Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Ki Tissa

Parashat Ki Tissa

March 18, 2007

By Michael G. Kohn

Jews speak often and passionately about ‘community.’ Whether it is ‘the Jewish community,’ or ‘our community,’ the word conjures up something special, something important. But ‘community’ is more than a word; it is a living, breathing, organic entity that we Jews have tried to build and perfect for millennia. For all the drama in Ki Tissa ‘ this week’s parashah ‘ the Torah teaches us about ‘community,’ its triumphs and its failures.

Ki Tissa describes enough high points and low points for the Israelites to comprise a modern day roller coaster. Yet, each of these constitute a paradigm for the struggles of an emerging community seeking to find its way.

At the outset, the Torah portrays G-d, like any concerned parent, cautiously molding the children into a family; directing the Israelites into a true community dedicated to one another and to G-d’s commandments. Moses is told by G-d that ‘every one’ of the Israelites ‘from twenty years and onward shall give an offering to the Lord. The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less than the half-shekel . . . for the service of the Tent of Meeting . . . .’ In this community, each person was viewed by G-d as an equal. Do we view each individual as an equal in our communities?

Moreover, some of the implements of worship, as described in the Torah, act as a metaphor for community. Moses is directed by G-d to take certain spices to compound the incense, ‘an equal part of each.’ Again, though each spice is different, each is to be an equal part of the whole. Moreover, one of the spices ‘ helb’nah, or galbanum ‘ emits a disagreeable odor. Yet, G-d directed that it be part of that incense to be placed in the Tent of Meeting where G-d will meet with Moses. Rashi explained that the Torah counts helb’nah among the incense spices to teach us that we should not look down on including the sinners of Israel in our public fasts and prayers; that they should be counted as one of us. (See BT Kritot 6a) Do we accept even those with whom we disagree into our communities as equals?

The centerpiece of this parashah is the Golden Calf story. It is through this episode that we learn that a transformation has taken place. Notwithstanding that the Israelites were committing the most grievous of sins, we see that they were acting as a community ‘ a community which humans, rather than G-d, had fashioned. The Torah recounts that Vayitparku kol ha’am nizmei hazahav asher b’awznayim vay’vi’u el Aharon ‘ ‘And all the people removed the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.'( Ex. 32:3)

That the Golden Calf resulted from that transformation was due to a failure of human leadership and not a defect inherent in the concept of community. Rashi points out that Aaron thought that the wives and children would resist giving up their jewelry and the delay would be enough to allow Moses to return from the mountain. But having set the idea in motion, when Moses didn’t return in that time frame, Aaron followed through with the fashioning of the idol and the festival which followed the next day. The Torah confirms this failure of human leadership: ki f’ra’oh Aharon l’shimtzah b’kameihem ‘ ‘for Aaron had exposed them to disgrace before their enemies.’ (32:25)

It has been the nature of Jewish life throughout the centuries to disagree with each other. But disagreement did not necessarily mean exclusion from the community. The Schools of Hillel and Shammai disagreed with one another, but found a way to live with each other and even marry one another. There exist similar examples throughout Jewish history.

Today, however, the Jewish community is becoming increasingly fragmented into smaller and smaller groups, each having little or nothing to do with the other, and threatening to destroy the concept of ‘the Jewish community.’ It’s time we all took a step back and look again at Ki Tissa. It was G-d who fashioned the individual Israelites into a community, each with equal status, including even those who were disagreeable. Maintaining that community is now in human hands and those who seek to tear it apart, isolating one part from another, are, like Aaron, committing a grievous sin, for they are destroying that which G-d created.