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Dan Has Questions About Anger, Forgiveness, Compassion -- And A Golden Calf: Parshat Ki Tisa

03/09/2023 11:33:53 AM


Dan Leemon

In last week’s Parshah, we learned about the building of the portable synagogue, the Mishkan, that God has commanded that the people build and transport through the desert.  Ki Tisa means “when you take” — God tells Moshe to take a count of all the people over age 20, and, when they are counted, to collect half a shekel from each.  In ancient times, a shekel was a unit of weight of gold or silver, and is the name of Israel’s currency (currently one shekel is worth about 31 US cents).   The shekels Moshe collects are to be “an offering for God”, used to pay for the work of the Mishkan, and a sign of atonement.  God very specifically says that everyone should give half a shekel, whether rich or poor.

-    Why do you think God wants everyone to contribute to the Mishkan?
-    And why do you think God specifically wants everyone to contribute equally?

God then spells out more specific instructions about the Mishkan — that the priests must wash their hands and feet when they enter, that a special fragrant oil be made and used on parts of the Mishkan to make them holy.   God then identifies several people who have the specific skills needed to make parts of the Mishkan, such as the Menorah, the altar, the washbasin, the table, the holy garments for Aaron and the other priests. 

-    If you had been there, what special skills might you have contributed to the Mishkan project (remember all the work required — raising money, organizing the workers, contributing materials, supervising, crafting the particular components, assembling everything, etc., etc., etc.)?

God then reminds us of the importance of Shabbat — that we should rest on the seventh day, just as we are told God rested after creating the world.  God says this is part of the everlasting covenant between us and God.

-    Why do you think God reminds everyone of this at this particular point in the Torah (as part of the instructions for building the Mishkan)?
-    Why is Shabbat such an important part of our relationship with God and our Jewish history and mitzvot?
-    What does a “day of rest” mean to you — what do you like to have a rest from (or what would you like to have a rest from)?

God then sends Moshe back down Mt. Sinai with two stone tablets on which God has carved what God has told Moshe.  Moshe has been gone for 40 days.  

-    What do you think the people have been doing while they’ve been waiting for Moshe?  How do you think they are feeling with their leader absent for so long?

The people are afraid that Moshe will never return.  Once again, this causes them to question whether God really exists and will take care of them.

-    Even after witnessing the 10 Plagues (and having been protected from them!), the parting of the Red Sea, the appearance of water and food in the middle of the desert…even after hearing God’s voice speak the 10 Commandments from Mt. Sinai and replying “all that you say we will do”, why are the people so quick to decide that God and Moshe have abandoned them?

The people go to Aaron and ask him to make gods that will go with them on their journey (in direct violation of the commandment to have no other gods or make images of gods).  Aaron collects all of their gold earrings and makes a statue of a calf.  The people say “these are the gods that brought us out of Egypt”.  Aaron then builds an altar in front of the calf, and declares a festival, and the people bring offerings and celebrate.

-    Why do you think Aaron is doing this?  Does he also think Moshe is not coming back and that God has abandoned them?

Moshe is still up on Mt. Sinai while this is happening, and God tells him about it.  And God tells Moshe that God has become very angry, and will annihilate the people and make a great nation of Moshe (essentially, after all the years since Abraham, God is deciding that choosing the Jews as God’s people was the wrong decision, so God wants to start over).

-    If you were God at this time, would you have been angry?
-    And if you had been Moshe, how would you have responded to what God is planning to do?

Moshe responds by arguing with God.  Moshe says the Egyptians will say that God brought the Jews out of Egypt only to kill them all (making God look bad to the Egyptians).  Moshe tells God to remember God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God reconsiders and calms down.  Moshe comes down the mountain with the tablets — having successful saved the people from God’s threat to kill them all — and is consumed with anger himself as he sees the people dancing around the golden calf.  And Moshe throws the tablets to the ground, and they shatter.  

-    God had told Moshe what was happening, and Moshe had calmed God’s anger — so why is Moshe so angry now?

The people who instigated the making of the golden calf are punished, and Moshe returns to God to plead again for God to forgive the rest of the people.  Moshe even says that if God cannot forgive them, that he (Moshe) should be blamed as well.  God tells Moshe that an angel will go with the people to the land of Canaan, but God will not go with them — God says there is too big a risk that God will get angry again and destroy them (it sounds as though God is still plenty angry!).  Moshe prays and pleads with God, arguing that if God goes with them, then the people will trust Moshe, and know that their covenant with God still exists.  And God then agrees to go with them to Canaan.  God tells Moshe to make two new tablets and bring them up the mountain.  As Moshe approaches, God pronounces that God is forgiving and compassionate, words which we recite on the High Holy Days.  This is how God wants to be thought of.  These characteristics of compassion include, “compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abundant in love, kindness, and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands of people, forgiving sin and wickedness.”  

-    What words define kindness and compassion to you?  What actions demonstrate compassion and kindness?
-    Why isn’t everyone kind all the time?

God then reinforces God’s covenant with us, warns us not to assimilate into the peoples around us, and reminds us of the holidays described in Parshat Mishpatim:  Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Also repeating the words of Mishpatim, God commands us not to cook a baby goat in its mother’s milk.  And Moshe is again on the mountain for 40 days, but when he returns this time, the people have not made a golden calf or decided not to believe in God.   They are in awe of Moshe — the Torah actually says Moshe’s face is glowing.  

-    Why have the people changed?  Do you think they’re just afraid of punishment, or do you think they have begun to believe sincerely?

With much to come — all that God has told Moshe, Moshe now needs to tell the people — we first rest on Shabbat, thinking about how we can contribute to the world around us, showing kindness and compassion.

Shabbat shalom,

Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784