Ki Tisa: Forgiveness

Exodus 30:11-34:35

This parshah’s got it all. Those of you who’ve heard me give dvars before know I’m a sucker for the grandiose. A little lighter in the enthusiasm scale for the parshot filled with rules, though I hope to tackle Leviticus later this year.

Ki Tisa includes the moral lessons and core principles of obedience. It also has enough drama, spirit, and heart for virtually everyone. Like the Isrealites, I am stiff-necked and slow to learn, slow to do what I’m told, even what I know is right and good for me. But in this parshah we are reminded that Hashem is a loving and forgiving God, and an eternally present teacher.

Here’s a highlight reel, though there’s much much more: Moses is atop Sinai. God’s telling him about the Tent of Meeting and the mishkan. About Shabbat. And writing the tablets of the Ten Commandments with His own finger. The people are below, getting restive. Sitting around. Lots of manna, but not so much of the big guy, the one who promised them not just freedom but a land of their own. Aaron allows, even facilitates the making of the Golden Calf. Moses comes down and, even forewarned by God, is horrified. He smashes the holy tablets. He ascends again, pleads for the troublesome tribes, stays forty days, takes God’s dictation, returning with the second set of tablets.

The dust of the eternal hand floats all around us, and we’re given another chance to get things right.

What’s at the core of this parshah? The Ten Commandments. The simplest distillation we as a people have about how to live our lives. Clear, precise boundaries and rules. If you can’t get all the pesky ones right, like truth telling, coveting, or adultery, start even more simply: Believe in Hashem. Keep Shabbat. Don’t kill anyone.

You heard it at Sinai and now you’re being told again. Told again right after your biggest screw up of all time. Told how to live every day of your life. And also shown what we more typically do with our choices, with our free will.

Rabbi Shefa Gold (whom I strongly recommend people read each week) has this great line about Ki Tisa: Sometimes when I think I’m building a mishkan it’s really a golden calf. I’d like to think the converse is also true, that even a Golden Calf could transform into a mishkan. But I’ve often been accused of wishful thinking and denial.

Ki Tisa is about creativity, as well as about faith and redemption. About the depth of longing to join heart, soul, and hand. It is about preparing to build the holy of holies, and about what happens when we don’t stay on track.

Ki Tisa also speaks of our ability to join together, one half-sheckel at a time through a census, to create a greater whole. A community where all can come, can pray together, and can listen to holy words.

Ki Tisa shows our complex and relentless yetzer hara (lower impulses) in painful golden detail. It’s a creative part of me I live with daily. The bargainer. The rationalizer. The one who wants instant gratification. The one who can talk me into almost anything if it sounds like it’ll taste good, feel good, or otherwise satisfy some needy sense.

Ki Tisa shows us our animal nature in its most vivid and collective form. It shows us how easily and wantonly we offer up the spoils of Egypt. How we try to drown our anxieties about life (Hey is this guy ever coming back? Was he nuts? Were we?) A chance to take all that daily tsoris and fear, and make a bonfire out of it. Let it shine bright, and admit we are powerless before our addictions, whether they’re for a mid-afternoon candy bar or for visible, tangible gods.

But Ki Tisa also offers us divine mercy for our propensity to sin. It gives the thirteen attributes of God.

That’s why I asked to do this dvar. In part because I never quite got to thirteen when I’d quietly count them during services. I didn’t recognize that Adonai, Adonai (or as I prefer, Hashem, Hashem) the first two words, the repeated name of God, were actually attributes in and of themselves.

What fascinated me most was how much the thirteen attributes appealed to my sense of being human. Of needing to be both acknowledged and forgiven for my flaws and failings. Of knowing that Hashem Hashem is not only an angry wrathful God, the one who threatens to obliterate us and give Moses a better beta version of a chosen people. A god whom we should approach with fear and with awe. They offer us a god who is also merciful, loving, and forgiving.

We’re reminded of them at Pesah, during the High Holiday Selichot service, and in this parshah. Here they are:

  1. 1.1.Adonai — compassion before a person sins;
  2. 2.2.Adonai — compassion after a person has sinned;
  3. 3.3.El — mighty in compassion, giving to all creatures according to their need;
  4. 4.4.Rachum — merciful, so we shouldn’t be distressed;
  5. 5.5.Chanun — gracious, if we’re already in distress;
  6. 6.6.Erech appayim — slow to anger;
  7. 7.7.Rav chesed — plenteous in mercy;
  8. 8.8.Emet — truth;
  9. 9.9.Notzer chesed laalafim — keeping mercy unto thousands of generations;
  10. 10.10.Noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
  11. 11.11.Noseh pheshah — forgiving transgression;
  12. 12.12.Noseh chatah — forgiving sin;
  13. 13.13.Venakeh — and pardoning.

[one breath of silence]

Who can miss the appeal? It’s grounded in knowing that no matter how terrible our choices, no matter how badly we misdirect our energy, waste our creativity, backslide into the bad habits of lifetimes, no matter how often we don’t keep all the commandments, Hashem Hashem will forgive us.

One view of God is as a disappointed parent: Of all the people in the world, I chose these.  Like a teacher getting the problem class. Or the way you feel when you pick the wrong line at Costco. That realization that this process is gonna take a whole lot longer than you’d hoped. That you tied your hands when you chose these people. And now you’re going to have to keep teaching them, one parshah at a time, year after year, until they finally get it right.

As long as they need to go slow, you might as well help them. Give them a focal point, some crib sheets. Instructions that are so simple they cannot be misunderstood. No other gods. No idols. Don’t kill. Don’t lie. Don’t covet. Keep Shabbat.

These folks are tough to manage. Like herding cats. It’s gonna be a schlepp, so give them some rituals to go along with the rules. A rhythm to their lives: work six days, then rest and pray.

Have them build a place to gather, the Tent of Meeting. Speak with Moses regularly. Until he becomes so radiant with your words they cannot fail to see your teachings.

They seem to need critters, so decorate the mishkan with the faces of a bull, a lion, and an eagle. Help them see the positive side of their animal natures. Inspire and remind them regularly of your word.

Because on those tablets, we’re told: if you want to have a focus for your life, a time to worship, a time to remember to get things right, to reset your priorities, then go inside. One day in seven, go inside and listen to a different rhythm. Slow down.

Stop all that gold seeking and idol building. Go somewhere quiet or beautiful and listen deeply to your heart. Listen to the word of God writ inside you.

There’s a great passage from a book we read last fall in the TBI book group, The Genizah at the House of Sepher:  My father taught me to love the Hebrew language. The Hebrew language was like him: elegant, logical, concise. A word begins from a root, a mere three letters, and grows like a plant through seven constructs: I break; I smash; I am broken; I am smashed; I make shatter; I am caused to break down; I devastate myself.

And there’s the contradiction and mandate of our lives. The holy word is smashed in part because of us. And it is our job to rebuild. To do tikkun olam. To collect those holy motes of dust that are still circulating. That we’re breathing in every day. That are us. And to build the mishkan from them and from within ourselves.

And like the holy sparks in each of us, remnants of the smashed tablets, of the Big Bang, echoes of whatever cosmology you choose to embrace, to do our job on earth. In the words of that great sage Joni Mitchell: We are stardust. We are golden. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Along the way we screw up, we fall apart, we fall down, we smash, and we are smashed. We eat the chocolate, build the calf, or find some new personal way to screw up. And we are forgiven. We’re given another chance. A chance to try again. To get it right. A chance to build a miskan this time.

A few months ago I was in deep connection with a close friend. She was helping me push my boundaries and I was trying to make progress with tough stuff. Core issues. You know the feeling, when it’s almost muscular. You want to stretch further, and do better with your emotional crap than you’ve ever done before. So I told my friend,You know, even just a few words of acknowledgement would really help. Like, I can tell you’re trying. And she asked me Why is that important for you to hear?

I think the answer lies in the thirteen attributes. In our heart of hearts we want to know we are loved. That Hashem Hashem will always be there, will always love us, no matter how many golden calves we build, no matter how many times we screw up.

Because in our heart of hearts we also yearn to get it right. We want to heal. We want to remember that we’re capable of building a mishkan too. And even to begin to build it. To choose Hashem Hashem.

If we really trust in that merciful, forgiving, loving God….If we really take time every week for reflection, for quiet and receptivity, for slowing down, we might better fuel the parts of ourselves that can wait that extra day for Moses.

We might become someone who trusts more and covets less. Who learns from her mistakes and remembers her holiness. And who, more often than before, more often than last week or last year, gets it right.

So in the spirit of Ki Tisa I wish you a gentle Shabbat, your weekly gift from your loving Hashem Hashem.

Shabbat shalom.

– Helen S. Rosenau: TBI Eugene Feb 18, 2011