After spending long chapters in measuring beams, building tables, preparing coatings of gold, fashioning a lamp and other details such as tying loops around the curtains, making olive oil and sewing fancy clothing for the Priest, the Torah portion os Ki Tisa brings in a mix of topics: We’re counting the people, going through more descriptions regarding the construction of the Tabernacle, talk about Shabbath observance, and ends with the famous golden calf. It’s a minute before Shabbat, so I’ll try for just a quick taste of everything.
How do we count the People of Israel? From the desert time to our own days, we do not count by pointing at people and saying 1,2,3… In traditional synagogues, counting a minyan is done with a verse: הושיעה את עמך וברך את נחלתך, ורעם ונשאם עד העולם “Save Your people, bless Your inheritance, guard them and lift them forever” This verse from Psalms in Hebrew has 10 words, one for each man. But Moses and Aaron had to count the hundreds of thousands of people in front of them. What did they do? They did not count with songs but with a “half-shekel” which everyone had to bring. Why “half-shekel”? Why not a penny, a stone or perhaps stand in “threes”, army style? One interpretation suggests: half a shekel so that everyone remembers that s/he is not complete without at least one other person; that in our essence we must connect to others and the world around us, that we are not solitary mountains, hiding away from each other and away from the world.
There are other descriptions about the construction of the Tabernacle and the observance of the Sabbath, and all of a sudden, in the middle of all this pastoral work, the Children of Israel came to Aaron (Moses is on Mount Sinai busy) and seek to create a “God that will go before us.” An amazing story. Some people say, ‘I do not believe in God because I have no proof. If only I could see what a miracle, a tiny miracle, just something” … ever mind the discussion about the countless daily miracles in our lives which we miss or take for granted, but here are the people who must have seen the most miracles possible: the plagues in Egypt, the journey from slavery to freedom, the splitting of the Red Sea, the sinking of the Egyptians army… What else? But it’s all lost in a short time. True, Moses has been away for 40 days, maybe just 39, maybe already 41, but we know he’ll be right back, won’t he? How come they are already looking for alternatives, collecting gold (faster than collected the half shekel for the Mishkan …) and are hard at work on their new god? How did this happen?
We do not know. We are missing pieces of the story, but the Midrash offers to fill it in for us. Accordingly, Satan (whatever it is, we’ll leave it for another time) showed the Children of Israel the coffin of Moses floating in the sky. He created the illusion that Moses died and maybe – just maybe – they will remain in the wilderness without a leader. Important: The Midrash purposely says that what they saw was an illusion, with no real basis for what followed, because it wants to highlight for us how dangerous doubt can be. In order to undermine one’s confidence, you don’t have to destroy it completely or to bring ‘evidence’. It’s enough to plant doubts, safek. It starts gnawing us from within and the rest is history.
“And the children of Israel kept the Sabbath in their generations,” it says in our Torah portion, which we say in the Shabbat morning kiddush. Shabbat is often mentioned near the construction of the Tabernacle Saturday, lest we think that building a mishkan or synagogue for G-d is sacred and important and therefore permissible to violate Shabbat for such construction. But, as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, Shabbat is in the dimension of time what the temple or synagogue are the physical dimension. And while the physical might come and go, the spiritual remains with us everywhere, thus Shabbat takes precedence. Echad Ha’am who was not “religious” per-se (whatever that meant) said that “more than Israel kept Shabbat, Shabbat kept Israel”. Clearly, there were always different levels of observance or else we would not need so many laws, but the bottom line is that Shabbat was key in keeping our identity throughout the generations.