Commentary for Ki Tisa

11 Mar

This week’s parshah contains God’s thirteen attributes of mercy, which we incorporate into our prayers on the Yom Kippur when we are praying for forgiveness. Oddly, this short passage comprising the second half of Exodus 34:6 and the first half of Exodus 34:7 (Lord, Lord, God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in kindness and truth. Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, Forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error; and Who cleanses), actually ends in the middle of a cantillation phrase. The “and Who cleanses” actually belongs to the first cantillation phrase of the second half of 34:7, which reads “and Who cleanses, but does not cleanse completely, recalling the iniquity of parents upon children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”   Obviously that’s not the type of sentiment we want to invoke while praying for forgiveness, but if we are going to stop in the middle of the verse anyway, why not just stop at the natural break after “willful sin and error,” and leave the words “and Who cleanses” out all together?


Many modern readers are bothered by the idea of punishing a child for the acts of the parent. It reads to us like an act of vengeance upon innocents, like the old English corruption of blood laws which prevented children from not only inheriting the property of a parent convicted of treason, but prevented them from inheriting property from anyone they are related to through that parent, even if both the inheritor and the grantor are both completely innocent.


In reality, though, the phrase is not meant as a threat of vengeance, but rather as a warning to us. The way we act affects not only ourselves and those we act upon, but also all of those who see our actions. A child’s most basic and most important role models are the parents. Our children learn not only the good from us, but the bad as well. They grow up learning our bad habits, and then subsequently pass those bad habits on to their own children, and they to their children after that. God can forgive us for our sins and can cleanse us of our wrongdoing, but completely expunging the wrongdoing is up to us. If a child sees a parent act wrongly but does not see the parent repenting and asking for forgiveness, the child will not realize that the act was wrong. When we ask forgiveness from God we include not just the phrases designed to inspire God’s sense of mercy, but we also add the beginning of the next phrase as well, asking God to cleanse us but stopping there, living the phrase unfinished to remind ourselves that we need to ensure that our part does not remain unfinished as well.

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