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Parshah Overview: Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky

  

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The subject matter of parashat Tisa is problematic from several perspectives. The parshah begins with a miscellany of details regarding the priestly service in the Tabernacle:

  1. the half-shekel tax used to finance the communal sacrifices,
  2. the laver, last of the Tabernacle’s vessels,
  3. the special oil used to anoint the vessels and the priests,
  4. the ingredients of the incense,
  5. the appointment of the chief artisans who would fashion the Tabernacle and its accoutrements, and
  6. the commandment not to violate the Sabbath in the course of constructing the Tabernacle.

After this, the Torah leaves the subject of the Tabernacle and resumes the narrative of the Giving of the Torah it left off at the end of parashat Mishpatim. There is a brief description of the first Tablets, and then we are abruptly plunged into the horrifying, grotesque episode of the Golden Calf and its tragic aftermath. This is followed by the reconciliation between G-d and the people negotiated by Moses, which includes some of the most mystical moments in the Torah and culminates in the revelation of G-d’s thirteen attributes of mercy, the renewal of the covenant, and Moses’ final descent from Mount Sinai with the second Tablets.

In addition to these sudden, jolting switches between extreme depravity and sublime transcendence, the whole parashah seems out of place. The first part—the final details of the Tabernacle—would seem to be better placed in Terumah and/or Tetzaveh. The second part—the Golden Calf and its aftermath—seemingly belongs after Yitro and Mishpatim. Moreover, a look ahead reveals that the next two parashiot (Vayakheil and Pekudei), which conclude the Book of Exodus, return once again to the subject of the Tabernacle, describing how it was actually constructed. The story of the Golden Calf is thus plucked out of its rightful place as the segue to the giving of the Torah and instead sandwiched in between the instructions for constructing the Tabernacle and their implementation. Why is this?

A clue to all this may be found in the name of this parashah, Tisa. Literally, these words mean “when you raise up”; the entire phrase is: “when you raise up the heads of the Israelites.” Although the idiomatic meaning of these words is “when you take the census of the Israelites,” the literal meaning implies that the entire contents of the parashah are a process through which the Jewish people become elevated to heights they would not have achieved otherwise. To put it more bluntly: even after the purpose of creation was seemingly consummated by the giving of the Torah (Yitro and Mishpatim) and the institution of the Tabernacle (Terumah and Tetzaveh), there are still higher levels of this goal that remain to be reached.

Perhaps the most difficult question in this parashah is: how could the Jewish people, after having witnessed the power of G-d demonstrated in the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea and after having received the Torah at Mount Sinai a mere forty days before, commit the sin of the Golden Calf? Although there were many mitigating factors that make their apparent sin much less heinous than a cursory reading of the Text of the Torah would imply, the fact still remains that, in the Talmud’s words: “Israel was not capable of committing such an act!” The Talmud’s answer is that “the whole affair was G-d’s decree, in order to set a precedent for the penitent.”1 In other words, G-d maneuvered the Jewish people into this sin in order that they repent for it and come to know the sweetness of reconciliation.

Footnotes

  • 1. Avodah Zarah 4b.

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Torah
Shabbat » Reading of the Torah » Torah Reading

Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Teshuvah
Repentance. Or, more literally, "return" to G-d. Teshuvah involves regretting the past and making a firm resolution not to repeat the offense.
Talmud
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
shekel
(pl. Shekalim) Currency used in ancient Israel. [Modern Israeli currency also carries the same name.]
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Terumah
The tithe given to the priest (descendant of Aaron) from certain crops. The tithe was approximately 2% of the harvest.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.