by Susan Robertson
This week we read one of the most dramatic parshiot in the Torah.
Ki Tissa (page 523
in Etz Hayim) is packed with action;
it is a story of betrayal and retribution, regret and reconciliation. We have the fashioning of the golden calf and
the smashing of the first tablets. Thanks
to the intervention of Moses, the Israelites avoid total annihilation, but the
Levites slaughter thousands. Many more
fall from the plague. His anger abated,
God agrees to continue the covenant and Moses carves a second set of tablets. No dearth of material here for a d'var.
But we have an additional pleasure this
weekend, a special kiddush
in honour of the engagement of Ali Engel and Joshua Yan. I don't think I'm betraying a confidence in
mentioning that a few weeks back Joel asked if I could find some way to mention
marriage in my d'var. At first glance,
this parsha doesn't seem to have much to do with marriage. We have no coupling, or mention of
couples. Some of the most dramatic
images are of betrayal and death. But
commentators have seen both positive and negative reflections of a marital
relationship in the story. And, after
Joel's request, almost everything I read seemed to speak of union.
We begin with the instructions for the
census. Each Israelite is required to
pay a ransom of one half sheckel. Not a whole, but a half. As Harold Kushner says in his commentary in Etz Hayim, "The half-shekel should
teach us that a person is incomplete, becoming whole only by joining with
others." And what better way to
join than through marriage? Kushner also
notes that the Hebrew word v'natnu, translated in Etz Hayim as "each shall pay,"
is a palindrome — take away the vowel markers and it reads the same backwards
and forwards. The two halves of the word
fold in on themselves, like the giver and receiver, and meet in the middle.
Like the taf in
the middle of v'natnu, this parsha
also stands in the middle. I learned
last week from David Brooks that the last five parshiot
of Sh'mot — T'rumah, T'tzavveh, Ki Tissa,
Vayakhel, and P'kudei —
deal with the building of the Mishkan — the structure we build so God might
dwell among us. What should marriage be,
but another structure we build to allow God to dwell among us? God singles out Betzalel
as the artisan who will fashion the the Mishkan stating, "I have endowed him with a divine
spirit. . ." (31:3) Kushner notes
"To construct most things, one
needs only a set of specific instructions.
But to fashion something holy—something that will move others to
prayer—being able to follow instructions is not enough. A measure of divine inspiration is
required." A good marriage can be
something holy and, in this day and age, perhaps even move others to prayer.
Like Betzalel, in marriage we can not simply follow instructions, we need a bit of divine spirit.
The need for divine spirit is also reflected
in a midrash cited by Kushner: "A Rabbinic legend describes Moses, a
man of advanced age, carrying the heavy stone tablets down the mountainside
with ease. But when he sees the
Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf, the letters fly off the tablets,
which become two large blank stones. At
that point, they become too much for Moses to carry; they fall from his grasp
and break." In any relationship,
the hard work can seem effortless when we bring God to the task and unbearable
when we feel alone. (PdRE 45).
And what of those heavy
There were, after all, two. Rabbi
Howard Cohen, of Congregation Beth El in
Marriage, or relationship, is echoed not
only in the tablets, but in their giving.
Of the line, "When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He
gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets, inscribed with the
finger of God," (31:18) Kushner points out, "The midrash notes the
similarity of the Hebrew for "He finished" (kalloto)
and "his bride" (kallato), suggesting that
when Moses received the Torah he was as joyous as a bridegroom on his wedding
day (Exodus Rabba 41:6). The metaphor of giving the Torah as
solemnizing a marriage between God and the Jewish people, with the Torah
serving as the marriage document (k'tubah), occurs
frequently in the Midrash."
But the k'tubah doesn't survive. Moses shatters it when he discovers the
Israelites dancing round the Golden Calf.
Kushner notes that this episode too, has a correlation in marriage, "
Before those tablets are inscribed and
carved, Moses pleads for greater intimacy with God, "Oh, let me behold
your Presence!" (33:18). God answers, "I will make all my
goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the
grace that I grant and the compassion that I show, But," He said,
"you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live." (33:19-20)
Of this Kushner says, "We encounter the reality of God when we
experience goodness in the world, from the gift of life itself to the discovery
of the capacity to do good in our own souls, and the love and generosity of
people around us whom God has inspired to do good." We encounter the reality of God when we
witness two people dedicating their lives to an enduring union. We need look no further than a marriage lived
lovingly and respectfully, to prove God's words as he renews his covenant with