Monday, February 25, 2008

Ki Tisa (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this portion, see the archives to this blog, below at March 2006.

Hand Washing

This week’s parasha is best known for the dramatic and richly meaningful story of the Golden Calf and the Divine anger, of Moses’ pleading on behalf of Israel, and the eventual reconciliation in the mysterious meeting of Moses with God in the Cleft of the Rock—subjects about which I’ve written at length, from various aspects, in previous years. Yet the first third of the reading (Exod 30:11-31:17) is concerned with various practical mitzvot, mostly focused on the ritual worship conducted in the Temple, which tend to be skimmed over in light of the intense interest of the Calf story. As this year we are concerned specifically with the mitzvot in each parasha, I shall focus on this section.

These include: the giving by each Israelite [male] of a half-shekel to the Temple; the making of the laver, from which the priests wash their hands and feet before engaging in Divine service; the compounding of the incense and of the anointing oil; and the Shabbat. I shall focus here upon the washing of the hands.

Hand-washing is a familiar Jewish ritual: it is, in fact, the first act performed by pious Jews upon awakening in the morning (some people even keep a cup of water next to their beds, so that they may wash their hands before taking even a single step); one performs a ritual washing of the hands before eating bread; before each of the daily prayers; etc. The section here dealing with the laver in the Temple (Exod 30:17-21) is also one of the four portions from the Torah recited by many each morning, as part of the section of the liturgy known as korbanot, chapters of Written and Oral Torah reminiscent of the ancient sacrificial system, that precede Pesukei de-Zimra.

Sefer ha-Hinukh, at §106, explains the washing of hands as an offshoot of the honor due to the Temple and its service—one of many laws intended to honor, magnify, and glorify the Temple. Even if the priest was pure and clean, he must wash (literally, “sanctify”) his hands before engaging in avodah. This simple gesture of purification served as a kind of separation between the Divine service and everyday life. It added a feeling of solemnity, of seriousness, a sense that one was engaged in something higher, in some way separate from the mundane activities of regular life. (One hand-washing by kohanim, in the morning, was sufficient, unless they left the Temple grounds or otherwise lost the continuity of their sacred activity.) Our own netilat yadaim, whether before prayer or breaking bread, may be seen as a kind of halakhic carryover from the Temple service, albeit on the level of Rabbinic injunction.

What is the symbolism of purifying one’s hands? Water, as a flowing element, as a solvent that washes away many of the things with which it comes in contact, is at once a natural symbol of both purity, and of the renewal of life. Mayim Hayyim—living waters—is an age old association. Torah is compared to water; water, constantly flowing, is constantly returning to its source. At the End of Days, “the land will be filled with knowledge of the Lord, like waters going down to the sea.” A small part of this is hinted in this simple, everyday gesture.

“See that this nation is Your people”

But I cannot pass over Ki Tisa without some comment on the incident of the Golden Calf and its ramifications. This week, reading through the words of the parasha in preparation for a shiur (what Ruth Calderon, founder of Alma, a secularist-oriented center for the study of Judaism in Tel Aviv, called “barefoot reading”—that is, naïve, without preconceptions), I discovered something utterly simple that I had never noticed before in quite the same way.

At the beginning of the Calf incident, God tells Moses, who has been up on the mountain with Him, “Go down, for your people have spoiled” (32:7). A few verses later, when God asks leave of Moses (!) to destroy them, Moses begs for mercy on behalf of the people with the words “Why should Your anger burn so fiercely against Your people…” (v. 11). That is, God calls them Moses’ people, while Moses refers to them as God’s people. Subsequent to this exchange, each of them refers to them repeatedly in the third person, as “the people” or “this people” (העם; העם הזה). Neither of them refers to them, as God did in the initial revelation to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:7 and passim) as “my people,” or with the dignified title, “the children of Israel”—as if both felt a certain alienation, of distance from this tumultuous, capricious bunch. Only towards the end, after God agrees not to destroy them, but still states “I will not go up with them,” but instead promises to send an angel, does Moses says “See, that this nation is Your people” (וראה כי עמך הגוי הזה; 33:13).

What does all this signify? Reading the peshat carefully, there is one inevitable conclusion: that God wished to nullify His covenant with the people Israel. It is in this that there lies the true gravity, and uniqueness, of the Golden Calf incident. We are not speaking here, as we read elsewhere in the Bible—for example, in the two great Imprecations (tokhahot) in Lev 26 and Deut 28, or in the words of the prophets during the First Temple—merely of threats of punishment, however harsh, such as drought, famine, pestilence, enemy attacks, or even exile and slavery. There, the implicit message is that, after a period of punishment, a kind of moral purgation through suffering, things will be restored as they were. Here, the very covenant itself, the very existence of an intimate connection with God, hangs in the balance. God tells Moses, “I shall make of you a people,” i.e., instead of them.

This, it seems to me, is the point of the second phase of this story. Moses breaks the tablets; he and his fellow Levites go through the camp killing all those most directly implicated in worshipping the Calf; God recants and agrees not to destroy the people. However, “My angel will go before them” but “I will not go up in your midst” (33:2, 3). This should have been of some comfort; yet this tiding is called “this bad thing,” the people mourn, and remove the ornaments they had been wearing until then. Evidently, they understood the absence of God’s presence or “face” as a grave step; His being with them was everything. That is the true importance of the Sanctuary in the desert and the Tent of Meeting, where Moses speaks with God in the pillar of cloud (33:10). God was present with them there in a tangible way, in a certain way continuing the epiphany at Sinai. All that was threatened by this new declaration.

Moses second round of appeals to God, in Exod 33:12-23, focuses on bringing God, as it were, to a full reconciliation with the people. This is the significance of the Thirteen Qualities of Mercy, of what I have called the Covenant in the Cleft of the Rock, the “faith of Yom Kippur” as opposed to that of Shavuot (see HY I: Ki Tisa; and note Prof. Jacob Milgrom’s observation that this chapter stands in the exact center, in a literary sense, of the unit known as the Hextateuch—Torah plus the Book of Joshua).

But I would add two important points. One, that this is the first place in the Torah where we read about sin followed by reconciliation. After Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Garden, they were punished without hope of reprieve; indeed, their “punishment “ reads very much like a description of some basic aspects of the human condition itself. Cain, after murdering Abel, was banished, made to wander the face of the earth. The sin of the brothers in selling Joseph, and their own sense of guilt, is a central factor in their family dynamic from then on, but there is nary a word of God’s response or intervention. It would appear that God’s initial expectation in the covenant at Sinai was one of total loyalty and fidelity. The act of idolatry was an unforgivable breach of the covenant—much as adultery is generally perceived as a fundamental violation of the marital bond.

Moses, in persuading God to recant of His jealousy and anger, to give the faithless people another chance, is thus introducing a new concept: of a covenant that includes the possibility of even the most serious transgressions being forgiven; of the knowledge that human beings are fallible, and that teshuvah and forgiveness are essential components of any economy of men living before a demanding God.

The second, truly astonishing point is the role played by Moses in all this. Moshe Rabbenu, “the man of God,” is not only the great teacher of Israel, the channel through which they learn the Divine Torah, but also, as it were, one who teaches God Himself. It is God who “reveals His Qualities of Mercy” at the Cleft of the Rock; but without Moses cajoling, arguing, persuading (and note the numerous midrashim around this theme), “were it not for my servant Moses who stood in the breach,” all this would not have happened. It was Moses who elicited this response and who, so to speak, pushed God Himself to this new stage in his relation with Israel—to give up His expectations of perfection from His covenanted people, and to understand that living within a covenant means, not rigid adherence to a set of laws, but a living relationship with real people, taking the bad with the good. (Again, the parallel to human relationships is obvious)


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