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Bet Israel Masorti Synagogue

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19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Phone: 972-(0)9-862-4345

Parshat Ki Tisa – 2016

Dvar Torah by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, 18th Adar I 5776, 27th February 2016


With Moshe on top of the mountain and the people going AWOL from聽God down below, there’s a lot going on. But even more is bubbling under聽the surface of this story, especially between Moshe and God.聽We understand the people. They are slaves at heart, who need a leader 鈥撀爓ho in the meantime has taken a 40-day leave and they have doubts聽about whether he will return.

Now listen to this conversation:聽God tells Moshe, go down because YOUR NATION which YOU took up聽out of Egypt has gone corrupt. I have seen this nation and they are聽stubborn. According to the commentary of Abarbanel, at this point God聽waits for a response from Moshe, who is too embarrassed to speak. So聽God continues: Now, allow me and I’ll devastate them and make you into聽a great nation.

Moshe immediately goes on the defensive: Why are you so wroth against聽YOUR NATION, that YOU TOOK OUT of Egypt with great might.聽Repent of your anger against YOUR NATION. Remember Abe and Ike聽and Jake and your promises to them, etc. And so God repented of his ire聽and desire to punish HIS nation.

Moshe descends with two stone tablets with God’s writing on them and聽he sees what God had seen before. He is livid. He smashes the tablets. He聽calls for mass cleansing and the tribe of Levi slays 3000 idol worshippers.

Moshe goes up a second time, in an attempt to appease God, although聽God has already said he will not destroy the people. Moshe did.

Listen to the next dialogue. Moshe says: THIS NATION (neutral) has聽sinned a great sin. And now please bear with their sin, and if not, erase聽me from your book (the Torah). To which God answers, (listen): go and聽guide the nation, the one I talked to you about (He can’t even say our聽name) and my angel will walk before you. And when the day of聽reckoning comes, I will reckon up their sins. And then, God brought聽down a plague on the idol worshippers that Moshe hadn’t gotten to.

Now comes the biggest turnaround in the whole story. The very next聽sentence goes back to the beginning. God says, take yourselves out of聽here, you and the NATION THAT YOU TOOK OUT OF EGYPT and聽bring them to the land that I promised their ancestors.

Moshe is trying to calm down God so that he won’t destroy Israel. But聽Moshe is so incensed that he instigates a cleansing. God agrees not to聽destroy Israel but at the same time, cannot allow himself to dwell among聽the people, who are stubborn and spiteful. That description sounds聽familiar!


Was it chutzpa or was it taking advantage of a second chance? In today’s聽parsha we have what might be one of the most chutzpadik statements in聽the Torah (even more so than Yitro telling Moshe that his way of judging聽the nation was wrong). Moshe has just completed a harrowing dialogue聽with God about the fate of the nation after the Golden Calf, and suddenly,聽he comes out with a most impertinent request. Let me behold your聽presence, he says to God. What was he thinking? God cannot be聽perceived, seen, taken in. As He explains a few verses later, a human聽cannot see me and live.

The two questions that arise are: why does Moshe ask and why now? As聽to the timing, Rashi immediately says, it was a good hour. God was in a聽good mood. He and Moshe had found a modus operandi for the Israelites.聽So, Moshe put in a word for himself in the hope that he would receive a聽positive answer too.

Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam, disagrees. His reasoning is logical. Way聽back, when Moshe first encountered God at the burning bush, his reaction聽was to cover his face so as not to see God! How could such a humble,聽self-effacing person ever dare to ask something so impertinent? And so,聽the Rashbam concludes, Moshe’s request was metaphorical. Let me get to聽know you and your qualities better, is his interpretation.

But if we accept the Rashbam’s answer what do we do with God’s聽response to Moshe? He says, you can’t see me, nobody can see me and聽live. But I will put you in a cranny of the rock and you can see my back.聽That’s an answer to the literal meaning.聽Of course we can take the metaphorical route and say, well, God didn’t聽mean his physical back but rather the effect of his qualities on all that聽occurs in the world.

At the same time, the Rashbam’s mention of the burning bush ignites the聽imagination and creates an AHA! moment. Beth Kalisch, for example,聽sees an almost direct link between the burning bush and Moshe’s request聽on Mount Sinai. At that first fateful meeting at the bush, Moshe is an聽extremely introverted person whose self-valuation is quite low. He is not聽worthy, in his own mind 鈥 not to speak in God’s name, not to face聽Pharaoh and certainly not to see the face of God.

But a lot has happened since then. Like other famous people in the Bible,聽he has grown with the job. As an example, Saul, before his anointment as聽king, tended to hide behind the packing cases out of shame. Yet by the聽end of his reign he had no trouble ordering about people and trying to kill聽anyone who he considered a threat.

Similarly, Moshe has bested Pharaoh, split the Red Sea, extracted water聽from rock, ascended Mount Sinai and was now speaking to God face to聽face, as it were. By any criterion, these are all self-confidence building聽measures.聽This being the case, could Moshe have actually meant his question聽literally? Could it be that for whatever reason 鈥 the circumstances, the聽great emotional rush of being in the presence of the Lord 鈥 Moshe truly聽wanted to be granted this unfathomable request? And could it also be that聽he felt that he had missed the opportunity to see God the first time, at the聽burning bush?

In other words, perhaps this was a second chance for Moshe, one that he聽did not want to waste. And so 鈥 the request. One that came from the聽depths of his being. God’s response was kindly. I can’t do that, Moshe,聽God says. Because you couldn’t survive it. But I will give you a view of聽my back as I pass 鈥 which as I said can be interpreted as seeing God’s聽qualities as they pertain to the people and the world. That gives us hope 鈥撀爓e sometimes get second chances and if we have the courage, we can act聽in the way we didn’t the first time.

But Moshe’s question and the whole situation generate another question.聽Do we ever see anyone’s true face? Do we ever know what others are聽really thinking 鈥 even when they tell us? Do we ever know the depths or聽sources of a person’s anger or happiness or spite? The closest we ever聽come to knowing is with little children. They will tell us what they are聽thinking and why, even if it means spilling the beans about what their聽parents or family friends have said and would have preferred to keep聽under wraps. If we know them well, we can even understand why they hit聽their sister or tore up a book or stormed off in a huff or brought the聽pacifier to their baby brother.

Later it’s impossible to know. So many factors, large and small, shape and聽distort our perceptions and our evaluations. Some people are kind,聽courteous and cheerful-looking, and you’d never know that they have聽suffered or are in the midst of some terrible tragedy. Others actively repel聽people yet beneath their exterior they are caring, sensitive individuals. In聽some, the internal and the external coincide but we will never know what聽is really going on beneath the surface.

Moshe wants to know God. God acquiesces but only indirectly: see my聽back. Moshe then sums up the qualities in what are called the 13聽attributes: merciful, compassionate, patient, loving and faithful, forgiving聽and pardoning sin, among others. But also bringing retribution on those聽who deserve it. Compassion and justice.

We see around us people who try to embody the compassionate attributes聽and others who actively seek to implement only the retribution aspects.聽Both are needed. But in our own society, in this period of perennial聽danger, every bit of compassion, no matter what its underlying source, is聽welcome.

Shabbat Shalom


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