Torah Ecology: Ki Tissa 2017 (Ex 30:11-34:35)

Worshiping the golden calf, as in Exodus 32:1-35, illustration from a Bible card published 1901 by the Providence Lithograph Company

Ki Tissa, “When you take a sum…,” is filled with things to contemplate! It fascinates me that these stories consistently reveal narrative structures, a scaffolding of sorts, that supports meaning. I’m not always sure what the meaning is — that might be next year’s part of my project, to go back and edit all of these entries, exploring certain themes and ideas in greater depth once I have the perspective of the whole. This year my project is devoted to exploration of internal structures and to a particular set of themes, food/agriculture/ecology, captured in the title, Torah Ecology, relationships.


This large portion divides into two narratives of seven sections each with a bridge in the middle:

  1. Ex 30:11-16 – Census and ransom
  2. Ex 30:17-21 – Laver and washing
  3. Ex 30:22-30 – Spices/perfume to anoint sacred objects & priests
  4. Ex 30:31-33 – Anointing oil
  5. Ex 30:34-38 – Spices to put before Testimony
  6. Ex 31:1-11 – Artisans
  7. Ex 31:12-17 – Sabbath

Ex 31:18 – Bridge: G-d gives Moses the two tables of stone, inscribed by G-d’s own hand.

  1. Ex 32:1-6 – Golden Calf Episode with an abortive sacrifice
  2. Ex 32:7-15 – G-d tells Moses to go back down to his people, who “acted corruptly.”
  3. Ex 32:16-29 – Aaron discredited, death and blessing
  4. Ex 32:30-33:6 – Moses returns to G-d to plead on behalf of people
  5. Ex 33:7-23 – Moses removes with Tent, converses with G-d
  6. Ex 34:1-28 – The new/2nd set of Tablets
  7. Ex 34:29 – Moses returns to camp with new Tablets

At first glance, any vegetarian or vegan would be horrified by these three portions in Exodus that deal with setting up sacrificial worship, Terumah, Tetzaveh and Ki Tissa. A deeper look shows threads of meaning in the sacrificial cult that have to do with the boundaries between transcendence and creation, life and death, and the point of intersection, where infinity enters a finite world and death preserves life.

This point of intersection is filled with danger, and it is literally by the grace of G-d that the Israelites live while others around them die. They owe a debt of gratitude for their lives, paid through the exchange that occurs in the sacrifice, their redemption.

At the same time, this week’s portion casts doubt on any single understanding of the meaning and status of sacrificial worship in ancient Israel as it discredits Aaron and the priesthood. It virtually rejects sacrificial worship when Moses moves the Tent of Meeting outside the camp, where he meets to converse with G-d, leaving the larger structure, the Tabernacle with its sacrificial cult, behind.


The structure of the first section of seven is in seven speeches from G-d, each on a different topic. There is an ominous feeling to the passages, projected with references to death and “cutting off” (כְרַת), which occur in sections 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7.

1. Ex 30:12 – “they give every man a ransom for his soul unto the LORD, when thou numberest them; that there be no plague among them, when thou numberest them.” (וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַיהוָה, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם; וְלֹא-יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף, בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם)

2. Ex 30:21 – “so they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not” (וְרָחֲצוּ יְדֵיהֶם וְרַגְלֵיהֶם, וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ)

4. Ex 30:33 – “Whosoever compoundeth any like it, or whosoever putteth any of it upon a stranger, he shall be cut off from his people.” (אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִרְקַח כָּמֹהוּ, וַאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מִמֶּנּוּ עַל-זָר–וְנִכְרַת, מֵעַמָּיו)

5. Ex 30:38 – “Whosoever shall make like unto that, to smell thereof, he shall be cut off from his people.” (אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה כָמוֹהָ, לְהָרִיחַ בָּהּ–וְנִכְרַת, מֵעַמָּיו)

7. Ex 31:14 – “every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.” (כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ) – and Ex 31:15 – “whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death” (כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת)

Clearly life at the boundary is dangerous. I read the ominous tone, though, as compassion. As a parent with more experience and knowledge of the world may sound harsh when protecting a child not aware of its dangerous elements, so G-d wants to protect these people from destruction.


These first tablets are unequivocally written with the finger of G-d: “And He gave unto Moses, when He had made an end of speaking with him upon mount Sinai, the two tables of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.” (וַיִּתֵּן אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כְּכַלֹּתוֹ לְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ בְּהַר סִינַי, שְׁנֵי, לֻחֹת הָעֵדֻת–לֻחֹת אֶבֶן, כְּתֻבִים בְּאֶצְבַּע אֱלֹהִים)

More than Sinai, the tablets are a sign of deep love, a concrete representation of transcendence in a finite world. In light of the passages that follow, the tablets are like a ring of betrothal, a sign of a relationship based on love and commitment.


Meanwhile, back in the camp, as Moses meets with G-d on their behalf and prepares to return with this precious gift, this concrete sign of love and commitment, Israel, led by Aaron, betrays G-d — in G-d’s own home that they built. This betrayal reaches its apex at a meal, a feast Aaron proclaims, celebrating the god he made on behalf of and for the Israelites, the Golden Calf. This god is credited with the great saving act of bringing the Israelites out of Egypt.

Anyone who has ever suffered betrayal from a beloved partner can understand the depth and power of the emotions described in the succeeding passages as G-d reacts to the corruption below. The deeper the love, the more powerful the sense of betrayal. G-d’s anger is directed specifically toward a sacrifice/meal attributing to this molten calf god the saving action that G-d performed. We can see G-d working through stages of grief, wanting to be alone, referring to the Israelites as Moses’ people, not G-d’s own: “And the LORD spoke unto Moses: ‘Depart, go up hence, thou and the people that thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt‘” (וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, לֵךְ עֲלֵה מִזֶּה–אַתָּה וְהָעָם, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלִיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם) – Ex 33:1.

Prophetic books, notably Hosea, pick up this deep sense of betrayal as they use the imagery in their own narratives: “She shall run after her lovers, but she shall not overtake them, And she shall seek them, but shall not find them; then she shall say, ‘I will go and return to my first husband; For then was it better with me than now.’ For she did not know that it was I that gave her the corn, and the wine, and the oil, And multiplied unto her silver and gold, Which they used for Baal.” (Hosea 2:9-10)


Aaron is fully discredited as he attempts to wiggle out of his responsibility in the terrible betrayal. Despite that he instructed the Israelites what to do and personally fashioned the Golden Calf with a “graving tool,” then proclaimed a feast, when confronted with his failure of leadership, he says of the gold, “I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.” (וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ, וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה)

After one parting shot at Aaron, Moses orders the Levites to kill their brothers, companions and neighbors who did not “come” to the Lord at the gate. 3000 people fell that day: “And when Moses saw that the people were broken loose–for Aaron had let them loose for a derision among their enemies–then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said: ‘Whoso is on the LORD’S side, let him come unto me.’ And all the sons of Levi gathered themselves together unto him. And he said unto them: ‘Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: Put ye every man his sword upon his thigh, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour.’ And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses; and there fell of the people that day about three thousand men.” Ex 32:26-28

Since Moses remains deeply loyal to the Israelites despite their corruption and despite his own anger and dismay, we can understand this action as preemptive, meant to save a remnant by removing corruption from the community. He then returns to G-d to continue pleading on behalf of his community. He carries on this intimate conversation, though, without reference to Aaron or to the sacrificial cult.

Moses removes the Tent of Meeting from the Tabernacle, carrying it to a place in the desert outside the camp. Back in the camp, in a poignant image, the remaining Israelites stand outside the doors of their tents, watching after Moses until he enters the Tent of Meeting, then watching the pillar of cloud standing at the door of that Tent.

There, in that place, at the Tent, “The LORD spoke unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend” (וְדִבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהוּ).  Now the narrative continues in the form of a conversation, not speeches. Moses and G-d alternate speaking to each other.

In the course of this conversation, Moses begs G-d to continue G-d’s relationship with the people, not Moses’ people but G-d’s people. “If Thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence…For wherein now shall it be known that I have found grace in Thy sight, I and Thy people? Is it not in that Thou goest with us, so that we are distinguished, I and Thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth?”

Finally, after a scene about which much could be said, when Moses sees G-d’s presence, Moses returns with new tablets, which G-d says G-d will write on like the first: “And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first; and I will write upon the tables the words that were on the first tables, which thou didst break.'” (וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, פְּסָל-לְךָ שְׁנֵי-לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים; וְכָתַבְתִּי, עַל-הַלֻּחֹת, אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל-הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ) – Ex 34:1

But actually, G-d doesn’t write on the tablets — Moses does, serving once again as a buffer between G-d and the Israelites: “And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write thou these words, for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel.’ And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words” (וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כְּתָב-לְךָ אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה:  כִּי עַל-פִּי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, כָּרַתִּי אִתְּךָ בְּרִית–וְאֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל. וַיְהִי-שָׁם עִם-יְהוָה, אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה–לֶחֶם לֹא אָכַל, וּמַיִם לֹא שָׁתָה; וַיִּכְתֹּב עַל-הַלֻּחֹת, אֵת דִּבְרֵי הַבְּרִית–עֲשֶׂרֶת, הַדְּבָרִים). Ex 34:27-28


As ominous mentions of death and “cutting off” permeate the first seven narrative sections before the bridge, meals and consumption permeate the second seven sections following the bridge.

The first of these meals is one in which the Israelites eat and drink and make merry before the Golden Calf in G-d’s own home, sacrificing to this god they credit with bringing them out of Egypt: “And when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation, and said: ‘To-morrow shall be a feast to the LORD.’ And they rose up early on the morrow, and offered burnt-offerings, and brought peace-offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry” ( וַיַּרְא אַהֲרֹן, וַיִּבֶן מִזְבֵּחַ לְפָנָיו; וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמַר, חַג לַיהוָה מָחָר. וַיַּשְׁכִּימוּ, מִמָּחֳרָת, וַיַּעֲלוּ עֹלֹת, וַיַּגִּשׁוּ שְׁלָמִים; וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם לֶאֱכֹל וְשָׁתוֹ, וַיָּקֻמוּ לְצַחֵק). Ex 32:5-6

Reciprocally G-d in anger speaks of “consuming” the people: “Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them” (וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל). Ex 32:10 – In similar imagery, G-d consumes the sacrifice: “And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and consumed upon the altar the burnt-offering and the fat” (וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ, מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֶת-הָעֹלָה וְאֶת-הַחֲלָבִים). Lev 19:24

The Golden Calf episode represents an abortive exchange. In the required course of events an exchange occurs in the sacrificial meal, when the priests consume their portion as representatives of the Israelites and G-d consumes G-d’s portion, suggesting that the sacrifice stands in for the Israelites. Since the betrayal in G-d’s home among the Israelites when the sacrifice was given to the Golden Calf, there is no stand-in. 3000 Israelites die to preserve those who remain.

During G-d’s conversations with Moses, G-d tells Moses to remind the people that they are to bow to no other god because G-d is jealous, specifically around the meal G-d shares with them, the sacrifice: “For thou shalt bow down to no other god; for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God; lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go astray after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and they call thee, and thou eat of their sacrifice” (כִּי לֹא תִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, לְאֵל אַחֵר:  כִּי יְהוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ, אֵל קַנָּא הוּא. פֶּן-תִּכְרֹת בְּרִית, לְיוֹשֵׁב הָאָרֶץ; וְזָנוּ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵיהֶם, וְזָבְחוּ לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם, וְקָרָא לְךָ, וְאָכַלְתָּ מִזִּבְחוֹ). Ex 34: 14-15

The specific commandments which follow all have to do with sacrificial feasts: the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Ingathering. If this isn’t enough to signify the profound importance of these ritual meals in the lives of the Israelites, the ritual that points to the deepest paradox of life, the exchange between life and death, four more commandments follow: not to offer the blood of the sacrifice with leavened bread, not to leave any part of the Passover feast until morning, to bring the choicest first fruits to the “house,” and not to seethe a kid in its mother’s milk.

Finally we read that Moses “was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water” (וַיְהִי-שָׁם עִם-יְהוָה, אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם וְאַרְבָּעִים לַיְלָה–לֶחֶם לֹא אָכַל, וּמַיִם לֹא שָׁתָה). Ex 34:28 This verse describes Moses as the bridge between the finite world of creation and the infinite world of G-d. This seamless relationship involves no sacrifice (“meals” for G-d) and neither meals nor water for Moses.

From the time of the abortive sacrifice of betrayal at the Golden Calf when G-d’s “meal” goes to another through the rest of Ki Tissa, there are no sacrifices and no priests, nor does Moses eat. The Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting is removed from the newly constructed Tabernacle, and Moses meets there with G-d, and neither priests nor elders of the people are invited to the meeting. Moses crosses the dangerous boundary between creation and transcendence, his face shining so brightly when he comes back out to the Israelites that he must wear a veil before them so they would not be afraid.


When Moses returns to the camp to find the Israelites making merry following an illegitimate sacrificial meal and betrayal, he smashes the first tablets then takes the Golden Calf, burns it with fire, grinds it to powder, strews it on the water and makes the people drink the water. This passage is strangely reminiscent of the ritual performed on behalf of a “jealous” husband: “he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance” (לֹא-יִצֹק עָלָיו שֶׁמֶן, וְלֹא-יִתֵּן עָלָיו לְבֹנָה–כִּי-מִנְחַת קְנָאֹת הוּא, מִנְחַת זִכָּרוֹן מַזְכֶּרֶת עָו‍ֹן). Num 5:15

In this ritual, the priest takes holy water in an earthen vessel and adds to it dust from the floor of the Tabernacle. The priest then compels the woman to swear to her innocence or guilt, writes curses in a scroll, blots them out in the “water of bitterness,” and causes the woman to drink the mixture. If she does not become ill, she is innocent.

The parallel augments the theme of betrayal and jealousy, the deep wound in G-d that results from Israelite infidelity, a statement of the the profound interdependence of the Israelites not only on the rest of their world and on each other but on G-d — and G-d on the Israelites. It also suggests that the act determines who is guilty.

In “consuming” the sins, the Israelites, like the “sotah,” a woman accused of straying, take responsibility for their actions, literally own them as they become part of them. This action begins a process of restoration of a relationship.

In this extraordinary story of the Golden Calf, we understand not only the depth of a betrayal but the depth of a love relationship. We learn once again the danger that is at the boundary of life and death, creation and transcendence and the choices people make that threaten everything.

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