Ki Tissa is a portion of many moods: peaceful instruction, fear, orgiastic celebration, anger, repentance, and spiritual communion. The beginning is the conclusion of the instructions to Moses on Mt. Sinai concerning the Tabernacle and its service: the census and 1/2 shekel head tax for maintenance we read about a few weeks ago on Shabbat Shekalim, a copper basin for washing priests’ hands and feet, the recipes for the incense and anointing oil, and the appointment of Bezalel as chief artisan, assisted by Oholiab. And, once more, a reminder to keep the Sabbath. Then Moses comes down the mountain with the two inscribed tablets, sees the people joyfully worshipping a gold idol in the shape of a young bull. Moses convinces the Lord to not wipe them all out (“only” about 3,000 die of a plague as punishment), but he himself smashes the tablets (that gets their attention), grinds up the idol, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it. Aaron tries to explain, but instead of saying simply, “Look, they were afraid you wouldn’t come back, I was trying to stall for time, and if I hadn’t made them that idol, they probably would have killed me,” he says, “I threw their gold into the fire and this calf came out.” The people repent. Moses is allowed to see, not the face, but the back of the Lord. Then he goes back up for another set of tablets and another opportunity to commune with the Lord. He comes back down literally glowing.
How could the Israelites, so soon after the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Mt. Sinai, have blithely broken such fundamental commandments, commissioning and worshipping the Golden Calf? Aaron’s idiotic excuse makes no sense unless he too felt that the Lord, or some other god, was made manifest in the idol. The poet and philosopher Yehuda HaLevi (ca. 1080-1141) tried strenuously to explain and excuse the apostasy, writing that everyone back then worshipped images, and so the people needed something tangible to focus on in order to worship, not replace, the Lord. Similarly, Nachmanides (1195-1270) suggests that the Israelites were asking Aaron for a substitute, not for the Lord, but for Moses. Generally, though, the Israelites’ actions are regarded as genuine idol worship.
Yet the question remains – didn’t the splitting of the Sea and the thunder and lightning and Divine voice of Revelation have any impact? A similar question arises from the haftarah (Kings I, 18:1-39), that really dramatic one in which Elijah bests the priests of Baal and the people fall down crying, “The Lord is God! The Lord is God!” But then (after the haftarah’s events), they lapse right back into idolatry. Maimonides (1135-1204) understands that a single dramatic event is not likely to cause a lasting transformation in human character, but such transformation occurs only gradually in reality. (source for above citations: (Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot, pp. 549-557). For example, the medieval English were essentially all pagans in the year 600. Then Christianity started to take root, gradually, without martyrs, with plenty of lapses and re-conversions, often incorporating local pagan practices (e.g., people continued to wear their little Thor’s hammer amulets). The result: by 700, paganism had been replaced by Christianity. It took a full century (Jennifer Paxton, Georgetown University). Surely it was a little unrealistic to expect Israel to internalize all those Laws only after a matter of weeks?
In case you’re interested…
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An angry God was standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses had just descended. At the foot of the mountain lay the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, shattered in a thousand pieces. “What have you done?” demanded God. “Didn’t I tell you to deliver the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel?”
“Yes, Lord,” said Moses. “But a man dressed in a brown robe in a flying brown chariot with gold letters on the side appeared to me at the top of the mountain. He told me he would deliver the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel. I thought you sent him.”
“I most certainly did not,” said God. “What were the letters on the side of this chariot?”
Moses stooped and wrote three letters in the sand. Pointing at them, he pronounced, “Oops” (UPS).
Police and Accident Excuses
24. My sister was driving about 10 P.M. one night and was stopped for speeding 50 in a 35. She told the officer “Hurry up and give me the ticket! My baby messed her diaper and I ran out, so I’m on my way to the store to get some more.” The officer standing close to the drivers window bent down to look inside at the baby and a strong smell came from the back seat where the baby was. He stood up and apologized for stopping my sister on such an important mission and let her go.
30. A woman hit a pole between the drive thru lanes at the bank where I work. She was furious and complained that if the pole wasn’t there she wouldn’t have hit it.
1238. I did actually use this excuse a number of years ago. Early one morning as I got up to go to work I told my girlfriend that I really did not want to go to work that day. To which she relied “Well then don’t go in, call in sick. I thought well what excuse would I use, so I told my girlfriend “call in for me and tell I won’t be in today”. “I don’t care what you tell them, tell them I’m dead”. Well that is exactly what she did as she said, “X won’t be in today as he is dead”. There was silence for a number of seconds and then the person on the other end said, “Will he be in tomorrow?”. She replied, “Oh yes he will be in tomorrow”.
School and Homework Excuses 601 and up.
601. I actually heard this excuse being used three times in the same week by the one boy. “Sorry I don’t have my homework today, but I put it on top of the TV so I wouldn’t forget it and the TV blew up”. The amazing thing was that one teacher let him off because it was the “best excuse” he’d heard all term.
606. I didn’t do it because I didn’t want to add to MY TEACHER’S already heavy workload.
607. I made a paper plane out of it and it got hijacked.
609. Some aliens from outer space borrowed it so they could study how the human brain worked.
614. I was kidnapped by terrorists and they only just let me go, so I didn’t have time to do it.
615. The lights in our house went out, and I had to burn it to get enough light to see the fuse box.
616. Another pupil fell in a lake, and I jumped in to rescue him but unfortunately my homework drowned.
617. I used it to fill a hole in my shoe, you wouldn’t want it now.
618. My father had a nervous breakdown and he cut it up to make paper dolls.
619. I didn’t do it, because I didn’t want the other kids in the class to look bad.
[These two were sent out in 2006. IGP]
An ad for St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church has a picture of two hands holding stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed and a headline that reads, “For fast, fast, fast relief, take two tablets.”
Computer Engineer’s Haggadah [abridged, available at least at http://www.jr.co.il/humor/pass08.txt]
ISRAEL running in slave mode, cannot release
Pharaoh account hard locked;cannot be deactivated
For i=1 to 10 do plagues
Are you sure? Y
Move ISRAEL to Sinai
OPERATOR WARNING! SYSTEM ABOUT TO CRASH! PHARAOH AND RED SEA HAVE LIMITED YOUR MEMORY SPACE! SAVE YOUR WORK!
Specify save device
Save ISRAEL with miracle
Move ISRAEL to Sinai
For I=1 to 10 do commandments
Allocation conflict:Commandments cannot be operated with active golden calf routine
For I=1 to 10 do commandments
Done; commandments stored on hard rock device