Donation of half shekel as part of census
The anointing oil
Appointment of Betzalel and Ohaliav to carry out the building of the Tabernacle and its contents
Sin of the golden calf
Moshe tempers God’s anger
Moshe, descending from Mt. Sinai, throws and shatters the Tablets he is carrying when he sees the people celebrating and dancing around the golden calf in an unrestrained orgy
Three thousand people are killed by the Levites and many others die for participating in the sin of the golden calf
Moshe moves his private tent outside the camp
Moshe asks to know the full Manifestation of God’s essence but is told he can only know/ perceive God after His actions
Moshe pleads for God’s Spirit to remain within the Israelites
The second Tablets
God’s thirteen Attributes of Mercy and the revised Covenant incorporating them
Prohibitions of making a treaty with the nations of Canaan; of idolatry; of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk
When Moshe descends with the second Tablets his face emits a blinding radiance, which necessitates his wearing a veil when communicating with the people.
“Ki Sisa es rosh bnei Yisrael”
These opening words that mean “when you will raise up…” begin a parsha that deals with the dramatic decline in faith and devastating spiritual going down of the people so soon after having had the awesome encounter on Mt. Sinai. The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that this parsha is really a microcosmic view of the fundamental aspects of Judaism that anticipates history:
• Revelation (God gives Moshe the Divinely-inscribed set of Tablets)
• Rebellion (Golden Calf incident)
Creation of the universe (Revelation) is followed by history of Man who rebels against the Divine morality. Ultimately, the final Redemption will bring with it universal equilibrium with reconciliation between Man and God. This realization that even in the darkest moments of history there is the prospect of ultimate redemption, when our heads again will be held up high, is the reason the parsha utilizes the phrasing of raising up.
The Torah demands that when a census is taken, it be done by counting the number of half shekels collected, one from each person, to avoid a plague that would ensue were there to be a “counting of noses” instead. Every person is considered of equal worth, rich or poor. The use of a half rather than full shekel communicates that each of us is incomplete until we join together with our brethren to form an organic whole. The Mishkan/Temple was a National Unifier; in later ages, the funds collected were used to pay for its maintenance. Perhaps the plague that will be avoided is Hubris (arrogance) that will be prevented by our recognition of being incomplete (half shekel) and being on an equal footing with everyone else. Wealth and philanthropy alone leave the individual in a religious vacuum until he joins together with and joins in with others.
Perhaps the text uses the Hebrew root-word “to raise” (sisa) rather than the more typical “to count” (lisphor) to subtly point out that each of us is not just a numbered inanimate item to be counted as part of an inventory but that we are each unique, different and “elevated” by our individuality.
Rabbi Dr. J. H. Hertz thinks that the text is referring to the taking of a census of warriors preparing for war and (citing Rabbi Benno Jacob) that the purpose was to serve as atonement in advance for the inevitable taking of lives that happens in battle. The word kapayr (forgive) appears four times. In battle, there is a horror to shedding blood that accompanies (and may overwhelm) the sweet joy of victory.
The Saga of the Golden Calf
After the theophany at Mt. Sinai, Moshe announces to the people that at God‘s command he is going up to the mountain but never tells them how long he will be there.(According to Rashi and others he told the people he would be away for forty days.) When he did not appear after more than five weeks, the people concluded that he was not returning , and demanded of Aharon that he “make for us Elohim that will lead us to the promised land because Moshe….we do not know what happened to him”. Rabbi Menachem Leibtag points out that they were not seeking a new deity to worship, only a person or a thing that would lead them to Canaan. Indeed, God had promised them earlier that He would send a “mal’ach” to lead them and assist in conquering the land.
Aharon, in a stalling tactic, instructs the people to bring all their gold jewelry, thinking that they would resist parting with their wealth. (The Midrash states that the women refused to be a party to this.) Aharon melts the gold into a metal mass, shapes it into the semblance of a calf and the people respond “this is your god, O Israel that has brought you out of the land of Egypt.” The people experienced the Exodus and knew full-well that they were not redeemed by a gold calf so what they must have meant is that this was the representation of the Presence of God, the “mal’ach” that was promised to lead them to Canaan. Ramban finds further support for the view that the people did not consider the golden calf a “god” in that after Moshe descends from the mountain the nation immediately abandons the golden calf. No one tries to defend it from being destroyed. This is not the expected behavior of people who witness the impending obliteration of what they sincerely believe is their god.
Aharon builds an Altar, and calls for a celebration for God (not for an alternate deity) on the next day (perhaps hoping that by then Moshe would return).This religious ceremony was designed to replicate the procedure at Mt. Sinai –building an Altar (12 at Mt. Sinai, one for each tribe); rising early; animal offerings; and eating and drinking .But unlike the earlier party, the people rose “l’tzachayk” [ laughing; frivolous behavior].The Sages understood this word to mean more than dancing. The partying got out of hand and deteriorated into shameless licentiousness as the people regressed to the Egyptian culture they so recently left. Although they had not fully abandoned Egyptian idolatry and life, God still redeemed them in the hope that miracles and desert experiences would change their thinking and behavior.
After being alerted by God atop the mountain to the nation’s sin at the bottom, Moshe descends to see for himself. It is only when he sees the wild dancing/orgy with the golden calf that he becomes indignant and throws down and shatters the Tablets he was carrying. He grinds the golden calf to fine dust, mixes it with water and forces the people to drink (sounding similar to the ordeal imposed on a suspected unfaithful wife-sotah). Rabbi Gunther Plaut views this as an immediate psychological punishment, “swallowing one’s words”.
Why a calf?
The Israelites were seeking a Moshe-substitute, a concrete manifestation of a leader to fulfill the Divine promise to be taken to the Promised Land. Aharon’s perception that the people felt abandoned and forsaken may have prompted him to form a calf because it was an ancient symbol of what a deity sits on. Fertility and strength were identified with the bull. It also represented a part of the Divine throne.
A New Covenant
God informs Moshe to…
o Hurry down from the mountain for “your people, whom you brought out of the Land of Egypt, have acted basely.”
o “Let Me be so that…I may destroy them” (perhaps hinting that He actually wants Moshe to intercede).
Moshe implores God not to destroy the people for fear of what the nations of the world will say (that His intent all along was to annihilate them) and because of His promise to the Avos.
God renounces His planned punishment.
After going down and witnessing how the Israelites were out of control, Moshe informs the people that despite their being guilty of a great sin, he will return to God to attempt to win forgiveness for them (because their actions began with good intentions).
Moshe demands that if God does not forgive the people he wants his name erased from the Torah.
God states that He will punish the guilty at the time of His choosing and that because of the sins and because of their being stiff-necked He will no longer maintain the original special relationship He had with the nation. He and His Spirit (Shechena) will no longer be with them (lo eela b’kirbecha). Instead, they will be led to the Promised Land by His malach (messenger). This revised status is reflected in God’s command for the people to remove their finery/jewelry (i.e., the symbol of the elevated relationship they originally had at Mt. Sinai).
Moshe demands that God’s Presence remain with the people because they are His people.
According to Rabbi Leibtag’s interpretation, God now faces a dilemma: He cannot allow His Shechena to return because the Covenant at Mt. Sinai provided that the stiff-necked sinners are to be killed. He cannot leave them to die because of His promise to the Avos. Moshe is unwilling to lead the people to the Land unless He returns His Shechena to the nation.
To resolve this dilemma God introduces the concept of Divine mercy. From now on the people will be given a second chance should they sin instead of the immediate punishment mandated by the original Covenant. God proclaims this new Covenant and new relationship when He descends in a cloud and passes before Moshe who is stationed in the cleft of a rock on Mt. Sinai. The replacement of Midas Hadin with Midas Harachamim is embodied in…
The Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy
No one can know God’s Essence. But His moral attributes of love and mercy exist and are for us to imitate in our lives. These are definitions of Him in ethical terms; not delineations of His undefinable, inscrutable infinity. God proclaims to Moshe that He is (as translated by Rabbi Hertz)…
1) Adonay (attribute of Mercy)
2) Adonay (attribute of Mercy)
All- mighty Lord of the Universe, Ruler of nature and mankind
Affectionate; attuned to sufferings and miseries of human frailty
Gracious; assisting; helping; consoling and raising up the oppressed
6) Erech Apayim
Long suffering; slow to anger; affording sinner opportunity to change
7) Rav Chesed
Abundant in goodness granting gifts and blessings beyond what we deserve
8 ) Emes
Eternally True; rewarding those who are obedient
9) Notzer chesed l’alafim
Rewarding good deeds even until the thousandth generation
10) Noseay avon
Bearing and forgiving man’s failings
Bearing and forgiving man’s evil deeds that stem from malice and rebellion against Him
Forgiving deficiencies stemming from carelessness and error
13) Nakkeh lo yenakkeh will not allow the guilty to go unpunished