Commentary for Ki Tisa

29 Feb

In this week’s parshah we read about the sin of the Golden Calf. After the giving of the Torah at Shavuot, Moses tells the Israelites that he is going to go up onto Mount Sinai and stay there for forty days. When the fortieth day comes and there has been no sign that Moses is going to return, the people start to get antsy and demand that Aaron make them some new gods instead of The Lord who they fear they have lost their link to now that Moses seems to have disappeared.


Most commentators place the blame for either the initial idea of asking for a “new god,” the initial idea of building an idol, or the initial heretical declaration that this idol will replace God (or some combination of the three) on the “mixed multitude” that left Egypt with the Israelites, whose faith was said to be either easily swayed or disingenuous, or who mistakenly believed that Moses and God were one and the same. No matter who came up with the original idea, though, Ex. 32:26-29 make clear that there were a noteworthy number of Israelites who had joined in the worship of the Golden Calf.


Moses does come down the mountain, though, and when he comes, he comes down carrying the two tablets with the Ten Commandments on them. These stone tablets are described as being “inscribed by the finger of God (Ex. 31:18),” a phrase which the commentators explain means that they had many miraculous properties, such as being chiseled the whole way through, but appeared to be written from right to left no matter which side you were looking at them from.


Among these magnificent features was the fact that they were light enough for the eighty-year-old Moses to carry down the mountain on his own, with very little effort. As Moses approached the Golden Calf and the sinning Israelites, though, the Tanchuma says that the holiness of the tablets retreated to heaven, and with them it’s divine qualities. As he got closer to the sinning nation, the tablets went from light enough that Moses could easily carry them in one hand to heavy enough that he needed to use both hands and a great effort, until he finally dumped them onto the ground and they shattered.


Moses, who had previously been ecstatic at the great gift of Torah God was giving himself and his people, now sees the people having abandoned God, and it is almost as if Moses’ very faith- whether it is his faith in the people or perhaps his faith in God to inspire the people- momentarily breaks. And in that moment the “Tablets of Testimony” of the covenant between God and Israel break as well.


The sinning Israelites were not even aware of Moses’ presence, but their actions greatly affected him nonetheless. This is because people are affected by their environment. The examples we set will affect the lives of all who see us. We must always remember that whether we intend them to or not, our actions, however small they might be, affect those around us”

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