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Parashat Ki Tisa 5777 — 03/18/2017

Parashat Ki Tisa 5777 — 03/18/2017

Shemot 30:11-34:35

Virtually all the commentators dwell on the nature of the sin of the golden calf. What was the nature of the sin? Was it really idolatry? How could the Jews have fallen so low almost immediately after the spiritual elevation they had gained at the Revelation of the Torah, a mere 40 days earlier? Why, specifically, did they make a calf (young ox)? Here is some of Ramchal’s approach:

The ox represents the Attribute of Strength, Gevurah, and it is this Attribute that permits tum’ah to exist in this world, for it confines the Chesed of Hashem and confining Hashem’s Chesed leaves room for tum’ah to exist. Hashem wishes to direct the world according to man’s actions through a system of reward and punishment rather than through boundless chesed. To accomplish this, man needs to be placed in a struggle between good and evil whereby man will be either rewarded or punished for rejecting or accepting the tum’ah. Hashem’s Attribute of Strength in a sense provides the source for the existence and nourishment of tum’ah. Had Hashem wished to direct the world with boundless chesed (without His Attribute of Strength) there would be no reason for tum’ah to exist and there would be no need for man to be tested …

Tum’ah prevents kedusha from entering, thus the calf was referred to as eigel masechah, for the word masechah (“graven”) may be broken down into masach – a covering – and [the letter] heh referring to the Shechina [RAR: heh for Hashem, alternatively perhaps the meaning refers to the Midrashic teaching that the heavens were created with yod and the earth with heh, so Gd’s immanent presence on earth is symbolized by heh]. The tum’ah therefore created a covering or separation between B’nei Yisrael and the Shechina.

It appears that Ramchal is telling us that tum’ah, impurity, is an integral part of creation, according to Gd’s plan. The existence of tum’ah gives human beings the room to make moral choices – to come closer to Gd or to go in the opposite direction, to further the growth and evolution of the cosmos or to degrade it. The alternative path Ramchal proposes that Gd could have taken would have been to eliminate the tum’ah and create the world using only the Attribute of Chesed. In such a world there would be only goodness and harmony, but no room for free choice.

Interestingly, there is a Midrash that approaches this issue from the other side. It states that before the creation of this world, Gd as it were “experimented,” making a number of other worlds based solely on the Attribute of Strength (Gevurah), but discarding them as untenable. Our Sages explain that since we have free will to act in accordance with Gd’s Will or not, we will inevitably make the wrong choice some times, as “there is no man so righteous that he [always] does good and never sins” (Eccl 7:20). If there were only unmitigated gevurah in the world, the negative reaction would come instantly and crushingly, as if we stepped off a cliff. This would leave no room for one to perfect himself through t’shuvah and learning, and this situation would be as bad as not having any reaction at all.

It seems as if we’re in a lose-lose situation! I suppose this makes sense – if we are to have free will, we can choose a path that will lead to happiness or one that will lead to suffering. But I would like to suggest that this conundrum is built into the fabric of creation. Why is this?

The very nature of creation is that it is finite. There is only one Unity and that is Gd, Who of course transcends creation. (Gd is also intimately involved in every aspect of creation, but that is another discussion.) No boundaries can exist in this Unity, as it is not a Unity that is composed of an integrated collection of parts. Now if Unity and boundaries are inherently different, as they appear to be from our everyday perspective, then the process of creating boundaries is a process of distancing oneself from Unity, moving away from Gd. The concept of distance from Gd or closeness to Gd is inherent in the nature of creation itself. Our Kabbalists express this as tzimtzum, contraction – Gd as it were “contracts himself” to leave room for the finite.

There is another direction however – the direction of t’shuvah, return to Gd. This appears to be as natural a movement as the outward movement towards diversity. In physics, open thermodynamic systems with sufficient flow of energy and material through them spontaneously make transitions to more highly ordered and complex states. In our personal life we feel the urge to t’shuvah as a longing to return to a more pristine state of existence. In Kabbalistic thought this is called “running and returning,” a term used by the prophets to describe the motion of the angels. Just as “running” is inherent in the process of creation, for that is how boundaries can appear when boundlessness is all that really exists, so “returning” is inherent in the process of creation, as the finite strives to regain its infinite status.

Torah tells us that Gd is the sole, ultimate reality – ayn od milvado – there is nothing besides Him. As far as we know, human beings are the only creatures on earth that can come to this realization, not just intellectually, but on the level of mind and perception. Just as a wave on the ocean is not different from the ocean, but is an expression of the ocean, so creation is nothing more than virtual waves within Gd. We are some of those waves, but we have the ability to recognize our status, and bring the whole process of creation, of running and returning, to a blissful conclusion.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parshat Ki Tisa

In the previous parshah, we presented the view that the oil intended to provide fuel for the Eternal Wisdom is by our Sages considered symbolic of wisdom and that to me, the Eternal Flame is symbolic of Gd.

In this parshah, Gd commands Moses to tell the people to bring oil that will be enhanced by the “art of the perfumer” with various spices and will be used in anointing the Tabernacle, the Ark, the priests and various parts of the Tabernacle.

One way to look at this is that the enhancing brings out qualities in the pure oil that were latent without the enhancement. My guess is that not only were these qualities perceivable in the anointing oil but they also began to be perceivable in the un-enhanced oil used in the Eternal Flame and in Gd’s Presence in the Tabernacle and the Tent of Meeting. These qualities would be not only that of fragrance but of visibility, audibility, touchability. Gd would be Concrete.

The fact that this was needed is suggested by the fact that in this parshah we are also told that when Moses came down from listening to Gd at the top of Mt. Sinai, he found the people worshiping the Golden Calf, dancing around it. Despite hearing Gd’s voice, and seeing Gd in flame and smoke, our ancestors needed something concrete to trust in.

Along these lines my feelings are that to make Gd Concrete in our lives, we need to offer not only abstract wisdom, symbolized by pure oil, but also something we ourselves create, not something to worship instead of Gd, like the Golden Calf created by Aaron from vessels brought by our ancestors, but something to enhance our worship of Gd, to make it personal, like the enhancements of the pure oil with the spices and the art of the perfumer. Living our daily life with such creativity. Gd becomes more perceivable to us, and we do not need a Golden Calf or any material object to perceive Gd and to trust by Direct Experience that Gd is Real, Almighty, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent, Omni-Joyful. Omni-Compassionate.

The humble confidence, the friendliness, the curiosity, logic and questioning that our congregation members displayed at the Purim Celebration, led by Shai Perelson, suggests we are doing well in our cheerful lives to make our relationship with Gd, concrete and personal. This makes me very happy.

Baruch HaShem