Parshat Ki Tisa

Torah Reading for Week of February 28 – March 6, 2010

“Rock in the Water”

by Rabbi Stephen Robbins
AJRCA Professor of Mystical Thought

It is the overwhelming experience that most frequently dictates the quality and character of our lives. These are watershed moments that provide constant ongoing definition and direction in the development of our self perception, fears and hopes. They influence the familiar details of our daily living in ways that we cannot fathom. The “overwhelm,” whether it is positive or negative, provides that psychological, physical and spiritual moment in which we are most challenged to understand the most fundamental qualities of our personal being. We spend the following days and years of our life extrapolating meaning, purpose and behavior in response. This is just as true for a people as it is for a person. Parshah Ki Tisa is the record of an indelible overwhelm written in the psyche of the Jewish people and by extension all of Western civilization. It is the image of the sin of the golden calf canceling the glorious experience of the power of G-d’s presence at Sinai. This darkest moment of despair, coming in the midst of the glorious fulfillment of the making of the covenant, provides us with a clear understanding of the unlimited range of possibilities for human experience. It seems characteristic of humans that while we are receiving the fulfillment of our dreams we also sabotage them so they cannot come to fruition.

What is it about us that leads us to be so paradoxical? The resolution is found in the solitary journey of Moses back up Sinai to implore forgiveness and make it possible that he and the people can continue on their journey. He implores quite simply, “Make known to me Your ways, so that I shall know how to find favor in Your eyes.” (Ex. 33:13) The “ways” that Moses is referring to are explained by Bachyah to be the Thirteen Midot, the attributes of G-d’s presence in the world, which provide forgiveness, cleansing and healing from sin. These thirteen are defined by G-d as “My Goodness” verse 19, which shall pass before Moses as G-d calls out the four letter name, Yud Kay Vav Kay, teaching us that the very name we use to call on G-d in prayer is itself the container of all of the attributes of compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

So we are taught that “G-d’s goodness” is a thorough understanding and acknowledgement of human limitations plus an expectation of our capacity for growth. In the simplicity of Moses’ broken hearted call to G-d, G-d simply reminds Moses that by calling out the name, G-ds forgiveness is always present. G-d says to Moses, “There is a place by Me, stand on the rock” (v. 21) Interestingly the word rock (tzur) is also the same as the word for trouble (tzarah), teaching that G-d stands with us in the midst of trouble like a rock in the middle of a raging river, and so we also know the word ‘tzur’ as one of G-d’s names. Then as G-d passes before Moses, calling out the Name, he is protected from G-d’s presence by G-d covering him with the “Divine Hand.” This saves him from experiencing the impact of G-d’s full presence, which would otherwise destroy him. In this act, while Moses and the people receive the fullness of G-d’s compassion, they are protected from the fullness of G-d’s judgment.

We sabotage ourselves, because we can’t tolerate the enormity of our own actions. As we flee from ourselves, G-d helps us survive by protecting us with compassion until we can find a new direction.

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