"And now, if You forgive their sin, but if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written."
This week's Torah reading of Ki Tisa is sharply divided into two distinct parts. Part one continues the instruction for and description of the building of the Tabernacle and its vessels, and the service of the kohanim, the Temple priests, from the washing of their hands and feet at the brass laver, to the preparation of the incense offering and the anointing of the priests and the vessels alike. This idyllic narrative concludes with five verses concerning the sanctity and observance of the holy Shabbat. These words are spoken directly by G-d to Moshe.
Not by chance this passage mimics the opening verses of the book of Genesis which describe the six days of creation and conclude with the Sabbath, the day of rest. The mention of Shabbat here in the book of Exodus comes to express two exceedingly important ideas concerning the nature of the Tabernacle and the historical moment at which man has arrived. Our sages teach us that the mention of Shabbat following the description of all the labors involved in the construction of the Tabernacle, was to inform Israel that the work on the Tabernacle was to cease on the Sabbath, despite its own intrinsic holiness. In other words, the sanctity of the Shabbat takes preference over the sanctity of the building of the Tabernacle. But as a parallel to the verses of Genesis, the mention of Shabbat carries its own implication that the construction of the Tabernacle was an essential part of creation itself; That the world without the Tabernacle, (and subsequently, the Holy Temple), is simply incomplete. The Genesis account of the creation of the world concludes without mention of the Tabernacle. But here, in a reprise of the description of creation, creation draws to a conclusion only after the completion of the Tabernacle.
Next, in what appears on the surface to be a wholly disjointed subject, Torah describes the conclusion of Moshe's stay on Mount Sinai, his descent from the Mount, and the scene of reckless abandonment that awaited him. Having grown weary of waiting for Moshe's return, Israel, bated by the mixed multitude, has pressed Aharon into creating the infamous golden calf. Perhaps it began as an almost innocent, if misguided attempt to create a tangible sign of G-d's presence in the world, in light of Moshe's absence, to guide them through the desert. But no sooner had the golden calf emerged from the fire than the nation descended into a mad display of licentiousness, the golden calf at its center.
This painful scene is not, however, as we supposed, incongruous or detached from the contented description of the Tabernacle and the Shabbat that preceded it. On the contrary, the debacle of the golden calf is an all too familiar denouement to the completion and seeming perfection of creation. It was after the completion of creation and G-d's placement of man in the Garden of Eden, that man ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the results of which are known to all. Man, by demurring from keeping G-d's sole commandment not to eat the fruit, in effect rejected G-d. So too, Israel, by attaching itself to the golden calf, likewise rejected G-d. So it would seem that man, once again, has failed G-d. Or did he?
After they ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve hid themselves from G-d. When G-d asks of Adam point blank, "Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?" (ibid 3:11) Adam, rather than assuming the responsibility for his own transgression, points the finger at Eve. "The woman whom You gave to be with me she gave me of the tree; so I ate." (ibid 3:12) Now G-d purposely imbued man with free will, both a gift and a responsibility. A gift because it enables us to cling to G-d and to heed G-d's word of our own volition. A responsibility, because when we fail to heed G-d's word, and exile Him, as it were, from our presence, we must hold ourselves, and only ourselves, responsible. It would be foolhardy to conclude, then, that G-d, having granted man free-will, expects man's actions to be flawless. But the possession of free-will does demand that we be accountable.
When G-d's wrath was kindled against Israel concerning the golden calf, He turned to Moshe and threatened to destroy Israel and make of Moshe "a great nation." (Exodus 32:10) Moshe rejected this offer out of hand, and countered G-d's anger, reminding G-d of His covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, of His responsibility toward Israel. Moshe then went on to forcefully castigate Israel and to stamp out the evil that had spread. He was angry and disappointed with his people, but when he turned back to G-d to ask His forgiveness for Israel, his words put an end to any doubt as to where he stood on the issue: "And now, if You forgive their sin, but if not, erase me now from Your book, which You have written." (ibid 32: 32) Unlike Adam, who meekly pointed to his helpmate Eve, Moshe stood by his people and with his people. Their sin was his sin. By doing so, he became vested with the responsibility and the ability to make amends, to right the wrong.
We learn from Adam's response to G-d that it is a most basic human instinct to point the finger at others, and to hold others responsible for our own failings. It could be argued that this is what is at the root of all the world's ills today. An entire Islamicist doctrine of hatred does just this, blaming all its own failings on others, thereby threatening humanity itself. The world doesn't have to be this way. Moshe teaches us that putting oneself in harm's way and accepting upon one's shoulders the entire weight of responsibility, not just for his own actions, but for those of his people, as well, marks the beginning of change. This is the man that G-d intended. Not a perfect man, but a responsible and repentant man. The Tabernacle, the Holy Temple, the meeting place for man and G-d cannot be completed as long as man is pointing his finger, accusing the other. Only by facing G-d in a show of undivided fellowship can we complete the sacred work of creation - the building of the Holy Temple.
Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK as Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven hang on tight as parashat Ki Tisa leads us through the highs and the lows, the ups and the downs of Bnei Yisrael as the sublime work on the Holy Tabernacle is interrupted by the unbridled licentiousness of the golden calf. Moshe rabbenu - Moses our master - masterfully navigates a path fraught with cosmic cataclysmic pitfalls, as he castigates Israel and seeks their forgiveness from G-d. Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven describe Moshe's unique leadership qualities, and also the well-intentioned but colossal folly of Israel as they pursued the ill-fated "shortcut" of the golden calf. Also, righteous women and their tight connection to the Copper Laver and the Golden Lamp: Making a Choice To Bring Light Into This World!