Torah Weekly

For the week ending 23 February 2008 / 17 Adar I 5768

Parshat Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Moshe conducts a census by counting each silver half-shekel donated by all men age twenty and over. Moshe is commanded to make a copper laver for the Mishkan. The women donate the necessary metal. The formula of the anointing oil is specified, and G-d instructs Moshe to use this oil only for dedicating the Mishkan, its vessels, Aharon and his sons. G-d selects Bezalel and Oholiav as master craftsmen for the Mishkan and its vessels. The Jewish People are commanded to keep the Sabbath as an eternal sign that G-d made the world. Moshe receives the two Tablets of Testimony on which are written the Ten Commandments. The mixed multitude who left Egypt with the Jewish People panic when Moshe's descent seems delayed, and force Aharon to make a golden calf for them to worship. Aharon stalls, trying to delay them. G-d tells Moshe to return to the people immediately, threatening to destroy everyone and build a new nation from Moshe. When Moshe sees the camp of idol-worship he smashes the tablets and destroys the golden calf. The sons of Levi volunteer to punish the transgressors, executing 3,000 men. Moshe ascends the mountain to pray for forgiveness for the people, and G-d accepts his prayer. Moshe sets up the Mishkan and G-d's cloud of glory returns. Moshe asks G-d to show him the rules by which he conducts the world, but is granted only a small portion of this request. G-d tells Moshe to hew new tablets and reveals to him the text of the prayer that will invoke Divine mercy. Idol worship, intermarriage and the combination of milk and meat are prohibited. The laws of Pesach, the first-born, the first-fruits, Shabbat, Shavuot and Succot are taught. When Moshe descends with the second set of tablets, his face is luminous as a result of contact with the Divine.


A World of Words

“…and fashioned it into a molten calf.”(32:4)

There’s something uncanny about a statue.

I’m not talking about an agglomeration of scrap metal that passes for sculpture in many art galleries today, but a beautifully executed and accurate model of an earthly form. A sculpture can be amazingly real — a single moment frozen for eternity.

It’s no secret that Judaism gives sculpture short shrift. The second of the Ten Commandments prohibits the making or owning of any likeness of any earthly form, and the Oral Torah explains that (with the exception of the celestial bodies) this prohibition is aimed specifically at three-dimensional forms.

Why is sculpture so repugnant to Torah that it earns second place in the Ten Commandments? What is so terrible about a statue?

Another question. We tend to trivialize idol worship as puerile. Yet the Talmud tells us that had the Sages not prayed that the desire for idol worship be removed from the world, we would find idolatry as compelling as physical attraction.

What could be so gripping about genuflecting to an oversize dolly? And don’t think that idolatry appealed merely to the simple and the gullible; the intelligentsia were no less smitten by the overwhelming urge to prostrate themselves.

How should this be understood?

There are three parts to man: thought, speech and action.

The highest, most spiritual part of a person is thought. Thought’s defining characteristic is its evanescence; no sooner has a thought entered our mind than it has already ceased to exist.

Speech, on the other hand, exists only in time. With the exception of G-d’s utterance of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai nothing can be understood in a single moment. Speech takes time. To understand what someone is saying cannot be grasped in a single moment. Nevertheless speech is still ephemeral. It ceases with the silence of the speaker

Actions, the creation of things, persist independently of the one who created them. Actions seem to have a life of their own

And herein lies the problem.

At the root of all atheism is the belief that there is something called “concrete reality” — that because things exist, they have to exist. The seeming immutability of a physical object seems to demand its existence.

A statue is a moment frozen in time. It seems to say “I exist by myself; I am divorced from the moment of creation; Because I exist – I must exist.”

When G-d created this world, He created it through the power of speech. Why didn’t he create it through writing, or through physical construction?

This world is virtually no more than G-d speaking, as we say in the blessing, “…for everything exists through His Word.”

Every statue in the world tries to convince that there is such a thing as “concrete reality”, but in reality we live in a world of words that exists just as long as the Speaker continues to speak.

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