Reflections on Parashat Ki Tissa
Linda Hoffenberg
Director of Institutional Advancement

When you ask campers, staff members and alumni about their favorite Ramah memories, you’ll often hear “Kabbalat Shabbat down by the lake” at the top of the list. It’s a magical moment each week when the camp community gathers to “cease from work and be refreshed,” a phrase we find in this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa.

My own memories of Shabbat at camp came to mind when I read a dvar Torah by Rabbi Abigail Treu of the Jewish Theological Seminary on this week’s Torah reading. Rabbi Treu demonstrates that the theme of “making things” is woven through this entire Torah portion. The verb ע.ש.ה (asah) —to make or to do—is found in every part of Ki Tissa, beginning with God’s instructions to Moses. First, that he should make the laver of copper and its stand, then take spices and make a sacred anointing oil, and again take herbs to  make incense. It is clearly stated that only Moses can make these things – no one else – and only in the way God has directed.

Next comes the work of furnishing the Tabernacle, and this time it is Bezalel who is singled out to make things. We learn he has been filled with the spirit of God, in wisdom, understanding, and in knowledge … to work in all manner of workmanship. We also learn that in the hearts of all that are wise-hearted God has put wisdom, that they may make all that God has commanded them.

Later in the parasha, the tablets inscribed by God are described as ma’aseh elohim, God’s work. The same verb l’asot is also used by God to describe all God will do for Moses and the people.

Rabbi Treu sees this as a possible explanation for why the Israelites feel compelled to make the golden calf. With so much making of holy objects—by Moses, Bezalel and his crew, and God—the Israelites are looking for an outlet for their creative and religious expression. Since God hasn’t given them a concrete assignment of what to make, perhaps they feel they can take matters into their own hands. 

But even if God hasn’t told the Israelites what to make, they do know what they are not supposed to make. They’ve just learned at Sinai that they are forbidden to make an idol. Clearly they haven’t listened, or maybe they haven’t understood what they heard.

Obviously even though the Israelites heard God’s voice from the mountain, they have not internalized it; their hearing doesn’t lead to an understanding of their role in the divine plan. Unlike Bezalel, they are not filled with a holy spirit.

They don’t understand that what God wants the Israelites to do, to make, is not a holy object, but a holy world—a world made holy through the performance of acts.

The laws in Yitro and Mishpatim are just the beginning; if only the people hadn’t stopped listening, or had understood from the 10 Commandments that they were being given some very holy work to do.

God does not want the Israelites—us—to spend our days making holy things. God wants us to spend our days making things holy. Things like time and relationships. Things like the most basic acts of eating and speaking. This is what the Israelites did not hear at the foot of the mountain; in their eagerness to create something holy they missed the job that was given specifically to them.

And it actually could not be stated more clearly. Right before we read about the making of the golden calf, we read these verses in Shemot 31:16-17:

ושמרו בני ישראל את השבת לעשות את השבת לדורותם ברית עולם.  ביני ובין בני ישראל אות היא לעולם.  כי ששת ימים עשה ה’ את השמיים ואת הארץ.  וביום השביעי שבת ויינפש.

The Israelite people shall keep Shabbat, observing or making Shabbat throughout the ages as a covenant for all time between Me and the people of Israel.  For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and was refreshed.

When we observe Shabbat with our families during the year and with our camp community during the summer, we are working to achieve an understanding of our role in the covenant.

This search adds purpose and meaning to our lives. Shabbat gives us a holy framework to refrain from work and be refreshed. Each week we have the opportunity to try to make things holy, like time and relationships, and reconnect to the nefesh, the divine spirit, inside each one of us.

Shabbat Shalom