March 11, 2004
Parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11 - 34:35)
Years ago, my husband and I climbed the alleged Mount Sinai, the Perseus shower streaked the Egyptian night sky with shooting stars.
At the summit, as God pulled the sun up from the fragrant desert floor, Jonathan held up a ring and proposed.
It is written in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), "Every day a voice goes forth from Sinai." That dawn, I heard the reverberation of a sacred voice in the words, "Would you be willing to spend you life with me...."
The revelation at Mount Sinai was a wedding. It was an eternal, loving joining between God and Israel. The story that we read is but a veil covering a radiance we must allow ourselves to know.
This Torah portion, Ki Tisa, begins with Moses taking a census. God chooses Betzalel to be the artisan of the Tabernacle. Moses climbs Mount Sinai, shrouded in mist and mystery, while the Israelites below build their golden idol. When Moses sees this he breaks the stone tablets and grinds up the golden calf, making the Israelites drink it. Moses ascends the mountain a second time. When he descends his face is so radiant he must wear a veil.
But when a light wind blows from the west, the mist is disturbed and we see the radiant face just beneath the veil of text.
Moses was the master alchemist. He climbed the mountain and hid in the cleft of the tzur (rock). He spoke with the philosopher's stone face to face. He held the two tablets of prime matter in his hands. When he ground up the calf into a fine powder, stirred it into water and held it up into the air -- a brilliant liquid shimmering with flakes of gold -- he created a dizzyingly potent potion, a love potion, an elixir of life. A toast!
We drink of it. Our eyes are opened to see beneath the veil.
Ki Tisa is not about frenzied idol worship, but the detailed description of a spectacular wedding feast between God and the people Israel.
God the lover and Moses the beloved take a census of who shall be invited, and they make a long guest list. Betzalel is singled out to decorate the tent, arrange the flowers and adorn the feast.
Time passes and we find ourselves in the whirl of the banquet festivity. There is dancing and singing, and in the very center, what seems to be a golden calf, but it is the glittering pile of precious wedding gifts. High on the bima, under a chupah of cloud, God presents Moses with the marriage contract, our ketuba. One commentator points out that verse 31:18 which is translated, "When He finished (ke'challoto) speaking with him, He gave Moses the two tablets..." could also be read "As his bride (also ke'challoto) speaking with him." Some commentators understand Israel to be the groom and Torah the bride. Moses turns around in the chupah, and faces the guests. He lifts the contract for all to see and then smashes the glass beneath his foot, or breaks a plate as in the traditional tennaim (engagement) ceremony.
Now it is time for yichud, when husband and wife are alone together for the first time. In Exodus 33:12-23, we read excerpts from a conversation between God and Moses, sounding particularly romantic: "Pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor. You have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name. Oh let me behold Your presence! I will make all My goodness pass before you."
And God's hand reaches out for Moses.
Moses comes down from the mountain blushing, a crimson glow in his cheeks. When he went in to the tent to meet our love, he removed his veil, so only God should see his glowing face, but when he left the tent, he lowered the veil.
When the potion wore off the children of Israel looked around them. Once again they were in the desert, long dragged-out footsteps stretching behind them. And they said to one another, "Love is in this place and we did not know it. What have we been doing all of this time? Where have we been? Is this the desert, or is it Gan Eden? Are we lost and alone, or are we this moment caught up in a fierce union with God? Are we wandering with sandals filled with dust, or are we soaring on eagle's wings? Is it Purim or Yom Kippur?"
We look from one to the other and wonder what is the face beneath the face we wear every day? Sometimes the beauty of the other is as allusive as a sunray on the water. On Purim we celebrate the masquerade of living. Now, we discard the masks and unlid our eyes. We seek the radiant face beneath the veil.
Messy world. Angry, idolatrous world. Tired, hungry, sick and sorry world. But if we could lift the sooty, splattered veil....
This thing between God and Israel, it is not that we are in covenant. It is that we are in love. Every day a voice comes forth from Sinai and begs your answer, "Would you be willing to spend your life with Me?"
Zoë Klein is associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah.