Commentary on Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 - 34:35
Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).
Years ago, my boyfriend and I climbed the alleged Mount Sinai, with the shower of Perseus streaking the Egyptian night sky with shooting stars. At the summit, as God pulled the sun up from the fragrant desert floor, Jonathan held up a ring and proposed. It is written in Pirkei Avot, “Every day a voice goes forth from Sinai” (6:2). That dawn, I heard the reverberation of a sacred voice in the words, “Would you be willing to spend your life with me?”
The revelation at Mount Sinai was a wedding-an eternal, loving joining between God and Israel. The story we read is but a veil covering a radiance we must allow ourselves to know.
This Torah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with Moses taking a census. God then chooses Bezalel to be the artisan of the Tabernacle. Moses climbs Mount Sinai, shrouded in mist and mystery, while the Israelites below build their golden idol. When Moses sees this, he breaks the stone tablets, grinds up the golden calf, and makes the Israelites drink it. Moses ascends the mountain a second time. When he descends, his face is so radiant that he must wear a veil.
But a light ruach (wind) blows from the west, disturbing the mist, and we see the radiant face just beneath the veil of text.
Moses is the master alchemist. He climbs the mountain, hides in the cleft of the tzur (rock). He speaks with the philosopher’s stone face to face. He holds the two tablets of prime matter in his hands. When he grinds up the calf into a fine powder, stirs it into water, holds it up into the air, a brilliant liquid shimmering with flakes of gold, he creates a dizzyingly potent potion, a love potion, an elixir of life. A toast!
We drink of it. Our eyes are opened to see beneath the veil. Ki Tissa is not about frenzied idol worship, but the detailed description of a spectacular wedding feast between God and the people Israel. God-the-Lover and Moses-the-beloved take a census of who shall be invited, and they make the long guest list: 600,000 and growing. Bezalel is singled out to decorate the Tent, arrange the flowers, and adorn the feast.
Gifts or a Calf?
Time passes, and we find ourselves in the whirl of the banquet festivity. There is dancing and singing, and in the very center, what seems to be a golden calf. But blink your eyes! It is the glittering pile of precious wedding gifts.
High on the bimah (platform), under a huppah (wedding canopy) of cloud, God presents Moses with the marriage contract, our ketubah. One commentator points out that 31:18, which is translated “Upon finishing (ke-challoto) speaking with him … [God] gave Moses the two tablets,” could also be read, with the slight change of one vowel: “And [God] gave Moses as [God’s] bride (ke-challato)…the two tablets.” Moses, our symbolic bride, turns around in the huppah and faces the guests. He lifts the contract for all to see-and then smashes the glass beneath his foot.
Now it is time for yichud, when husband and wife are alone together for the first time. In 33:12-23, we read excerpts from a conversation between God and Moses that sound particularly romantic: “Pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor” (v, 13). “You have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name” (v, 17). “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” (v. 18). “I will make all My goodness pass before you,” (v, 19). And, at the end, God’s hand reaches out for Moses (v, 22).
Moses comes down from the mountain blushing, a crimson glow in his cheeks. Earlier, when he went into the Tent to meet our Love, he removed his veil, so only God should see his glowing face; but when he leaves the Tent, he lowers the veil.
But this is only one way to imagine this mythic wedding. Instead of seeing Moses (representing all the Israelites) as the bride and God as the groom, some commentators understand Israel to be the groom and Torah the bride. In Midrash HaGadol, for example, it is written:
In the third month…they entered the wilderness of Sinai (19:1)…[This may be compared] to a king who betrothed a woman, and set a time [for the marriage]. When the time arrived they said: “It is time for the woman to enter the huppah.” Similarly, when the time arrived for the Torah to be given, they said, “It is time for the Torah to be given to Israel” (Elliot R Wolfson, Circle in the Square, 19% p. 4).
Here, Torah is the bride and Israel is the groom.
On the summit of the mountain, within the curtain of cloud, the question of who is marrying whom is enveloped in dreamlike fog. We might even wonder if the true union taking place upon Mount Sinai is perhaps the revelatory union of heavenly Adonai with earthbound Shechinah: God’s masculine and feminine Presence united through Israel, in love.
When the potion wears off, the children of look around them. Once again they are in the desert, long dragged-out footsteps stretching behind them. And they say one to the other, “Love is in this place, and we did not know it! ~’hat have we been doing all of this time? Where have we been? Is this the desert, or is it gan eden (Garden of Eden)? Are we lost and alone, or are we this moment caught up in a fierce union with God? Are we wandering with sandals filled with dust, or are we soaring on eagles’ wings?”
We look from one to the other-and wonder what is the face beneath the face beneath the face we wear every day. Sometimes the beauty of the other is as allusive as a sunray on the water. We seek the radiant face beneath the veil.
Messy world. Angry, idolatrous world. Tired, hungry, sick, and sorry world. But if we could lift the sooty, splattered veil…we might see…
This thing between God and Israel-it is not that we are in covenant. It is that we are in love. Every day a voice comes forth from Sinai and begs your answer, “Would you be willing to spend your life with Me?”
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Pronounced: ah-doe-NYE, Origin: Hebrew, a name for God.
Pronounced: MIDD-rash, Origin: Hebrew, the process of interpretation by which the rabbis filled in “gaps” found in the Torah.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.