Divine Learning: Reflections on Parashat Ki Tissa

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Please enjoy a D'var Torah this week from Joseph Eskin, who will be a Yoetz (staff trainer) at camp this summer. Joseph was also Rosh Tikvah for three summers and Rosh Limudei Yahadut (Jewish Studies).  A lifetime Ramahnik, Joseph, a 2013 graduate of the University of Michigan, is currently teaching history at Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in New York.

Divine Learning: Reflections on Parashat Ki Tissa
by Joseph Eskin

In this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, the forty days Moses spends on Mount Sinai come to an end.  During the Torah readings of the last three weeks we have eavesdropped as God explains to Moses a multitude of laws, rituals, and ethical values; in Ki Tissa this multi-week process of teaching and learning comes to an end. The Torah describes the culminating moment:

(וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ֙ לְדַבֵּ֤ר אִתּוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י שְׁנֵ֖י לֻחֹ֣ת הָעֵדֻ֑ת לֻחֹ֣ת אֶ֔בֶן כְּתֻבִ֖ים בְּאֶצְבַּ֥ע אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (שמות ל״א:י״ח
And God gave to Moses – as He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai – the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone written with the finger of God. (Sh’mot 31:18)

The two tablets are everywhere in our world today – they hang in our synagogues, appear in classical sculptures, and are the answer to the timeless question, “Who knows two?” But this verse is actually not so clear about what the tablets are supposed to signify. Are they comparable to a diploma upon graduation, certifying Moses’ mastery of the content and readiness to carry it forward into the world? Or are they more like a gift bestowed to mark a significant occasion, like the kiddush cups many synagogues give to b’nei mitzvah (though engraved by the finger of God, rather than by the Sisterhood and/or Men’s Club)? To put it another way, are the tablets a sign that Moses has completed his learning, or are they a sign that, while he has taken an important step, his learning process has just begun?

Both of these possibilities are raised in the Midrash Tanhuma, where the rabbis focus on the phrase “And God gave to Moses – as He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai.” Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish wonders what it means that God speaks with Moses. It is comparable, he says, to a teacher-student relationship: at first, the teacher recites and then the student repeats, but when the student has completed her studies, then the teacher says to her, “Let’s recite this together, you and I.” At the end of forty days of intensive learning, God and Moses recite the laws together, joining their voices in a legal and ethical duet. Perhaps God is still guiding Moses – after all, Moses is not explaining the laws totally independently – but there is a sense that Moses has reached a critical level of mastery. The student, following closely in the footsteps of the master, is now ready to lead his people.

Rabbi Abbahu, on the other hand, zeroes in on the concept of God giving the tablets to Moses and calls forward a very different image: not of a confident student, but of a frustrated one. As he imagines the scene, Moses has been studying feverishly for forty days, only to continually forget the material. At this moment, knowing the time has come to descend the mountain, Moses despairs: “Forty days have come and gone, and I don’t know a thing!” It is at this moment that God gives the tablets to Moses as a gift. The gift does not signify that Moses has mastered the material, since by his own admission he has forgotten all of his learning. Still, it is also not an act of pure grace, as clearly Moses’ dedication, hard work, and deep intention have merited the reward. The tablets, as Rabbi Abbahu understands them, are like so many gifts that we give each other: a marker of relationship, and of love. At this moment, God does not demand perfection from Moses, but honors his commitment. God’s gift of the tablets is a reminder to Moses that, because he is invested in the relationship, God will continue to be invested as well. Just verses later, when God threatens to destroy the Israelites after their sin of the Golden Calf, Moses will remind God of a similar idea: that a relationship endures even in moments of failure.

These midrashim invite us to see the tablets not only as an emblem of the laws we are meant to follow but also as a reminder of our role as students and teachers of Torah. As students, we should push ourselves to feel confident enough to teach, and as teachers we should be open enough to allow our students to take ownership of what they learn. As students, we should seek the humility and patience required to admit that there are things we do not yet understand, and as teachers we should remind our students that we care about them, even and especially when they are still learning. The verse describes God’s gift to Moses as the “tablets of the covenant,” a sign of a dynamic and unbreakable bond. May we be blessed to study, learn, and grow in covenant with God and with the teachers and students who surround us.

Shabbat Shalom!