Parashat Ki Tissa 5784

By: Dr. Melissa Steiner

Summary: In Ki Tissa, we read about Moses descending from the mountain with the tablets only to find the people celebrating the Golden Calf which they built in his absence. In his anger, Moses smashes the tablets, and he chastises the people; he then pleads with God to forgive the people and ascends the mountain a second time to receive the second set of tablets.

As I first started preparation of this dvar, I was troubled by Aaron’s instruction and encouragement of the people in constructing the Golden Calf. It doesn’t make sense to me that Moses left Aaron ‘in charge’ and Aaron essentially encouraged idolatry! What was he thinking? Was he just trying to placate the masses as a diversion technique… sort of ‘keep the children busy’ while the parents are away?!

I decided to leave that wonderment alone and found 2 other themes to explore:

  • The benefit of a do-over (with forgiveness in between)
  • The benefit of engaging the process

Moses pleads with God to forgive the people for so rapidly turning their thoughts away from God and toward an idol. The people are simply human – they were bored, they were uncertain, they were weak and easily swayed – and yet, this is no reason to annihilate them. Moses pleads with God to tame his anger and to remember his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But Moses implored the Lord his God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.  Let not the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them, only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate them from the face of the earth.’ Turn from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan to punish Your people.  

Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.”  And the Lord renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.

Wow – Moses persuaded God… that’s a dvar in itself… for another time.

Forgiveness and then a second set of tablets – this is a do-over. God and Moses are giving the people a second chance to learn and follow God’s commandments.

Think about times when perhaps you lost your temper and said something that you later regretted, or a time when you promised to do something but didn’t get it done. Did you apologize and ask for forgiveness? Did you correct your errors?

The lesson here is that the Golden Calf is the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish people and yet, God allows the people a second chance. All is not lost.

What happened to the smashed pieces?

The two sets of tablets, the broken ones and their replacements, are stored together in perpetuity in the Ark of the Covenant.

There is the notion of keeping the broken pieces because they are a reminder of our frailties; they are a reminder that we break, but we can heal. They are a reminder that we can make mistakes and we can recover – all is not lost.

Things that break and heal are often stronger than the original. Building muscle requires tearing first; scar tissue and healed bones can be stronger than before injury. And we can even make something beautiful out of the broken pieces… such as a lovely mezuzah made from the broken glass gathered from the chupah.

From Chabad teachings online, I found that Yossy Goldman commented that:

“G‑d gave us a perfect Torah. The tablets were hand-made by G‑d, pure and sacred, and then we messed up. So is it all over? Is there really no hope now? Are we beyond redemption? After all, what could possibly be worse than idolatry? We broke the first two commandments and the tablets were shattered into smithereens because we were no longer worthy to have them. It was the ultimate infidelity.

So Torah teaches that all is not lost. As bad as it was — and it was bad — it is possible for man to repair the damage. Moses will make new tablets. They won’t be quite the same as G‑d’s, but there will be Tablets nonetheless.”

What does that mean – that the new tablets are not quite the same. How are they different??

For the first set of tablets, Moses ascended the mountain to receive the commandments from God. It is written

When He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.

After God agrees to give the people a second chance,

The Lord said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”  

So Moses carved two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him, taking the two stone tablets with him. 

And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water; and he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

Why is the first set inscribed by God and the second set is inscribed by Moses?

Did God do a bait and switch?! He said if Moses would bring the second carved tablets, God would inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets… but then we read that it was Moses who spent his 40days and nights with the Lord writing the tablets himself. Why did Moses write the second set?!

I think this exemplifies a second theme which is the benefit of engaging in the process. God kind of says – you broke them, you fix them. Why is that helpful? It is taking responsibility; it is a different level of commitment when you do the work yourself. It is also an opportunity to embed human understanding into the commandments.

Think back to when you were in school or perhaps advice you have given young people to take notes while you are listening to a lecture or writing notes after you have listened to a lecture. The act of writing in addition to listening creates a second neural path in your brain and helps you remember the information better than if you only listened.

I think there is also an enormous benefit to engaging in the process and learning from your mistakes. I know in my current job that the lessons that stick in my mind the best are the ones I have learned while recovering from ‘stepping in it’.

For me, the key takeaways from parsha Ki Tissa are:

  • We’re only human. If God can forgive the people for this immense infidelity, we should be able to forgive ourselves as well for our human frailties.
  • We make mistakes, and we have opportunities to be forgiven and repair those mistakes.
  • It is incumbent upon us to take those opportunities.
  • It is incumbent upon us to engage in the process of healing/repair with thoughtfulness and intent.

Shabbat Shalom


Sources and Inspirations: