Parshat Ki Tisa-Parah

Summary: Parshat Ki Tisa is the 9th in the Book of Exodus comprising Chapters 30:11-34:35. The first part contains descriptions of the Mahatsit HaShekel (the silver half-coin for taking a census) and the command to construct a washing laver placed between the outside of the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) and the Sacrificial Altar.

It includes the formula for sacred anointing oil and incense, the appointment of Betsalel from Judah and Aholiav from Dan, as chief and assistant architect, and the command to consecrate Shabbat – part of which is recited each week in the morning Kiddush.

The remainder of Ki Tisa addresses the calamity of the Golden Calf and Moshe’s desperate but brilliant efforts to come to Bnei Yisrael’s rescue. Achieving a stay of execution, Moshe descended the mountain, smashed the Luhot, destroyed the Calf, punished the perpetrators and went back to further beg G-d’s forgiveness, threatening to remove himself from the Torah unless G-d relented.

Told to carve out a second set of tablets, Moshe ascended Sinai the next morning and was met again by a cloud, from where he heard a description of G-d’s majesty known as the 13 attributes. His face illuminated by the Divine encounter, Moshe employed the use of a veil, taking it off when speaking with G-d and the Jewish people, returning it during the interim periods.

The special maftir this week is from Numbers 19:1-22, a section describing the purification ritual of the Red Heifer. It reminds us there is less than a month until Pesah.

(Please look here for an Aliyah-by-Aliyah summary.)

Comment: The ‘Why’ of Forgiveness – La’mah vs Ma’du’ah

Parshat Ki Tisa begins cheerily enough until we reach the section of the Golden Calf. When we look more closely at the chronology, the Sinai narrative interrupted at end of Chapter 24, picks up again in Exodus 31:18 with G-d giving Moshe two testimonial Stone Tablets (Shnei Luhot) at the end of their 40 days and 40 nights together atop the mountain.

Down below, those who feared Moshe’s delayed-return clamoured for a new leader to take them through the desert. So they turned to Aharon and pressured him to make the molten calf which became an object of their worship.

In anger the Almighty told Moshe, descend for ‘your’ people have become corrupted and will be annihilated. But Moshe deflected G-d’s anger by questioning its futility. ‘What would the Egyptians say about G-d were the Jewish people wiped out’? ‘How would Your promise to the Patriarchs, to give their descendants the Land of Canaan, be fulfilled if Bnei Yisrael were wiped-out?’

One insightful textual observation looks at Moshe’s use of the word La’mah (why) instead of Ma’du’ah (why) in challenging G-d’s accusation against Bnei Yisrael. ‘Why does G-d grow angry with Your people whom You took out of Egypt with great effort and a strong arm.’ (Exodus 32:11)

Rabbi David Fohrman points out that La’mah is a question anticipating the future while Ma’du’ah is rooted in the past. Moshe attempted to calm the Divine anger by anticipating the consequences of G-d’s proposed punishment – and he found no benefit on two counts.

First, after all the miracles and wonders, and the effort to overturn Egypt’s corrupted culture, not to take Bnei Yisrael forward would undermine G-d’s omnipotence. And, to destroy Bnei Yisrael would contradict the thousands-of-years-old promise made to the Patriarchs. With sophistry, Moshe contained the Almighty’s wrath, preventing disaster.

Moshe’s prayers on behalf of Bnei Yisrael brought G-d’s forgiveness and lead to a new covenant. This was a bold strategy that paid-off as a lesson for future generations seeking G-d’s forgiveness. Ki Tisa teaches us that just as we must contemplate the consequences of our actions before sinning, we also have to ‘think forward’ to achieve forgiveness.

Not surprising, this portion of Ki Tisa is read on Public Fast days. It’s also read on Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah and Sukkot.