Posts Tagged 'Ki Tisa'

Accountability and Shame

Eikev, this week’s Torah portion, starts off with God’s blessings of obedience. From there it goes on to giving directions for taking the land, the incident of the Golden Calf, Aaron’s death, the Levites’ duties, and closes with exhortations to serve God. While most of the book Deuteronomy is just repeating older content, but here it is clear that the Golden Calf situation happened in Ki Tisa, here Moshe is just recalling their misdeeds. From their worship of the Golden Calf, the rebellion of Korach, the sin of the spies, their angering of God at Taveirah, Massah and Kivrot Hataavah (“The Graves of Lust”). Moshe seems to be rubbing their nose in it. “You have been rebellious against G‑d,” he says to them, “since the day I knew you.” Why us Moshe reminding them of their errant ways?

This question gets more interesting for the Rambam in his Mishnah Torah Laws if Teshuvah. Rambam explains that Baalei teshuvah tend to be humble and modest. If foolish people shame them because of their previous sins by reminding them of their former deeds, they will pay them no mind. Just the opposite, they will rejoice because they know that overcoming these things is a source of merit for them. When a baal teshuvah is embarrassed because of his former deeds, his merit increases and his level is elevated. It is absolutely sinful to remind a baal teshuvah of their former deeds or to recount them in their presence in order to embarrass them. It is even prohibited to discuss the situation vaguely in order to cause them to recall their sins. This is a form of verbal oppression, which the Torah forbids, saying, “Do not wrong one another” (Leviticus 25:17). (Teshuvah 7:8)

So, why would Moshe remind them of their sins? I am not sure I have a good answer, but I know this speaks to an issue we are struggling with in society today. How do we keep people accountable without resorting to shame? Shame is arresting and makes it hard to do anything. But removal of all shame seems to lead to no accountability. We need to thread this needle for Moshe and for us today if we hope to lead ourselves out of the wilderness.

No Soap Radio : Being on the Inside of Learning

No soap radio” is a form of practical joke and an example of surreal comedy. The joke is a prank whereby the punch line has no relation to the body of the joke; but participants in the prank pretend otherwise. The effect is to either trick someone into laughing along as if they “get it” or to ridicule them for not understanding. While I never found these jokes particularly funny, they do bring to light the nature of humor is that is creates or defines a group. Does a joke define a group by including or excluding people?

I was thinking about this question when reading the start of parshat Ki Tisa, this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites are told to contribute exactly half a shekel of silver to the Sanctuary. Instructions are also given regarding the making of the Sanctuary’s water basin, anointing oil and incense. “Wise-hearted” artisans Betzalel and Aholiav are placed in charge of the Sanctuary’s construction. There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Yehudah. I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft

Exodus 31:1-3

What was this quality of being “wise-hearted” or having a “divine spirit”? At some level this speaks to a notion of intuition or artistic imagination that they had. About Betzalel we learn later when explaining how Betzalel understood something that God told Moshe better than Moshe. Rashi quotes the Gemara in Berachot:

Moshe said to him [Beztalel], “You were in the shadow of God [בְּצֵל אֵל, which is the meaning of Bezalel’s name. I.e., you are right], for surely that is what the Holy One, blessed be God, commanded me.” [from Ber. 55a]

Rashi on Exodus 38:22

Betzalel’s artistic wisdom came from his being in the “shadow of God”. In an interesting way Moshe admits that Betzalel is on the inside of the joke in a way that Moshe himself is on the outside.

I was thinking about the origin of Betzalel’s name in contrast to the famous story of Hillel. Hillel was very poor in his younger days. He would earn only half a dinar for an entire day’s work, some of which he spent to gain admittance into the study hall. The entrance fee was one quarter of a dinar, leaving him with a daily allowance of one quarter of a dinar to live on. Yet, even in such poverty, Hillel the Elder never considered using the money on anything other than the study of Torah. One Friday, he found no work. Unable to pay the entrance fee, he was denied admittance into the study hall of Shemaya and Avtalyon. Hillel was so determined to continue learning that he climbed on to the roof and listened to the lecture through a skylight. It was the depths of winter, and snow began to fall. Hillel remained on the roof all night, and was buried in snow. The next morning, Shemaya realized that there was a figure blocking the sunlight. The students retrieved him from the roof, and even though it was Shabbat, lit a fire to warm him. Although it is forbidden to light a flame on Shabbat, one is commanded to do so in the case of saving a life. There we read:

The Sages continued and said: That day was Shabbat eve and it was the winter season of Tevet, and snow fell upon him from the sky. When it was dawn, Shemaya said to Avtalyon: Avtalyon, my brother, every day at this hour the study hall is already bright from the sunlight streaming through the skylight, and today it is dark; is it perhaps a cloudy day? They focused their eyes and saw the image of a man in the skylight. They ascended and found him covered with snow three cubits high. They extricated him from the snow, and they washed him and smeared oil on him, and they sat him opposite the bonfire to warm him. They said: This man is worthy for us to desecrate Shabbat for him. Saving a life overrides Shabbat in any case; however, this great man is especially deserving. Clearly, poverty is no excuse for the failure to attempt to study Torah.

Yoma 35b

Hillel is not on the inside crowd, but he desperately wants to have access to Torah. So much so, that he put his health at risk. The next day when they come in there is a pall on the Beyt Midrash. In this moment the older generation of scholars are being literally eclipsed by the next generations leading light. Just as Betzalel was in the shade of God, the Beyt Midrash is in Hillel’s shadow. In this case, the spot light is on how exclusive they were being.

It is always better feeling the warmth of being on the inside of a joke and a group. What is the nature of Jewish learning that makes so many people feel like they just do not get the joke?

Bezalel Design Thinking

As of late there has been a lot of talk of using Design Thinking in reforming Jewish Education. What is design thinking? Design Thinking has come to be defined as combining empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality in analyzing and fitting various solutions to the problem context. The premise of teaching Design Thinking is that by knowing about how designers approach problems and the methods which they use to ideate, select and execute solutions, individuals and businesses will be better able to improve their own problem solving processes and take innovation to a higher level.

It seems that knowing your students and the context in which they exist is important to design optimal educational experiences for them. But is this a new idea?

Recently I was talking with Alon Meltzer who had some really interesting insights into the development of the character of Bezalel. In the Talmud we learn that Bezalel must have been sitting in the tzel- shadow, listening in on the divine plan, and that is where he got his name (Berachot 55a). In his nature he was an observer.

In Ki Sisa we were introduced to Bezalel. We read:

See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah,and I have imbued him with the spirit of God, with wisdom, with insight, with knowledge, and with [talent for] all manner of craftsmanship ( Exodus 31:2)

Bezalel was filled the ruach, Holy Spirit. Rashi quotes the Sifrei to explain:

With his intellect he understands other things based on what he learned. With his intellect he understands other things based on what he learned

According to Rashi, the Holy spirit was his intellectual capacity to take an idea and make it into reality.

In Vayakhel we repeat the building of the Mishkan. There we are reintroduced to Bezalel and his God-given talents.  There we read:

Bezalel and Oholiav and every wise hearted man into whom God had imbued wisdom and insight to know how to do, shall do all the work of the service of the Holy, according to all that the Lord has commanded. ’With his intellect he understands other things based on what he learned’( Exodus 36:1)

This  seems to echo what Rashi was explaining that he knew how to brainstorm real life solutions.

And then in Pekuday, this week’s Torah portion we read:

Bezalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, had made all that the Lord had commanded Moses.  (Exodus 38:22)

Here Rashi explains Bezalel’s ingenuity. He was able to realize that while Moshe was shown the utensils of the Mishkan first, it would be impractical to build them first, so he reversed the order and first built the house, and then the utensils.

Bezalel has insight and wisdom bestowed upon him from God. Then Bezalel takes these designs and prototypes them, constructing things according to plan and everything is ‘as God commanded him’. And finally this week Bezalel goes beyond and reimagines the project, and introduces his own vision in the implementation of the design. Bezalel seems to move seamlessly from observing to brainstorming, to prototyping, and finally to implementing. Bezalel seems to manifest this Design Thinking process. Maybe he can inspire us to rethink Jewish Education. 

Burning Curiosity

In Ki Tisa,  this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the receiving of the Tablets, the Sabbath, the Golden Calf Incident (GCI), the breaking of Tablets, and then the revelation of God’s self to Moshe. During the GCI God tells Moshe to go deal with the people of Israel. We read:

And the Lord spoke to Moshe: ‘Go, get yourself down; because your people, that you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshiped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said: This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.’ And the Lord said to Moshe: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people. Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation.’ And Moshe sought the Lord his God, and said: ‘Lord, why does Your wrath wax hot against Your people, that You have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? ( Exodus 32: 7-11)

Moshe goes on to advocate for his people. Why does Moshe stick up for his people? What is his motivation?

One approach to this question is to compare this post GCI interaction between God and Moshe to their first meeting at Horev . We read:

Now Moshe was keeping the flock of Yitro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the farthest end of the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, to Horev. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’ ( Exodus 3:1-3)

There is no doubt that the people “turned aside” to idolatry too quickly. Moshe sees something else in this “stiffnecked people”. He sees himself. Just like Moshe was hot-headed in killing the Egyptian Taskmaster who was beating the Israelite slave, in making the Golden Calf they rushed to deal with the perceived absence of leadership. Moshe can also see the positive qualities that lead him to “turn aside” and taking notice of this miraculous bush. However misdirected I am left assuming that the people were coming from a place of burning curiosity.

Just as he got another chance, Moshe argues that the Israelites need another chance . The very nature of our being is that we make mistakes. While their actions are bad, they are not. Can we see under that they have great qualities. They have curiosity and passion, the question is can Moshe and God help them redirect that in a positive direction. Seeing the inner good in people and helping them channel it for good seems to be the role of every parent and teacher. I think Plutarch got it right when he said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

The Tardy Animal

On Shabbat Chol HaMoed we read a section of Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 33:12- 34: 26). The portion that we read is post Golden Calf Incident (GCI). We read of the creation of the second tablets which seem to speak to the repairing the relationship post GCI. What is the meaning of recalling the GCI on Passover?

Earlier in the portion in Ki Tisa we read:

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’  (Exodus 32:1)

For people who had just experienced so many tremendous miracles they seem pretty quick to make an idol. But that is secondary to their leaving no room for Moses being tardy. Have any of us known any world leader who is actually punctual?

In our context of Chag HaMatzot– Passover the Holiday of Unleavened Bread- their not excusing Moses running late is particularly poignant. Why do we eat Matzah on Passover? As we read in the Haggadah:

Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)

So yes, when the time came for them to finally leave they did not delay, but that final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus. Moses came and told the slaves that they will be leaving before all of those plagues. While they did not have Tupperware to pack great provisions for the trip, why did they not prepare a little better? You think they would have prepared some bagels for the trip, they travel quite well.  It seems that is was not only Pharaoh who did not believe in the God of the Israelites. The slaves themselves procrastinated in getting ready to leave the world they knew. While we call it the bread of affliction, the affliction is procrastination. We all run late and wait until the last-minute to get things done, or worse did not believe we were actually leaving until it was too late to prepare.

So we have Chag HaMatzot a holiday that you cannot do last-minute. We actually start to prepare for Passover a month in advance. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” we should remember where we were in terms of our faith and be more forgiving of Moses who was running a little late receiving the Tablets on Har Sinai. When I am running late or procrastinating I assume that other people will understand because I am doing God’s work, but God forbid someone wastes my time. We all have to work on this double standard. Maybe if we work on this quality we will bring the Messiah a little faster, thou s/he may tarry.

Erase Me

A few of weeks ago Yishama, our 4-year-old, declared to Adina, out of no where, that God drew the world in pencil. When she asked him why, he responded, ” So God can erase it if He needs to.” I have asked Yishama a couple of times since what he meant by that. He just smiles as me as if it is obvious. I am not sure what he meant, but maybe this week’s Torah portion will help.

We read of the people sinning with the Golden Calf while Moses was getting the Ten Commandments. Moses comes down from Mt. Sinai and deals with the sinners.  And then we  read,

31 And Moses returned unto the Lord, and said: ‘Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold. 32 Yet now, if You will forgive their sin–; and if not, blot me, I pray of You, out of Your book which You have written.’ 33 And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘Whosoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book. Exodus 32: 31-33

If God does not keep God’s promise to the Israelites, Moses asks to be erased. While Avraham confronted God at his destruction of Sodom, Moses pulls off the ultimate Keyser Söze. As imperfect as they are, Moses puts himself on the line and casts his lot with the people of Israel.

In the Bible it seems that history is an iterative process.  First in the two creation stories God keeps on trying and trying again. This continues when God decides to start again and brings a flood. God promises that God will not do that again, but then recreates the world with a famine (profound anti- Flood) in the story of Joseph. And now again God threatens to erase these people and start again with Moses. In this moment Moses ends the pattern of erasing. Moses makes God commit to this version, this people, and this world. In this episode we truly become the People of the Book. With Moses, the book is published and cannot be erased. Moses teaches us, on an existential level, why text matters so much.

Our son Yadid is in first grade this year. This means that he started having homework this year. It is great. He is learning to read in Hebrew and English, repairing for spelling tests and all that. Adina and I have been very careful to have him do his homework in pencil. He often is making mistakes and is erasing his work in order to get it right.

We undo ourselves when we think we are infallible and do not need to write in pencil. We also fail when we think we can get by without having to commit. There is a time for pen and a time for pencil. I think Yishama was teaching us that God is infallible because God planned on making mistakes. I think what we learn from Moses is that at some point we need to commit ourselves even if it is not perfect. All too often progress is lost in the pursuit of perfection.


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