Ki Tissa – “When You Take”

Our parasha this Shabbat is Ki Tissa, meaning “When you take or carry out (as in the taking of a census)” and covers Exodus chapters 30 through 34. Included in these chapters is the command to sanctify with sacred oil the Tent of Meeting and everything and everyone associated with it.

I’d like us to consider for a few moments what is a strange and troubling contrast occurring between chapters 31 and 32. In chapter 31 we’re introduced to Bezalel and Oholiav, two men uniquely gifted with artistic ability and commissioned by God to produce the many and ornate furnishings for the Tent of Meeting. Together with the men of their artisan’s guild as it were, these men faithfully and lovingly executed the Divinely-designed place of worship.

At the end of chapter 31 God reminded Moses of the seriousness of the Sabbath, calling it a sign between He and our people throughout our generations. After this, God gave Moses the tablets which He Himself had inscribed, and we’re suddenly reminded that everything recorded between chapters 19 and 31 took place between Adonai and Moshe atop Mt. Sinai.

Meanwhile, trouble was afoot down in the camp. When Moses’ absence was prolonged, our people panicked. We urged Aaron to craft an idol. This in spite of the fact that just six weeks earlier God met us personally at Sinai and warned us not to make idols for ourselves. Aaron acceded to their wishes, instructing the people to bring him their fine jewelry and he took their golden earrings and performed a little “artistry” of his own. He produced an abomination: a golden calf. Our people declared collectively, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” We sacrificed to that idol and then sat down to eat; and then – the Scriptures employ a euphemism – “rose up to play” which is a figure of speech still used in some places to refer to illicit sexual activity.

God told Moses to go down quickly, saying, “Your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves…” Moses pleaded on their behalf, but said to the Lord that they were, “Your people, whom You brought out from the land of Egypt…”. Moses interceded with God to be merciful for the sake of the Patriarchs and for His covenant promises to Israel. On account of Moses’ plea, God forgave us and we were spared.

But there would be consequences.

Moses came down the mountain and saw the wickedness going on. In anger, he threw down and smashed the tablets containing the 10 Commandments. Then Moses drew the proverbial line in the sand and said, “Whoever is for Adonai, come to me!” Out of the entire nation, all twelve of Israel’s tribes, only the tribe of Levi was willing to stand up for what was right. Three thousand of the leaders of that rebellion were put to death that day.

It is a tragic chapter in our history, and its central placement in this part of the Torah (it actually interrupts the instructions about the Tabernacle) – is quite intentional.

Consider the abilities that God gives to the sons of men. To Bezalel and Oholiab God gave gifts and talents in artistry and craftsmanship. He apparently gave Aaron artistic abilities, sufficient for Aaron to produce a golden calf. What are your hands producing? There is an old saying that goes, “Who you are is God’s gift to you. What you become is your gift to God.” The same skilled hands that have the potential to produce a thing of unparalleled beauty also have the capacity to produce a disgusting and reprehensible image. The same gifted minds and hands can produce a piece of music that elevates the human soul and drives the imagination heavenward also have the capacity to produce a vulgar, corrupt and self-serving cacophony leaving souls hell-bound.

There are some powerful lessons we’d better take to heart from Parasha Ki Tissa:

  1. Only one out of the twelve tribes was willing to stand up for Adonai that day. Never confuse a majority opinion with the truth. A majority never, ever, makes something right. It will never excuse your wrong choices or wrong actions.
  2. If Moses had not placed himself squarely between the wrath of God and our people, the entire nation would have been obliterated in judgment. This illustrates the fact that we Jews have always needed a middleman! In fact, on many occasions, Moses had to intercede for the nation. In this way Moses was a type of the Messiah to come, who would interpose Himself and take the punishment due us.
  3. A veneer of religious activity does not transform what is evil into what is good. Aaron attempted to sanitize the making of an idol by saying, “Tomorrow will be a feast to Adonai”. We must not confuse “spirituality” with theological reality. God is real, and He is holy, and we had better not ignore or re-interpret His instructions.
  4. Do you have artistic or musical skills? If you do, it is because you were given them by God. Don’t neglect those talents, but put them to use. Don’t take credit for those talents, but give God the glory. And don’t ever pervert those talents so that they serve self and Satan. Not everything that is called ‘art’ is worthy. Make sure the things your hands produce are God-honoring and beneficial to the human soul.