This week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa, illustrates, among other lessons, how ordinary, mundane administrative matters of life – like the taking of a census and fiscal upkeep of a community – interface with grand and dramatic episodes of life: the revelation of cosmic truths translated into human terms. Few of us may experience the latter, but we are party to exciting changes in nature, grave massive dislocations of human beings, and the landing of space exploration vehicles and human beings on distant heavenly bodies. And of course, the birth of a child is the most miraculous experience of all.
In the latter part of our Parasha we read again how Moses’ prolonged delay atop Mt. Sinai led the Israelites to the idolatrous act of building a Golden Calf, resulting in shocking death and destruction of the alleged guilty member of the population. The breaking of the Lukhot HaBrit, the Two Tablets, seemed to signal the end of any Covenant-in-the making.
Out of any trauma, however, hope emerges (however belatedly). Moses signals this sense of hope in an earlier plea after the failure of the people, his own failure of nerve, and perhaps even God’s (Exodus 33:12-23); he needs help to lead his people and God says, “I shall place you in the cleft of the rock and make all my goodness pass before you… (Exodus 33:22).” Shortly after this, God’s ‘second chance’ is about to be expressed, making Moses aware of the Divine quality of forgiveness, echoing the reaffirmation of the Covenant: Moses carves two new Tablets –“The Eternal One… passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The Eternal! The Eternal is a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousands…’”( Exodus 34:5-7).
Rabbi Gunther Plaut, of blessed memory, has provided us with The Torah: A Modern Commentary (URJ 2005; p. 606) a superb text for learning and meditation. Here he comments about the graphic appearance of Hebrew letters which themselves exemplify special meaning. In this section of the revelation to Moses, the Hebrew word Notzer appears with an enlarged letter Nun, to emphasize the meaning of extending, guarding, keeping, preserving, kindness. This is done so as not to confuse it with another word that is similar looking and sounding, Otzer, meaning withholding… kindness.
Here we can consider the Song of Deliverance (Shirat HaYam) at the shore of the Sea (Exodus 15), where Moses, Miriam and the people sing songs of grateful praise: “This is my God and I shall exalt Him” [note the classical gender-ed wording does not reflect this writer’s understanding]. R. Abba Shaul remarks that the Hebrew can be interpreted: “I shall make myself similar to Him…” The commentator teaches us to say “as God is compassionate, forgiving, so you must be; this is the essential act of imitation to which we ought to aspire (Amaitio Dei)” (Shabbat 133; Iture Torah, Y.Ornstein, 1995, p. 126).
In our liberal-traditional positions, we have come to know Sacred Scripture as an inspiring, inspired narrative, replete with guidance as well as a commanding Presence, worthy of our study, contemplation, and actions. Rabbi Joel Oseran, Vice President Emeritus for International Development at the World Union, exemplified this meaningfully in a recent Torah From Around the World commentary, drawing on the teachings of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, who provides a contemporary understanding of the literature that depicts the Holy One’s acts in the world, as Tikun Olam – repairing the world as Sacred Acts. That God is compassionate, showing kindness and mercy are calls for us to act. There is difficulty in relating to God as a person, endowed with traits like these. Rabbi Schulweis affirms otherwise: we experience the One in acts that bring compassion, kindness, healing, and the uplifting of the fallen to a world sorely in need; he calls this “predicate theology.”(In God’s Mirror, Ktav Publishing House, 1990, p. 93).
So it is, in the midst of life’s eternal struggle to wrest meaning from dissolution, or cosmos out of chaos, that we seek the means to repair. Here, in the midst of our families, between ourselves and closest loved ones, from whom we seek guidance and to whom we provide help in lighting new paths, do we seek second chances. Moreover, in our communal lives, when we perform acts of Jewish Peoplehood, we also add opportunities for second chances. We are forever seeking to be worthy of second chances ourselves, in our life’s mission, here in the Land of Israel. We are forever working to achieve peace in our land and our people with neighbors with whom there is ongoing enmity. This is the place of hope and second chances, which Rabbi Richard Hirsch first called, “On Broadway” and on which our late colleague Rabbi David J. Forman named his book, Israel on Broadway; America: Off-Broadway Jews in the New Millennium.
The Torah Portion begins with “Ki Tisa – when you lift up the head”, as in taking a census, counting. I suggest that in all our endeavors, we seek not to quantify our mission in counting (however important), but rather to seek the quality of “taking account” of our deeds, in seeking to repair misdeeds with the new opportunities that God provides.
About the author: Rabbi Dr Shaul (Paul) R Feinberg is the Associate Dean Emeritus at Hebrew Union College – Jerusalem Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem, Israel.
The above previously appeared as #106 in the Torah from Around the World series.