Commentary for Ki Tisa

17 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the story of the golden calf, God’s anger at the Israelites for this grave sin, and Moses’ intercession on behalf of the Israelites and God’s eventual forgiveness of them.  These last two parts are chanted as the Torah reading for minor fast days and for the afternoon service of Tisha B’Av.  This section contains a few odd features, one of which is that it is the only time where we pause the Torah reading for the congregation to read certain verses before the reader repeats them.


We do this three times, first at “Turn from Your fierce wrath and renounce this plan to do evil to Your people (Ex. 32:12)”, “Lord, Lord, God of compassion and graciousness, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness.  Extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin (Ex. 34: 7-8),” and “pardon our iniquity and our sin and invest us as Your own.”  All three verses plead God for forgiveness and appeal to God’s attribute of mercy.  We chant them aloud and repeat them to both emphasize what we hope to achieve by fasting all day and to help get the congregation in the right mindset for the somber day.


Normally, when the weekly Shabbat Torah reading includes a section that is read specially at other times of the year, we include those special changes into the weekly Torah reading.  When the Song of the Sea (7th Day of Passover) or the Ten Commandments in Exodus (1st Day of Shavuot) are read during the weekly cycle, we rise as we would on those days and we read them with their special cantillation.  When these verses are read in shul on Shabbat, however, we read them as normal, with no repetitions.  Shabbat is supposed to be a day of joy and merriment, and it is difficult to be merry when you are spending all day worrying that you aren’t doing your part to help show God that we want Him to be merciful and forgive our sins.


In a similar vein, if Tisha B’Av or one of the minor fast days fall on Shabbat, they are (with one rare exception) moved to either the next day or, in the case of the Fast of Esther, the preceding Thursday. This is done because Shabbat is a time of rest not just for the body, but for the soul as well. As we learn in this week’s parshah, God id not simply stop doing work, but rather God “ceased from doing work and was refreshed (Ex 31:17).”

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