Ki Tissa

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'motT'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 tablets?  There were, after all, two.  Rabbi Howard Cohen, of Congregation Beth El in Bennington, Vermont, notes, "In Tanhuma, an ancient commentary, the two tablets are said to 'correspond to heaven and earth, to groom and bride and to this world and the world to come'. In each of these pairs the 'opposite' exists only in relationship with its partner. . .  Thus, the two tablets symbolically represent that for life to have meaning it must, necessarily, be lived in relationship."  And, it would seem, an equal one at that.  In his Torah commentary Plaut cites the midrash (28) which states the word for tablets, luchot (Exodus 31:18), is written without a vav, like the formal singular luchat.  "The two tables were like one: they were equal in size."  We've moved from the incomplete whole of the half shekel to the wedded twin tablets. 


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,  "Israel's disobedience being like marital infidelity rather than simply the breaking of a law."  But the covenant is bruised, not broken.  Moses pleads for the Israelites and God relents, but not before offering some very pragmatic advice on how to deal with extreme anger toward your partner, "But I will not go in your midst . . . lest I destroy you on the way."  (33:3)  Sometimes, we all need time to cool off.   When God renews the covenant, Moses is no longer merely a recipient, he is an active partner.  The first tablets were fashioned by God.  The new k'tubah, the one that endures, is carved by Moses and inscribed by God.


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 Israel:  "I hereby make a covenant.  Before all your people I will work such wonders as have not been wrought on all the earth or in any nation; and all the people who are with you shall see how awesome are the Lord's deeds which I will perform for you."  34: 10