to make a golden calf as their leader or idol- not a good idea. Moshe returns and the idolatry and its repercussions tear the people apart; the God almost rejects Israel after they build the idol. Moshe intercedes on their behalf, but the episode leaves him so weary and discouraged that he needs his own powerful spiritual reorientation. 

What could cause the people to build the golden calf a mere 40 days after Sinai- which, after all, was only a few months after the Exodus from Egypt, with its signs, wonders, plagues and the splitting of the sea? How is it possible that the people’s faith lasted only five weeks after such amazing experiences? 

The ancient rabbis offer a midrash which complicates matters even further: 

when the people saw that Moshe was so long in coming. . . don’t read this word as boshesh [late] but “bo shesh” [the sixth has come]. When Moshe ascended [to the mountain], he said to Israel: ‘At the end of forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour, I shall return.’ At the end of forty days, Satan came and confused them, saying: ‘Where is Moshe? . . . the sixth hour has come and he has not returned!’ ” (Talmud Shabbat, 89a, quoted in Torah Temimah.

Let’s unpack this. The rabbis are suggesting that the anxiety and confusion which led the people to act in such a desperate way was not after days or weeks without their leader- but after “the sixth hour has come,” when Moshe has been delayed only an hour, maybe less. Granted, they’ve been 40 days without the faithful guide who brought them out of slavery, but still, after all the miracles of the previous few months, you’d think they would have enough trust to wait an hour before their anxiety overwhelmed them. 

The story of the golden calf is often understood as a parable of good versus evil, with villains among the people just waiting for the chance to turn them towards idolatry. Yet the rabbis seem to reject harsh judgment of the Israelites by giving us this midrash, with its image of idolatry arising not out of wickedness, or heresy, or spite, but out of confusion, anxiety, despair, and fragility, all of which are universal human experiences. This is the symbol of Satan, who is not some character “out there” but is that part of each heart and soul which trips us up and brings us short of the mark. The people may have seen miracles, but they had been slaves for years – who can blame them for wanting the security of clear leadership? That they turned towards idolatry after Moshe was delayed only an hour suggests that the rabbis understood how close we all are to turning away from our values when we feel threatened, frightened, or without hope. 

In these uncertain times, with the weak economy, when environmental and political issues loom large, as conflict between neighbors and nations seems just around the corner, we need to remember how easy it is to forget the important things. A society can turn towards idolatry- or demagoguery, or ethnic hatred, or violence, all forms of idolatry in themselves- quicker than we care to imagine. The lesson of the golden calf is not about Moshe being late one hour or one day; it’s about how easy it is to leave our best selves behind when negative emotions cloud our values and vision. The golden calf warns us: be calm, stay true, see clearly, for fear itself is a danger. 

Shabbat Shalom, 


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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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Ki Tissa: Foundations and Walls

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tissa

Regardless of the local weather, all over the world this week’s Torah
portion is Ki Tissa, which contains the story of the Golden Calf and
many subsequent injunctions against idolatry in all its forms-
including even having treaties with the “idolatrous” nations that
Israel will encounter when it gets to the Promised Land:

“Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against
which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst. . . ”
(Shmot/Exodus 34:12)

Based on this passage- which, depending on how you read it, goes up
till verse 15 or so- the ancient rabbis banned certain kinds of
commerce with non-Jews, with the reasoning being that:

1) some of what might be purchased could have been intended for
idolatrous sacrifices, and

2) if Israelites ate and drank the foods of the local “idolaters,” it
could lead to such social friendliness that intermarriage and a
weakening of loyalty to the God of Israel would result.

Among the items produced by non-Jews which were banned by the ancient
rabbis was wine, which they understood to be often used in offerings
and sacrifices to pagan deities. This led them to prohibit “yayin
neshech,” or “wine of libation,” very strictly- that is, any wine
which could possibly have been produced with religious rites in mind.

Going a step further, a more general (and slightly less strict)
prohibition was put on “stam yaynam,” that is, “regular wine” made
outside the Jewish community. Wine that is “mevushal,” which means
cooked or boiled, was considered unfit for ritual use, and is thus
permitted in some situations where other wines would be prohibited.
For example, many strictly observant Jews will not drink wine that has
been sold or even handled by non-Jews, but in some cases if the wine
is “mevushal” it can be bought in an ordinary liquor store or

Thus we get from a verse in this week’s Torah portion which seems to
prohibit making treaties with surrounding nations to that square
bottle of sweet Manischewitz “wine” (Chianti Classico it’s not) which
you may have encountered at a synagogue, Shabbat table or Passover
seder. (I should note here that I’m following Sefer HaHinnuch, a
medieval textbook on the commandments, which does however point out
that some major scholars see the prohibition on the wine of non-Jews
coming out of a verse in Deuteronomy.)

So far, so good- except for the fact that in this instance, the social
context of the halacha makes all the difference in the world. (Once
again, I think I just summed up Conservative Judaism.) Reasonable
people can and do differ on how best to strengthen the Jewish
community, but I personally cannot believe that regarding our
neighbors as “idolaters” is the best way to do so. We live in a world
where the Jewish community stands in religious solidarity with
Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and other people of good faith
in coalitions which support social justice and a compassionate
society- can we really lobby, march, or pray with our neighbors one
day and the next day think that drinking their wine will fatally
weaken our Judaism?

Thus, the Conservative Movement has embraced the possibility of a more
lenient stance on the kosher status of wine (while at the same time
pointing out that some wines, especially European ones, can be “fined”
with animal or dairy ingredients, which is a totally different problem
in keeping kosher.) Our teacher Rabbi Elliott Dorff has argued that
the prohibition on “stam yaynam” could be discontinued in a
pluralistic society where most wine is made by large corporations,
unconnected to any religious practice or community at all. I certainly
agree with R. Dorff’s perspective (which is more nuanced than I can
describe in a few words) and I might go even further to say that
traditional practices which depend on a suspicious view of our
neighbors demand moral scrutiny as a general principle.

To put it another way, there are very good reasons to keep kosher, but
a fear that in purchasing wine, one is being tempted to idolatry, or
supporting it in some way, is not, to me, one of them. It is certainly
a great idea to buy Israeli wines to show connection to and support of
Israel, but that is a positive perspective, not one based on fear or

Rejecting idolatry isn’t only about looking at what’s out there in the
world; it’s also about looking within, and uprooting from within
traditional teachings any residual xenophobia from earlier periods of
Jewish history. I believe the prohibition on the wine of non-Jews
falls in that category, and I encourage those reading this to study
the issue further. Conservative Judaism has always seen traditional
practices in the light of evolving knowledge and social perspectives-
let’s drink to that!

Shabbat Shalom,


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Ki Tisa: Seeking Together

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa

Post-Purim L’chaims to one and all!

OK, we’re back to more serious Torah study this week,
with Parshat Ki Tisa, which is the building of the
Mishkan, the Golden Calf, and Moshe’s treks up and
down Mt. Sinai. After Moshe breaks the first tablets,
he goes back up the mountain, talks with The Boss
again, and come down radiant from the experience. He
then teaches Torah to the Israelites, as we learn in
chapter 34:

” When Aharon and all the Israelites saw Moshe, and
beheld that the skin of his face had become radiant,
they were afraid to come close to him. Moshe called to
them and they returned to him— Aharon and all the
leaders of the congregation— and Moshe spoke to
them. After that, all the Israelites came close [to
him] and he commanded them [regarding] all that God
had spoken with him on Mount Sinai.” (Shmot/ Exodus

In Rashi’s commentary, an implicit question is: why
mention Aharon and all the leaders and then mention
that Moshe taught the Torah to the rest of the
Israelites? Couldn’t Moshe just teach Torah to
everybody all at once?

As usual, Rashi finds a minor stylistic point in the
text and turns it into a profound moral lesson by
bringing an imaginative midrash from the Talmud. In
this midrash, these verses teach that Moshe taught the
Torah to Aharon first, then his sons, then the elders,
and then the community, as follows:

“After he taught the elders he would again teach that
section or that law to all Yisrael. The Sages have
taught: What was the order of the teaching of the
Torah? Moshe would learn from the Almighty. Then
Aharon would enter and Moshe would teach him his
chapter. Aharon moved away and sat on Moshe’s left.
Whereupon his (Aharon’s) sons would enter and Moshe
would teach them their chapter. They then moved away
and Elazar sat on Moshe’s right and Itamar on Aharon’s
left. Whereupon the elders would enter and Moshe would
teach them their chapter. The elders moved away and
sat on the sides. Whereupon the entire people would
enter and Moshe taught them their chapter.
Consequently the lesson came into the possession of
the people once; into the possession of the elders,
twice; into the possession of Aharon’s sons, three
times; and into the hands of Aharon, four times.”

I love this midrash because it turns our stereotypes
of learning and leadership on their heads- maybe you’d
think that the “big shots” only had to learn the Torah
lesson once, or they could learn in private sessions,
but no, the biggest “macher” of them all, Aharon (the
High Priest) had to learn the same lesson four times.
Perhaps the idea is that the High Priest or the elders
get the must lesson exactly right (hence, the
repetition), but I also think this midrash is about
humility and being a role model. After all, when the
people came into get the teaching on the fourth time
around, they’d see all the assembled leaders already
learning- and even the High Priest could not be too
proud to be seen learning in front of his sons and the
other leaders and people.

I’m a rabbi, and my job is to inspire people to learn
Torah- therefore, I have to show that I’m a Torah
learner, too. The same thing goes for other Jewish
professionals, not to mention synagogue leaders,
parents and anybody else concerned about the spiritual
vitality of Jewish life. If we want people to learn,
then, like Aharon, we have to learn with them, side by
side, not just as role models, but as fellow seekers
of spiritual truth. Torah is best studied in community
because it is the inheritance of every Jew, and every
Jew has the right and responsibility to bring the
insights of his or her experience and life and soul to
the ongoing conversation, which is then infinitely
richer as a result.

Maybe that’s the real point of this midrash- that even
Moshe and Aharon studying Torah together is somehow
incomplete without the insights of all the people.
Moshe might have been radiant with the light of God,
but Torah is what brings the Jewish people together,
and gives us our purpose and our direction as a source
of light unto each other and the entire world.

Shabbat Shalom,


A summary and futher commentary can be found here:

and of course, the text itself is here:

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Ki Tisa: What We Do is What We Can Become

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tisa

The Torah portion Ki Tisa begins with further instructions for the maintenance
and ritual of the Mikdash, or portable Sanctuary. This theme is interrupted by
the story of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s reaction to it. After Moshe punishes
the people who built the golden idol, he goes back up the mountain and
pleads for a vision of God’s Presence, and has a powerful spiritual
experience of God’s merciful nature.

The story of the Golden Calf is endlessly instructive, but many, if not most,
interpretations focus on the social, spiritual, or psychological dynamics which
led to its creation. Less attention is paid to the aftermath, but here too there
is much to consider: after Moshe comes down the mountain to find the people
dancing around the idol of gold, he takes the Calf, burns it, grinds the ashes,
puts the ashes in water, and makes the people drink the mixture. (Cf. Shmot/
Exodus 32:20)

Our teacher Rashi, along with many other commentators, compares Moshe’s
actions to the “sotah,” or test of a woman suspected of adultery, which also
involved drinking “bitter waters.” (Cf. Bamidbar/ Numbers 5:11-31). In this
interpretation, God is like a loyal husband who find out that his wife (in this
case, the people Israel) has betrayed his trust (because they have given their
loyalty to the idol.) It is a plausible comparison, since the action of giving
an unfaithful people a bitter mixture to drink is so extraordinary and has clear
similarities to the ritual described in Numbers.

However, one can also ask a different question: if the Golden Calf, and the
idolatry it represents, was such a bad thing, why didn’t Moshe get rid of every
trace of it, purifying the camp of its noxious presence? A possible answer
comes from thinking about the act of consumption as a physical process:
whatever you eat or drink is quite literally taken into you, becomes part of
you, down to the molecular level. Moshe may not have understood what a
molecule was, but when he made the people drink the ashes of the Golden
Calf, I think he was showing them, in the most palpable, dramatic way
possible, that this breach of covenant will stay part of them – should, in fact,
stay part of them- for a lifetime.

We all carry our histories with us, and in this case, whatever it was that
caused the people to sin by making the Calf is now something they mustn’t
forget. The people have to ingest the lesson – both literally and symbolically-
that a covenantal relationship is a fragile thing, easily ruptured by
temptations, anxiety, fear, self-centeredness, or ego. By making them drink the ashes of
the Golden Calf, Moshe teaches the people a basic human truth: spiritual
growth necessarily involves “taking in” our experiences, carrying them with
us, reflecting on them, and using them to become conscious of the emotions
or inner needs that may lead to doing things which seem out of character, if
not self-destructive.

I take it for granted that most people are good, but everybody does things
they’re not proud of. A plausible religion therefore offers a framework for
struggling with and becoming aware of those inner forces which lead us to do
things which fall short of our ideals – like building a Golden Calf, or putting
any material object or human creation or ideology above the highest spiritual
values. The Torah doesn’t pretend that life can be lived without error or
imperfection, but offers a model of redeeming those errors for the good. Thus,
to me, this act of drinking the ashes of the Golden Calf is not a punishment,
but something which can turn the sin into its opposite: greater consciousness
and self-awareness, without which we cannot effectively be of service to
ourselves, God, and others.

PS- My interpretation of the act of drinking the ashes is partially based on an
idea found in Aaron Wildavsky’s book “The Nursing Father,” which is a study
of Moshe as a political leader. I haven’t read the book in its entirety, but
I’ve perused it enough to put it on my “must-finish” list.

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Ki Tissa 5761

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 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)


Parshat Ki Tisa 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. After that, God reminds Moshe to tell the people about the holiness and importance of Shabbat.

The most famous part of our Parsha 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 become angry with the people, and although Moshe rebukes them harshly, he also prays on their behalf. Finally, Moshe goes up the mountain again and beseeches God to reaffirm the Covenant; Moshe also wants 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.


“Do not make for yourself any molten gods.” (Exodus 34:17)


After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe goes back up the mountain to plead with God, Who reveals attributes of mercy and forgiveness along with strict justice. However, Israel must obey the terms of the covenant, which include keeping the holy days and a stringent prohibition on anything resembling the worship of other deities. After the Israelites build the idol of gold, God reminds them in no uncertain terms that they must not make physical representations of Divinity.


In its context, our verse makes perfect sense: God is irate about the Golden Calf, and warns the Israelites not to try it again. However, as we’ve noted before in this [cyber]-space, building statues of the sea-deity isn’t on most people’s agendas these days. Thus the famous Hassidic rabbi Menahem Mendel from Kotzk, also known as the Kotzker, used this verse to point out that creating a limiting representation of the Source of All doesn’t necessarily mean building something physical:

    “Do not make for yourself any molten gods” – do not make for yourself a god that is fixed in form [i.e., “molten” into one form], with unchanging routines. (Source: Itturei Torah, translation mine.)

I suspect that the Kotzker is making a pointed comment about the religious life of his day, but his insight continues to be relevant. Our experience of spirituality and religion must grow and change over time- if we have the same conception of God at 50 that we did at 15, then we’ve missed something important. Thus the traditional commentaries insist that the commandment of Torah study lasts until one’s dying day- perhaps not only because the way one understands Torah will change as we age, but the way we view our lives and world can change if we never stop viewing it through the prism of sacred texts.

The Torah itself hints at this flowing and dynamic model of spirituality, just a few verses before, by enumerating 13 different “attributes” of the Holy One (verses. 6-7) when Moshe asks to see God’s “face.” Moshe may have wanted the same thing that the Israelites did when they made the Calf: a palpable, visible, imaginable, conceivable Deity. To me, the great genius of Judaism is its insistence that we never stop striving for holiness and spiritual growth- there’s no way to “grasp” the God of Israel entirely, no ending point in out quest for insight. God is not limited by denominational ideologies (though they are valuable learning tools), political inclinations, or intellectual paradigms- rather, authentic spirituality breaks through our easy answers and forces us to admit that there is learning yet to do.

A famous pop psychology book from the early 80’s put captured this insight into its title: “If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!” I’m no expert on Buddhism, but I understand this to mean that as soon as you think you’ve found the endpoint, “met the Buddha,” you’re in trouble. If I were writing a similar book, I’d take my title from the Kotzker’s understanding of this verse: “If Your God is Routine and Comfortable, You’ve Made a Molten Idol!” It probably wouldn’t be a bestseller, but it might impart an important truth about the hard work of Jewish growth.

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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.

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