Ki Tissa is one of the most extraordinary portions in the biblical year, and there’s a lot one could say about it. Last year I reflected on the beautiful love story this portion relates and the moments in which Moses acts as the seamless bridge between the finite and the infinite:
“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.”
As I read the portion last year, in addition to the love story theme, two things stood out to me: 1) meals as the center point of exchange between G-d and the Israelites (the sacrifice as G-d’s “meal” and food of the herds, flocks and harvest as the Israelites’ meal) and 2) the absence of that exchange mechanism in the seamless relationship between G-d and Moses in the Tent of Meeting and on the mountain. The significance of the sacrifice deepens for me as cumulative evidence suggests repeatedly that it is the life of human beings that is forfeit, but in Israelite sacrifice, the animal substitutes for human beings.
Isaiah captures the exchange perfectly — and suggests the significance of the exchange in referring to death as a “reproach” in Isaiah 25:6-8:
וְעָשָׂה֩ יְהוָ֨ה צְבָא֜וֹת לְכָל־הָֽעַמִּים֙ בָּהָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה מִשְׁתֵּ֥ה שְׁמָנִ֖ים מִשְׁתֵּ֣ה שְׁמָרִ֑ים שְׁמָנִים֙ מְמֻ֣חָיִ֔ם שְׁמָרִ֖ים מְזֻקָּקִֽים׃
The LORD of Hosts will make on this mount For all the peoples A banquet of rich viands, A banquet of choice wines— Of rich viands seasoned with marrow, Of choice wines well refined.
וּבִלַּע֙ בָּהָ֣ר הַזֶּ֔ה פְּנֵֽי־הַלּ֥וֹט ׀ הַלּ֖וֹט עַל־כָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֑ים וְהַמַּסֵּכָ֥ה הַנְּסוּכָ֖ה עַל־כָּל־הַגּוֹיִֽם׃
And He will destroy on this mount the shroud That is drawn over the faces of all the peoples And the covering that is spread Over all the nations:
בִּלַּ֤ע הַמָּ֙וֶת֙ לָנֶ֔צַח וּמָחָ֨ה אֲדֹנָ֧י יְהוִ֛ה דִּמְעָ֖ה מֵעַ֣ל כָּל־פָּנִ֑ים וְחֶרְפַּ֣ת עַמּ֗וֹ יָסִיר֙ מֵעַ֣ל כָּל־הָאָ֔רֶץ כִּ֥י יְהוָ֖ה דִּבֵּֽר׃ (פ)
He will destroy death forever. My Lord GOD will wipe the tears away From all faces And will put an end to the reproach of His people Over all the earth— For it is the LORD who has spoken.
My impression grows stronger that the requirement of sacrifice relates to guilt associated with being human, that humanity is somehow responsible for a world which includes death as an inescapable part of the life of every creature, a world of predator and prey. Israelites remain alive, are saved from becoming prey, only by their covenant agreement. In the economy of this sacred scheme, life is still due, and it is through the exchange mechanism of sacrifice that the sacrificial animal substitutes for Israelite life.
This idea, and the idea in Tetzaveh of transformation of the priest and the sacrificial animal in the course of a detailed ritual, begin to sound increasingly like ways some Christians have understood and applied the text following the destruction of the Temple, and my project in a following year will be to examine in some detail how and why the rabbis took these ideas in a different direction.
The Animals’ Story
The Animals’ Story unfolds in two of four chapters of this portion.
- In chapter 32, a fraudulent animal represents a fraudulent relationship with Transcendence. G-d’s anger is directed most specifically at the fact that the Israelites offer the sacrificial “meal” to this phony god, enjoying their own meal before it. They proclaim this god to be the one who brought them out of Egypt.
- Chapter 34 reestablishes correct relationships. Both animals and people must remain at a distance from the mountain where Moses and G-d meet. As a relationship between the people and G-d is painfully restored, the first fruits of flocks, herds and the land are G-d’s, and the Israelites enjoy their bounty, exclusively that from which G-d’s portion is sacrificed.
וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”
וַיַּשְׁכִּ֙ימוּ֙ מִֽמָּחֳרָ֔ת וַיַּעֲל֣וּ עֹלֹ֔ת וַיַּגִּ֖שׁוּ שְׁלָמִ֑ים וַיֵּ֤שֶׁב הָעָם֙ לֶֽאֱכֹ֣ל וְשָׁת֔וֹ וַיָּקֻ֖מוּ לְצַחֵֽק׃ (פ)
Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance.
סָ֣רוּ מַהֵ֗ר מִן־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתִ֔ם עָשׂ֣וּ לָהֶ֔ם עֵ֖גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיִּשְׁתַּֽחֲווּ־לוֹ֙ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ־ל֔וֹ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I enjoined upon them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’”
וַֽיְהִ֗י כַּאֲשֶׁ֤ר קָרַב֙ אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הָעֵ֖גֶל וּמְחֹלֹ֑ת וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיַּשְׁלֵ֤ךְ מידו [מִיָּדָיו֙] אֶת־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת וַיְשַׁבֵּ֥ר אֹתָ֖ם תַּ֥חַת הָהָֽר׃
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.
וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־הָעֵ֨גֶל אֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשׂוּ֙ וַיִּשְׂרֹ֣ף בָּאֵ֔שׁ וַיִּטְחַ֖ן עַ֣ד אֲשֶׁר־דָּ֑ק וַיִּ֙זֶר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הַמַּ֔יִם וַיַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.
וָאֹמַ֤ר לָהֶם֙ לְמִ֣י זָהָ֔ב הִתְפָּרָ֖קוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ־לִ֑י וָאַשְׁלִכֵ֣הוּ בָאֵ֔שׁ וַיֵּצֵ֖א הָעֵ֥גֶל הַזֶּֽה׃
So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off!’ They gave it to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!”
וַיִּגֹּ֥ף יְהוָ֖ה אֶת־הָעָ֑ם עַ֚ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשׂ֣וּ אֶת־הָעֵ֔גֶל אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָׂ֖ה אַהֲרֹֽן׃ (ס)
Then the LORD sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.
וְאִישׁ֙ לֹֽא־יַעֲלֶ֣ה עִמָּ֔ךְ וְגַם־אִ֥ישׁ אַל־יֵרָ֖א בְּכָל־הָהָ֑ר גַּם־הַצֹּ֤אן וְהַבָּקָר֙ אַל־יִרְע֔וּ אֶל־מ֖וּל הָהָ֥ר הַהֽוּא׃
No one else shall come up with you, and no one else shall be seen anywhere on the mountain; neither shall the flocks and the herds graze at the foot of this mountain.”
פֶּן־תִּכְרֹ֥ת בְּרִ֖ית לְיוֹשֵׁ֣ב הָאָ֑רֶץ וְזָנ֣וּ ׀ אַחֲרֵ֣י אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֗ם וְזָבְחוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְקָרָ֣א לְךָ֔ וְאָכַלְתָּ֖ מִזִּבְחֽוֹ׃
You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will lust after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices.
כָּל־פֶּ֥טֶר רֶ֖חֶם לִ֑י וְכָֽל־מִקְנְךָ֙ תִּזָּכָ֔ר פֶּ֖טֶר שׁ֥וֹר וָשֶֽׂה׃
Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep.
לֹֽא־תִשְׁחַ֥ט עַל־חָמֵ֖ץ דַּם־זִבְחִ֑י וְלֹא־יָלִ֣ין לַבֹּ֔קֶר זֶ֖בַח חַ֥ג הַפָּֽסַח׃
You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with anything leavened; and the sacrifice of the Feast of Passover shall not be left lying until morning.
רֵאשִׁ֗ית בִּכּוּרֵי֙ אַדְמָ֣תְךָ֔ תָּבִ֕יא בֵּ֖ית יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ לֹא־תְבַשֵּׁ֥ל גְּדִ֖י בַּחֲלֵ֥ב אִמּֽוֹ׃
The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of the LORD your God. You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.
The last verse, Ex 34:26, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” is perhaps a reminder that animals redeem human beings, saving them from the death they earned, and are due all respect and compassion. For me, this chapter points to the possibility that the Israelites, and by extension humans, are not considered superior to animals but rather enjoy their privileged place in the scheme of things by the grace of G-d, through the sacrifice of their fellow creatures, and by their own sincere adherence to a covenant agreement that values compassion toward all life.