Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Key Tesaw

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Ki Tesaw


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Sensible Symbolism

By Michael Chessen

This week's Torah reading, Ki Tisa, weighs heavily upon our physical senses, perhaps more so than any other portion of the entire Five Books of Moses. The only sensual experience God appears to have originally chosen for us to experience, however, comes near the beginning of Ki Tisa in the guise of the heavily fragrant anointing oil and incense for use in the Tabernacle. The subsequent experiences of the senses, for their part, constitute a direct contradiction to God's plans for the Jewish people, namely the events which surround the sin of the Golden Calf.

Whereas the wondrous events surrounding the Exodus from Egypt were certainly visually striking, they were nonetheless expressions of the will of God, and therefore our grasp of their message moves beyond superficial physical perception to an understanding which is both intellectual and spiritual. The humanly contrived sin of the Golden Calf, however, seems intellectually unfathomable, and we are left rubbing our eyes in disbelief at the spectacle we behold.

The trouble begins when the people "see" (by way of apparently erroneous calculations) that Moses is perhaps due not to return from his ascent to Mt. Sinai. They then request Aaron to fashion them an oracle, or idol, to visually stand as the object of their worship. When Moses comes within earshot of the people's ensuing idolatrous revelry, he and Joshua differ as to how to define the "spiritual static" which they hear. The younger and somewhat zealous Joshua discerns the sounds of war (and if war is indeed "hell" then it's terrible din would stand in direct negation to the heavenly music of King David's psalms).

Moses, however, has a somewhat more prophetic insight into what is happening and perceives the uproar as simple singing without soul. The commentator Nachmonides sees the sin of the Golden Calf as not necessarily intended idol worship, but the unfortunate result of a mistaken search for spiritual symbolism. Whereas God Himself had already supplied us with abundant symbolism in the divinely ordained instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, the Jewish people should not have seen this as constituting any kind of a license to independently innovate new symbols on their own.

In addition, Moses' first glimpse of the Golden Calf comes as he is descending from Mt. Sinai with perhaps the most powerful single religious symbol in all of Jewish history, namely, the Tablets. In smashing the Tablets Moses not only expresses great anger, but also powerfully conveys the message that if the people are incapable of using symbols to worship God without crossing the threshold into idolatry, they will then have to do without any physical symbols whatsoever. However, after having yielded to Moses' fervent plea to pardon the people, God Himself not only sees to the recreation of the Tablets, but also sends the people a further visual sign reflecting the intensity of the spiritual experience which Moses has just undergone as the leader of the Jewish people.

Unbeknownst to Moses, he returns to the people with rays of light radiating from his face. God seems to be telling us that physical symbolism does have its place in religious life, but however inspiring, it must also be spiritually sensible.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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