This week we will be reading from Parashat Ki Tisa. It begins simply enough with God commanding Moses to take a census of all the Israelite men who are able to fight; excluding those who are from the tribe of Levi. It also involves other mitzvot regarding the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle: the portable structure to be built by the Israelites to worship God. This is followed by another reminder that the Israelites were to observe Shabbat and refrain from all work, including work done to build the Mishkan. As an aside, this is the basis for all of the rules concerning work on Shabbat.
Then, just as Moses is about to descend from Mt. Sinai, where he has been conversing with God, the Israelites finally had enough of his absence. They approached Aaron and demanded that he build for them an idol. Aaron collected gold rings and gold earrings, melted it down, and used it to create the egel masechah, the molten or golden calf.
After learning of the matter from God, Moses pleaded with God to act with mercy upon the Israelites. Yet when Moses saw had transpired first-hand, he smashed or hurled or dropped the tablets of the Ten Commandments. He burned the calf into powder and made the Israelites drink of their disgrace. Moses then worked to control the unruly mob and helped them to see the error of their ways.
A little later on in the portion, Moses went back up Mt. Sinai after carving two stone tablets. Moses then recited what have become referred to as the Thirteen Attributes of God’s compassionate nature. After which, Moses wrote down the Ten Commandments before delivering them once again to the Israelite people.
Needless to say, there is a lot going on in this Torah portion. There are great highs and great lows. There is drama, there is communal sin, and there is redemption. There is anger. There is love. There is forgiveness.
Ki Tisa encapsulates many of the most important elements of the Exodus narrative. Here we find a reminder of the Israelites’ amazing talents at frustrating God and Moses. Yet, we also find God and Moses willing to work together to forgive the Israelites over and over again.
It is as if the Torah is reminding us how anger and forgiveness are constantly circling each other, the great foes battling for our souls, if you will. Anger diminishes, forgiveness elevates. One is easy to give into, the other, much harder to bring to fruition. On this Shabbat, as we learn from Ki Tisa and the Thirteen Attributes, may we, like God, be slow to anger and quick to forgive.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff