Torah Classes: Ki Tisa (Numbers)
The purpose of the Tabernacle
“Ki Tisa” means “Whenever you count.” HaSheM tells Moses that one should not count “the heads” of the people, but rather the half-a-shekel coins that each person would donate to the Temple. Why? Not because of “evil eye” but because when one stands before HaSheM in a direct count, that person is also being JUDGED. On Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, we stand on Judgment before HaSheM, as He COUNTS us and judges us and decides our fate for the next year. So when we donate half a shekel, He counts us as a part of a CONGREGATION rather than as INDIVIDULAS. We have then a better chance to win our trials as part of a congregation (Rabbi Soloveitick Zt”l)
As we’ll see, this would play a role in the main story of the Parshah: the SIN OF THE GOLDEN CALF.
The question that the commentators raise is: When exactly did the Sin take place? The answer would make a difference in our conception of the very purpose of the Holy Temple.
The RaMBaN (Spain, 14th century) follows the simple chronological order of the events as presented by the Torah. Why changing it? And according to this order, the first event was the giving of the Ten Commandments on Sinai (mentioned earlier in parshat Yithro.)
After giving the Ten Commandments, Moses ascended (the 2nd time) on Mt. Sinai for 40 days. While on the Mountain, it seems from the text, he was given (1) the entire written Torah (2) the Oral Laws (3) the two Stone Tablets written by the “Finger of ELKM,” with the Ten Commandments on them (4) an order to tell Israel to begin building the Tabernacle with all its golden, fancy furniture.
Then, on the 40th day, Moses came down the Mountain. Seeing that the people had sinned with the Golden Calf, he broke the Tablets, destroyed the Calf and called up the Levites to punish the perpetrators. Then he ascended the 3rd time on the Mountain for 80 days, asking forgiveness for Israel. When he finally descended on Yom Kippur, he informed Israel that HaSheM had forgiven them. This day would become the Atonement Day, Yom Kippur, for eternity. He also gave Israel a new set of Tablets that he inscribed, and instructed Israel to start building the Tabernacle.
This course of events led the RaMBaN to assume that since HaSheM instructed Moses about the Tabernacle during the first 40 days, BEFORE the Golden Calf, therefore the Tabernacle had no direct relationship to the sin. Its purpose was to express G-d’s Love to Israel and offer YHVH (The Shehinah) a “Place” to dwell between the Golden Cherubs. From there, She would speak to Moses and to Israel’s prophets after him. The Tabernacle was therefore designed as a source of holiness and prophecy to Israel and to the world.
But Rashi and Maimonides (RaMBaM)hold otherwise, that here, in a unique way, the order of the chapters does NOT follow the chronological course of the events. In fact, in his first 40 days on the Mountain, Moses was given the written and oral Torah, with the two miraculous Stone Tablets, yet he did not yet receive the order to build a Tabernacle. Judaism was to be a spiritual faith, with no tangible relics like the Temple and sacrifices.
Only when G-d saw that the people sinned with the Golden Calf, He CONSENTED to Moses’ prayer and allowed Israel to build for Him a Temple. In other words, recognizing that Israel, like all other peoples on Earth at that time, were not ready for a pure spiritual faith, HaSheM consented to let them relate to Him through a Temple and animal offerings. He imposed, though, an important restriction: build only one Temple, in one place, and offer only things that He ordered.
Thus, according to this view, shared by most rabbis, the Tabernacle was a CONSESSION to the current level of humanity. This implies that when people would mature, there would be no more need for a Temple and animal sacrifices. This is why Maimonides writes that the futuristic Third Temple would be built READY for sacrifices. He does not mention that there would be real sacrifices in that Temple.
Thus we have two opposing views of the purpose of the Tabernacle. One view sees it as an expression of G-d’s Love to Israel and a source of holiness and prophecy. The other view sees it as a mere concession to the spiritual level of the ancient generations.
As usual in rabbinical debates, both sides have merits. Both the RaMBaN and Rashi are right. The Temple was a concession to the limited human mind, but also an expression of Heavenly Love to Israel and to Mankind, and a source of Holiness and Prophecy.
Let’s summarize Rashi’s account of the events:
(1) The Exodus took place on the 14th day of the first month (Nisan, Passover)
(2) Fifty days later, on the 6th day of 3rd month (Sivan), the Ten Commandments are given to Israel on Mt. Sinai (the festival of the weeks.)
(2) Next day, Moses ascends the 2nd time on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, to receive the Oral Torah and the Stone Tablets.
(3) On the 40th day, the 17th day of the 4th month, Tamuz, Moses descends from the Mountain, holding the two stone tablets. Seeing the Golden Calf, he breaks the Tablets, destroys the calf and orders the Levites to punish the idolaters.
(4) Moses then ascends the 3rd time on Mt. Sinai, this time for 80 days, asking forgiveness for Israel.
(5) Moses finally descends from Mt. Sinai on Yom Kippur, 10th of the 6th Month (Tishrei) (10 day after Rosh Hashanah,) announcing atonement, ordering the erection of the Tabernacle as a consent to Israel.
Thus Moses went up the Mountain 3 times, each time into a ‘higher’ level.
The first time he went up to receive the Ten Commandments
The Second time he went ‘higher’ to receive the Stone Tablets and the entire written and oral Torah.
The Third Time he ascended after the Golden Calf, into the highest level (”Above the clouds”) and for the longest time, to receive forgiveness. Then he went down with the new instructions to build the Tabernacle.
Hence the Ten Commandment were not enough to hold the people back from sin. Moses had to climb HIGHER to get higher truths, the Written and Oral Torah. Then he went higher. What exactly did he learn on this highest peak?
Israel was on a crossroad
For that, let’s read the parshah. It begins, as we’ve noticed, with counting: “Whenever you count (lift up) the head of the Children of Israel, you shall…”
You can’t see this in the English translation, but the Hebrew words say: “when you raise the heads of the Children of Israel…” where the expression “raise the heads of” means “count the heads”. But it also means “cut the head off… “or the opposite: “promote the head of the Children of Israel” to a higher position.
For instance: when Pharaoh’s officers told their dreams to Joseph in the dungeon, both said that they had dreamt that their heads were ‘lifted.’ To one officer Joseph said that in the following day Pharaoh’s would lift his head, execute him. To the other he said that the following day Pharaoh’s would restore him to a higher position in his court. Here he interpreted the same words “lift the head” in tow opposing meanings.
In the same token, the rabbis interpreted the dual meaning of ‘lift up the head’ to say that Israel stood on a crossroad: either lose their heads, cut off from history LIKE ALL OTHER NATIONS, or be elevated to a higher spiritual position.
So at the end of the first 40 days it says:
“When He (YHVH) finished speaking to Moses on Mt. Sinai,
He gave him the two Tablets of Testimony, two Stone Tablets,
Inscribed by the Finger of ELKM” (Exodus 31: 18)
What a great moment it was! HaSheM gave Israel and Mankind the most precious gift possible. Had Moses not broken these miraculous Tablets, they would have given a testimony to the presence of G-d. This is why the Torah calls them “The Testimonial Tablets.” These Tablets could be read from either side, and they floated in the air despite their heavy weight. It is said that the power of the inscribed letters in them kept the Tablets floating. Who in the world would have sinned, seeing these living miracles?
Now the verse also says that these Tablets were inscribed by the “Finger of ELKM.” This explains their miraculous nature. But it also tells something deeper, that they expressed the Will of ELKM the JUDGE. They expressed His Absolute Justice, like “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” No mercy, no monetary compensation. The Written Torah also says that the adulterers should be stoned, that the thieved should be hung, and so on. They expressed what SHOULD HAVE BEEN DONE, HAD NOT MERCY BEEN AROUND. They were inscribed, after all, by the Finger of ELKM.
Note that the Ten Commandments were spoken on Mt Sinai by ELKM, the Attribute of JUDGMENT.
The Drama bellow the Mountain
While Moses held these miraculous Tablets, a drama occurred down on earth:
“And the ‘people’ (‘aam’) saw that Moses had delayed in descending from the Mountain
And the “people” gathered around Aaron and said to him:
Rise up and make for us an ELKM that will go before us,
For this man Moses who brought us from the Land of Egypt
We do not know what became of him…”
It was the 17th day of the month of Tamuz, a day or mourning for posterity, and Moses did not come down as expected( the people erred in their calculations.) The “people” then gathered around Aaron. The expression “people” signals that they WERE NO DIFFERENT THAN OTHER PEOPLES. They did not merit being called Israel.
What did the ‘people’ want? They demanded (1) a new leader like Moses that they would SEE (2) a g-d who would “lead them,” BE SEEN.
At first they approached Hur, Aaron’s cousin. He refused to join them so they killed him. Then they came to Aaron himself. Seeking to gain time, he told them to bring him their gold, thinking that this would hold them back. But they did bring him their gold PASSIONATELY. Aaron threw it into the fire and made a Golden Calf. Then it says:
“And they said : this is your g-d, Israel, which brought you out of Egypt…”
What was their sin, exactly? For that, let’s recall the first two of the Ten Commandments that say:
1. “I Am YHVH ELoKiM, (Oneness of the Attributes)
2. Who took you out of Egypt (King of History)
The 2nd of the Ten Commandments
3. “Thou shall not make another ELKM (side by side with ELKM)
4. Over my face (superior and inferior gods)
5. Thou shall not make a status of anything…
6. Thou shall not bow to them not serve them…”
Hence they violated
(1) Oneness, by seeking ELKM only
(2) Kingship: by saying that this calf had taken them out of Egypt
(3) The prohibition to believe in any power SIDE BY SIDE of ELKM or REPLACING Him
(4) The prohibition to believe in entities that are inferior or superior to the One G-d of Israel
(5) They made a statue of a calf and worshipped it
(6) They worshipped the calf in the same manner they should have worshipped the God of Israel
Hence they violated all the possible forms of IDOLATRY, breaching the entire two Commandments.
But their main error was to seek a visible leader, Moses or ELKM. They materialized G-d by using a tangible object to represent Him: a calf.
A festival for YHVH
Still trying to gain time, Aaron called out saying “A festival for YHVH tomorrow!”
He figured out that by tomorrow Moses would show up. But the “people” understood this differently:
“And they arose early the next day and offered up burnt offerings (to the calf)
And the people sat to eat, and drink, and they got up to have fun…” (32: 5-6)
In the Torah’s vocabulary, ‘fun’ means wild, sexual orgy.
Hence they sledded from (I) IDOLATRY to (II) ADULTERY, an expected downfall. They also killed Hur in (III) BLOODSHED.
A Drama in Heavens
Moses however wasn’t aware of what transpired on the ground. Had he stood before “ELKM alone,” Israel would have had no chance to survive. ELKM would have decimated them with wrath. But Moses stood before the Attribute of MERCY, YHVH, who opened the door for him to pray. She said:
“And YHVH spoke to Moses: Go, descend,
for YOUUR people that YOU brought out of Egypt has become corrupt,
they have strayed quickly from the way that I have commanded them
and they made themselves a molten calf, prostrated themselves….”
YHVH’ sounds harsh, giving Moses the bad news: “Go down” from your greatness! YOUR people sinned, not mine! They are DEPOSED.
Moses was speechless. He himself felt deposed and weakened (Rashi.)
Again, had he stood before ELKM, he would have had no chance to proceed. But here YHVH spoke, and HER words seemed to Moses as an invitation to appeal. For Moses heard Her saying: they are your people. Henceforth go ahead and represent them!
And here, in a stroke, YHVH appointed Moses as the REPRESENTATIVE of the people, their ‘leader’ in prayer. A new thing came to life: Israel as a congregation, represented by their leader in prayer. No, you do not have this in any other religions that try to imitate Judaism!
What then could he say as the representative of the people?
What would he say to stir up the Attribute of Mercy to override the harsh verdict of ELKM?
Moses found no words. But YHVH in Her MERCY continued:
“I have seen this people; they are stiff naked people,
And now leave me alone,
let my anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them
and I shall make you a great nation…”
She said “leave me alone!” which prompted Moses to do the opposite, NOT to leave Her alone.
“And Moses pleaded (much) the face of YHVH his ELKM…”
How much did he plead? As if he was holding the coat of YHVH (“I wouldn’t believe it, had the Torah not said it!” says Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud. It looks materialization of God! )
He pleaded so much that YHVH got sick of it (again, materialization!)
He pleaded so much that he, Moses, got sick of it.
The rabbis used this as an instruction for the leader of the congregation in prayer.
“He pleaded” also means in Hebrew:”He paused.” How? By chanting first the Psalms songs he wrote. We too chant Psalms of Moses and David BEFORE praying.
What were his arguments?
“Why, YHVH, should your anger flare up against your people
Remember the sake of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…”
Moses invoked YHVH by saying that annihilating Israel would cause a DESECRATION of Her Name. And he mentioned the Patriarchs, who had given their lives for YHVH.
Moses was successful: “YHVH reconsidered regarding the bad things that He declared that He would do to His people.” Pleading in the Patriarchs names made an impression. We too therefore begins our prayer by mentioning the patriarchs.
But the story was far from over. Moses descended from the Mountain walking backwards, his face gazed at YHVH direction. Our cantors too faces the Ark rather the congregation. The cantor sees Inscribed before him the words: “I imagine YHVH in front of me all day long.”
Coming down from the Mountain, Moses was ready to tell the people that YHVH had forgiven their IDOLATROUS ERROR. Holding the two Stone Tablets, the Oral Torah on his mind, he has a good message to deliver.
But entering the camp, Moses saw
“the calf and the dancing, and his anger flared,
And he threw the Tablets from his hands and they broke under the Mountain…
The question is: How could he break the very Tablets which were written by ELKM?
Tradition says that the letters ‘flew away’ from the Tablets, rendering them heavy. Moses simply couldn’t carry them.
But the text clearly infers that Moses THREW the Tablets actively and BROKE them intentionally, in anger and despair.
Despair of Israel, and of Mankind. How could the people who had seen the exodus err so much?
But the rabbis also noticed that his anger enkindled by their dancing and gay mood, their wild sexual ecstasy. YHVH had forgiven them for the calf, but not for THAT.
When you see people drifting from Judaism and the Torah, watch their sexual behavior. Once they have drifted into wild ADULTARY, you have the sense that the road back is closed. This is what Moses felt, seeing their “fun.” And YHVH too was enraged. She would wipe the people FROM HISTROY, like all other peoples.
Moses then ascends the 3rd time on Mt. Sinai. There he sees YHVH “Face to Face,“ an extreme expression of materialization of G-d. YHVH allows Moses to relate to Her in tangible, physical expression; a concession.
What did Moses plead during the next 80 days?
He asks YHVH: “Let me know your ways…your name…. ”
He was asking: How can I invoke your name in prayer?
But the rabbis added: he pleaded the “Face of YHVH” which is the Attribute of JUSTICE, ELKM.
He asked: Show me your ways! Why do righteous people suffer, and wicked peoples bloom?
In other words: The people erred, because they DO NOT SEE YOU, ELKIM!
They do not witness in their eyes the cycle of sin and punishment, “measure for measure.’
They want to SEE me, a human leader, and they want to SEE YOU, a Heavenly Leader!
Many holocaust survivors have asked the same questions, and they have come to disbelieve in the presence of G-d.
ELKM did not answer Moses. It was YHVH, rather, who answered his questions one by one:
First YHVH said: No one can SEE me. But I shall consent to your request and let you SEE me:
“There is a place with me and there you can stand on the rock
And when my glory passes I shall place you in the cave inside the rock
And I shall cover you with the palm of my hand till I have passed
And I shall remove my hand and you will see my behind but my face you will not see.”
There is no greater materialization of YHVH in the entire Torah! YHVH would pass by Moses, place him in a cave, cover him by Her hand, and Moses would SEE her back but not her front…
As rabbi Eliezer said: Had it not been written in the Torah, I wouldn’t believe that Moses could have written such words! These wards sound so idolatrous!
But in fact, YHVH here CONSENTED to Moses and allowed him, and Israel, to relate to Her in human terms, metaphorically.
Moreover, YHVH was telling Moses how to invoke Her Name in prayer.
Your question, Moses, assumes that only ELKM rules the world. You want to SEE retributions and rewards readily, clearly.
But the truth is that the advent of MERCY in the Heavenly Court, changes its verdicts in unpredicted way.
You Moses can’t tell what MERCY would argue and act in a given case.
People may have merits that you are unaware of.
MERCY may postpone or change the verdict.
Here is the 13 attributes of MERCY that YHVH taught Moses. They all complicate the impact of MERCY on the final verdict: they are:
“ YHVH, YHVH, El, Compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth,
Preserver of kindness to thousand of generations,
forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and who cleanses
But does not cleanse completely,
recalling the iniquities of the parents upon their children,
and grandchildren, to the third and forth generations…”
We invoke these “13 attributes of MERCY” on Yom Kippur prayers.
In fact, the lowest two lines are “judgment in mercy.” But Moses hurried and bowed, not wishing to hear the lowest two. We too ignore them in our Yom Kippur prayers.
So what was Moses learning in the last 80 days, that he did no learn before in the Ten Commandments? He learned THE 13 WAYS OF MERCY that overrides JUDGMENT!