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Parashat Ki Tisa

Parashat Ki Tisa is the twenty-first weekly portion in the Torah and the ninth in the Book of Exodus (30:11-34:35). Its first unit includes a half-dozen brief passages about the Tabernacle (30:11-31:17), while the rest (31:18-34:35) contains the only narrative in the second half of Exodus: the Sin of the Golden Calf.

The previous two portions address two aspects of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), as we have seen: Parashat Teruma focuses on Moses’ aspect, the structure of the building of God’s House; Parashat Tetzaveh focuses on Aaron’s aspect, the attire and activities of the priests who serve there. Still, Parashat Ki Tisa spends almost fifty verses talking about the Tabernacle — whose view does it express?

When we examine the headings of these half-dozen paragraphs, we find the familiar mitzva formula, “The Lord spoke/ said to Moses, to say” (last seen in 25:1). This indicates that a given command is to be transmitted to the Israelites. It is the Jewish people who must begin to take an active role, as each man must give a half-shekel to the Mishkan. The laver is to be made to wash one’s hands when entering the Courtyard — and as we see next week, it is the women of Israel who provide the raw materials for this vessel. The recipes for the anointing oil and the incense are dictated, with dire penalties prescribed for any commoner who might recreate them for use outside the Mishkan. Moreover, the actual construction of the Tabernacle requires that a talented staff of artisans be recruited; the work, which will take several months, must be confined to the six weekdays, as the Sabbath is an inviolable symbol of the covenant between God and Israel.

The rest of the portion answers a deeper question: why do the Israelites need the Mishkan at all? Why can Moses not simply receive all the commandments on Sinai, and why can Aaron and his sons not perform the service on an altar built ad hoc at the foot of the mountain?

The Sin of the Golden Calf explains this. Moses’ sojourn on Sinai ends in disaster because the people cannot bear to wait for his return, and so they manufacture an idol in the form of a calf out of molten gold. Overwhelmed, Aaron builds an altar to redirect this passion toward God, but the drunken revelry and debauchery cannot be stopped — until the Tablets of Testimony are shattered and blood is spilled!

Ultimately, the experience of direct revelation is too much for the people to handle. New tablets can be chiseled, a new covenant can be made — but the service of God requires a framework, both literal and metaphorical, to direct religious passion toward positive action.   


The portion from the Prophets is from the eighteenth chapter of the First Book of Kings, the story of Elijah the Prophet and his confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Centuries after the Golden Calf, the scourge of idolatry is still a challenge for the Israelites.

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