Weekly Torah Commentary — Ki Tisa February 28, 2013

This week’s Torah portion – Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35) raises some very interesting concepts.

In ancient times, there were two basic forms of writing: ink on parchment or engraving on stones.
They represent two distinct approaches to preserving information. In the first case, ink on parchment, the words were superimposed on parchment. The ink used and the parchment are two separate and distinct objects. Words written in ink – even today – can be rubbed away or can fade away. This form of writing has a temporary quality about it.

By contrast, when archeologists in Israel today uncover, as they often do, artifacts from very ancient times, frequently we find sections of stone that have words, even long phrases, etched or engraved right into the stone. These words have lasted for centuries and convey a sense of permanence.

In this week’s Torah reading, the former Hebrew slaves have arrived at Mt. Sinai. Moses is called to the top of the mountain and once there, receives from Hashem Himself the two tablets on which G-d Himself has engraved the Torah both on the front and the back of the tablets. Shortly thereafter, Moses descends the mountain, sees that the children of Israel have fallen into idolatry and smashes the tablets which Hashem had given him.

After dealing with the issue of the golden calf and interceding with G-d for mercy for the people, Moses is called to the mountain a second time but with a new set of instructions. He is told to “carve for yourself two tablets of stone…” Moses does so and returns to the mountain where Hashem
does two things. First He reveals to Moses the thirteen attributes of His mercy, indicating His forgiveness of the people’s sin; then He writes the Torah again on the tablets which Moses had fashioned. These tablets would later be placed in the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle and would be preserved for generations.

This time when Moses descends from the mountain, we read this curious description: “When Moses descended from Mount Sinai – with the Two Tablets of the Testimony in the hand of Moses as he descended from the mountain – Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant when He had spoken to him. Aaron and all the Children of Israel saw Moses and behold! – the skin of his face had become radiant; and they feared to approach him.” 34:29-30

Two questions arise:
1) How can it be that the first Tablets that were totally and uniquely the work of G-d’s hands were destroyed? Surely they were the ‘holier’ of the two sets of Tablets?

2) Why did the face of Moses shine so radiantly when he descended with the second tablets, rather than with the first, made by G-d?

These questions address a fundamental principle of Jewish spirituality.

Think back with me to what happened three months earlier. The Hebrew slaves were delivered from Egypt after a series of amazing miracles. They followed Moses into the wilderness and after arriving at the shore of the Red Sea, were confronted with the apparent possibility of extinction. The Egyptian army was rushing toward them to return them to slavery.

At that time, what did Hashem say? “Stand still and see. I will fight for you…” Hashem caused the pillar of cloud to move to the back of the camp, between them and the Egyptians. He opened the sea for them to walk through, then caused it to come crashing down on the Egyptians when they pursued the Israelites. He did it all – He delivered them utterly and completely. Yet a few short days later, we find them complaining that they have no food and no water.

Shortly thereafter, the newly liberated Israelites encountered the Amalakites. This time, Moses commands Joshua, “Choose men and go fight…” They did and Israel was victorious. Notably, after that, we do not find the Israelites complaining about facing their enemies for years to come.

So what is the principle? Battles that are fought FOR us change circumstances; battles in which WE participate change us!

Hashem created Judaism on the fundamental principle of co-operation. He wants us to collaborate WITH Him. We read many times in the Torah, “If you will….then I will…” He made us in His image and likeness; He is the Creator; He has also endowed us with a measure of creativity and He expects us to use it in collaboration with Him to bring about a better world.

In Tune with Torah this week = renewing our sense of partnership with Hashem for the good of all His creation.

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