Parshat Ki Tisa

Torah Reading for Week of February 25-March 3, 2018

“The Golden Calf vs. The Megillah”
By Rabbi Alicia Magal, ’03

The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.


So many different themes are presented in Parshat Ki Tisa:

  • Moses takes a census of the Israelites and collects a half-shekel from each person (30:11-16)
  • God tells Moses to construct a laver, water basin, and to prepare anointing oil and incense for the ordination of the Cohanim. Bezalel and Oholiab, skilled artisans, are assigned to make objects for the Cohanim and the Mishkan. (30:17-31:11)
  • The Israelites are instructed to keep Shabbat as a sign of their covenant with God. God gives Moses the two tablets of the Testimony. (31:12-18)
  • The Israelites ask Aaron to build them a Golden Calf while Moses is up on the mountain. Moses implores God not to destroy the people and then breaks the two tablets of the Pact on which the Ten Commandments are written when he sees the golden calf-idol.   (32:1-35)
  • Moses goes back up the mountain with a blank set of stone tablets for another forty days so that God will again inscribe the Ten Commandments. Other laws, including the edict to observe the Pilgrimage Festivals, are also revealed at this time. (34:1-28)
  • Moses comes down from the mountain with a radiant face. (34:29-35)


In past years, I have focused my comments about Ki Tisa on the half shekel, and the use of this silver in making the posts surrounding the courtyard of the Mishkan, or why the Children of Israel reverted to idol worship and had Aaron use their gold to cast a Golden Calf idol while Moses was up on Mt. Sinai, or how Moses’ going up again to Mt. Sinai to receive a second set of tablets is related to Yom Kippur and forgiveness… but this year, as Ki Tisa is read in the week of Purim, I am choosing to look for connections and contrasts between the Torah portion and the themes of Megillat Esther, the scroll read on the holiday of Purim. When a Torah portion falls near a holiday or festival, it is natural to look for connections between the teachings, customs, and themes of the holiday and the portion of the week.


Ki Tisa contains the story of the Golden Calf, when the Israelites turned away from an intangible all-encompassing God to a solid, golden idol in the form of a calf.  The idea of matanot l’evyonim and mishloach manot, two of the four mitzvot of Purim, demonstrates the importance of making offerings to friends and to the poor as a good use of money.  It’s about Giving.  This kind of use of our resources is a tikkun, a repair, for the golden calf, which was an example of using wealth for idol worship or an unholy, self-defeating, empty purpose. Building a golden statue and imbuing it with divinity is useless, but offering gold and beautiful materials for building the Mishkan, as in the instructions regarding the Tabernacle, or for sending gifts and Tzedakah at Purim, those are building something real, helpful to the community, and resonating with divine purpose.


In Ki Tisa, the people demanding an idol wish to see a solid, concrete image of a god, in the form of a calf, a diminutive of the cow god they had seen in Egypt during their years of slavery.  In the Megillah, God is hidden, but faith in God’s hand permeates the text. We learn to be courageous and have faith, and NOT to be reduced by fear to seeking Divine assistance in false places.


In the upside-down trope of the megillah, in the midst of masks, costumes, noisemakers and merriment, let us continue to see the potent  and serious lessons of Purim – speaking truth to power, being courageous in standing up for our people, having a strong Jewish identity, and seeking to give gifts to others rather than grab for ourselves.


Both the messages of Ki Tisa and of Purim help realign us to seeking God not through idolatrous pursuits but through Mitzvot and compassionate giving.