Ki Tissa 5782
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Ki Tissa is an odd portion, reminiscent of the children’s song “one of these things is not like the other ones.” The two portions before Ki Tissa and the two portions after are all focused on the design and construction of the mishkan, where God would dwell in the midst of the Israelites. Yet, sandwiched between these detailed descriptions and completely disrupting the timeline of the Torah, Ki Tissa switches to a different narrative. We are suddenly taken back in time (presumably) to Moses’ experience on the top of Mount Sinai with God, and then to the Golden Calf incident. Why are these stories here in the text? Why do they interrupt the description of the mishkan? Why did the Israelites, who witnessed the awesome Plagues in Egypt and the parting of the Sea, and who heard God speak from the top of the Mountain, why did they even build the Golden Calf?
It seems that Ki Tissa raises more questions than answers. Here is another one: God was clearly enraged by the Golden Calf incident, but what exactly was so offensive to God?
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Quick, go down, for your people, that you brought up from Egypt, has acted ruinously. They have swerved quickly from the way I charged them. They have made them a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, and said: ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!’” (Exod. 32:7–8).
From here the answer seems obvious: the Israelites committed one of the worst of transgressions – idolatry. Yet, there is more to the picture. In the very next verse, God continues:
“I see this people, and look, it is a stiff-necked people. Now, leave Me be, that My wrath may flare against them, and I will put an end to them, and I will make you a great nation” (32:9–10).
While idolatry is terrible, it turns out that the real source of God’s anger our stubbornness. ‘Stiff-necked’ is how the Torah describes stubbornness.
The definition of stubborn is “having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something, especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.” Put in Toraitic terms, being stiff necked is not so different from hardening our hearts. Whether Pharoah hardens his heart or we stiffen our necks, the implication is the same: a willful rigidity and a refusal, especially when our deeply held assumptions are challenged, to see the world as it is. Put simply, stubbornness prevents us from learning and growing – it keeps us exactly where we already were. And it requires real effort on our part.
The sin of the Golden Calf was idolatry, but the underlying cause of our idolatry was stubbornness.
How else could the generation who had just survived the most extraordinary and sustained experience of God on record done such a thing? Despite all the miracles they witnessed, and despite their newfound freedom from Egypt, they still chose to build the Calf. They chose to bring Egypt with them into the Promised future.
Today, we live in a world where stubbornness and inflexibility are on the ascendancy – and we don’t need a college degree to know that continuing down this path will not end well. Torah teaches us to recognize the world as it is, so that we can work together to live in the world as it should be. Like stubbornness, this too requires willpower and real effort on our part. Our ancestors eventually softened, and let God and Torah into their lives, and thereby found their way forward. So can we.