Dvar Torah: Ki Tisa / Parah

Shabbat Shalom and mazal tov to J___, Jon, Andrea, and the entire Kamens/Bresky family. Thank you for the honor of inviting me to share a few words of Torah tonight.

Thirty-five years ago on Shabbat Parah, parshat Ki Tisa, _I_ became a bar mitzvah.

_Thirty_ years ago, Jon and I met on our first day at MIT and became fast friends.

And of course a bat mitzvah is inherently a marking of the passage of years.

So tonight my thoughts turn towards how the Torah, and in particular how these two parshiot, Ki Tisa and Parah, expect us to view time.

Ki Tisa starts by continuing the theme of the last two parshiyot, with detailed instructions for the construction of the mishkan and its vessels. That concludes with the injunction to keep the Shabbat:

שֵׁ֣שֶׁת _יָמִים֮ _יֵעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ _וּבַיּ֣וֹם_ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֧ת שַׁבָּת֛וֹן קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַה
כָּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֧ה מְלָאכָ֛ה _בְּי֥וֹם_ הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃

Six _days_ may work be done, but on the seventh _day_ there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to Hashem; whoever does work on the _day_ of the sabbath shall be put to death.

While _we_ tend to think of Shabbat as a _weekly_ occurrence, the wording _here_ is six days, then the seventh day; the word Yom recurs as “b’yom ha-shabbat”. “Day” is clearly a key word in this pasuk.

Our parasha then transitions directly into the episode of the molten calf, which begins

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר

The people saw that Moshe delayed in coming down from the mountain….

The Gemara, Shabbat 89a, explains:

(אמר) ר’ יהושע בן לוי מ”ד (שמות לב, א) וירא העם כי בושש משה אל תקרי בושש אלא באו שש בשעה שעלה משה למרום אמר להן לישראל לסוף ארבעים יום בתחלת שש אני בא

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the people saw that Moses delayed [boshesh] to come down from the mount” (Exodus 32:1)? Do not read the word boshesh; rather, read it as ba’u shesh, the sixth [hour] has arrived. When Moses ascended on High, he told the Jewish people: In forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour, I will arrive.

Aharon attempts to placate the people, “Vayomer, chag lashem _machar_”, a festival to Hashem will be _tomorrow_. And after the Leviim kill those who committed idol worship, Moshe says to them: v’latet Aleichem HAYOM b’racha – that Hashem should place a blessing on you THIS DAY; and the Torah continues,  “Vayhi _mimachorat_”, and it occurred on the _morrow_

We can see that throughout this section of the parasha, from the introduction of Shabbat through the end of the episode of the molten calf, the Torah insists that we perceive time in units of _days_.

There’s a similar linguistic focus on _days_ in Maftir Parah, with its emphasis on seven _days_ (not referred to as a week), specifically the third day and the seventh day. Mafitr Parah is concerned with how the individual is rendered separate from — and then reenters — the community after encountering death, and perhaps in that context the focus on processing each day one at a time, not as a week-long clump, earns the Torah its Talmudic nickname of Rachamana, the merciful one.

But the echo of a day-centric worldview between the Maftir and the main Parasha is striking.

Returning to Ki Tisa, Moshe next experiences a sublime transformative event, an encounter with the Eternal. After pleading first for the continuity of Bnei Israel, Moshe puts in a special plea for himself. He asks to see God’s glory; God famously replies “No human can see me and live” but promises to hide Moshe in the cleft of a rock. Moshe re-ascends Har Sinai with the second set of tablets, and then God crosses before him: Vayaavor Hashem al Panav… (which Ramban explains as  וטעם ויעבר ה’ על פניו שקיים אני אעביר כל טובי על פניך. — and the reason “God crossed before him” was to fulfil the earlier verse, “I shall cause all my goodness to cross before you”)

…Vayikra… — and God proclaims:

ה ׀ ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙—

And when we recite the 13 attributes of mercy, we stop there. But it’s the middle of the pasuk — we’ve even blown past the etnachta and stopped mid-phrase. How does God continue?

לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

God points out that the consequences of our actions affect not only ourselves but our children, and our grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations.

Moshe’s perspective changes — for the first time, he’s thinking past tomorrow!

And the very next section of the parsha delivers the structure of Jewish time. In this passage, the Torah mentions days, weeks, months, seasons, and years.

שֵׁ֤שֶׁת _יָמִים֙ _ תַּעֲבֹ֔ד וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תִּשְׁבֹּ֑ת
וְחַ֤ג _שָׁבֻעֹת֙_ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לְךָ֔
כִּ֚י _בְּחֹ֣דֶשׁ_ הָֽאָבִ֔יב יָצָ֖אתָ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
_בֶּחָרִ֥ישׁ וּבַקָּצִ֖יר_ תִּשְׁבֹּֽת
וְחַג֙ הָֽאָסִ֔יף _תְּקוּפַ֖ת_הַשָּׁנָֽה_׃
שָׁלֹ֥שׁ פְּעָמִ֖ים _בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה_ יֵרָאֶה֙ כָּל־זְכ֣וּרְךָ֔

and even generations:

כֹּ֣ל _בְּכ֤וֹר_בָּנֶ֙יךָ֙_ תִּפְדֶּ֔ה

The Torah’s timeframe — our timeframe — has shifted. And while a mere column ago, before Moshe’s encounter, God said:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה פְּסָל־לְךָ֛ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים כָּרִאשֹׁנִ֑ים
וְכָתַבְ_תִּי֙_ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָי֛וּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ׃

Hashem said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and _I_ will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.

Now that Moshe comprehends the holy view of time, the parsha concludes with Hashem telling Moshe:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה כְּתָב־_לְךָ_֖ אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה …

And Hashem said to Moses: _You_ write down these commandments.

וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֗ת אֵ֚ת דִּבְרֵ֣י הַבְּרִ֔ית עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים׃

And he [Moshe] wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Utterances.

Moshe has learned to step back from the immediate pressures of “this day” and to peer along the arc of history. He has gained the perspective needed for God to entrust him with the sacred task of writing on the tablets as God’s shaliach, of becoming the intermediary through which the mesorah is passed down.

___, you are now becoming, like Moshe, an intermediary. You are no longer merely a student receiving Torah, but as a Jewish adult you are now a full participant in the continuing millennia-old conversation about what God wants of us. Moshe’s experience compels us to confront the question of how to see the perspective of those millennia with one eye and, with the other, the demands of each day – the needs of _today_.

After the Divine revelation at Sinai, we received the promise: וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם. They will build me a holy place and I will dwell amongst them. But the Torah’s detailed instructions laden with exact measurements can feel like a distraction; similarly, its emphasis at the beginning of our parsha on seeing each day as standing alone may teach us that the people were so focused on the day-to-day minutae that they lost sight of the big picture and stumbled into sin.

J___, one thing that your father and I have in common is that we are both, to put it politely, detail-oriented people. And I know that preparing for a bat mitzvah not only requires an attention to detail; it also involves counting the days. But becoming a bat mitzvah is not about the day. It’s not about the week and its parasha. It’s not even about the year you attain your Jewish adulthood. It’s about the rest of your life.

My wish for you this Shabbat is that you continue to find balance in the many time horizons and levels through which you experience Jewish life. May the details not distract you from the overarching spiritual beauty of our inheritance, and may the big picture not wash out the details that keep it vibrant.

Mazal tov and Shabbat Shalom.

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