Parshat Ki Tisa
In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
The Torah returns to a narrative in this parshah as the episode of the Golden Calf occurs. After calming God, Moses undergoes a mystical experience when God passes by Moses, who experiences the attributes of mercy and compassion.
And God answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But,” He said, “you cannot see My face, for a human may not see Me and live.”
וְקָרָ֧אתִֽי בְשֵׁ֛ם יְהוָ֖ה לְפָנֶ֑יךָ וְחַנֹּתִי֙ אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָחֹ֔ן וְרִחַמְתִּ֖י אֶת־אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֲרַחֵֽם׃
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לִרְאֹ֣ת אֶת־פָּנָ֑י כִּ֛י לֹֽא־יִרְאַ֥נִי הָאָדָ֖ם וָחָֽי׃
The Gemara continues to cite the Sages’ explanation of verses that require clarification on the same topic. With regard to God’s statement to Moses, “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live’” (Exodus 33:20), it was taught in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said to Moses as follows: When I wanted to show you My glory at the burning bush, you did not want to see it, as it is stated: “And Moses concealed his face, fearing to gaze upon God” (Exodus 3:6). But now that you want to see My glory, as you said: “Show me Your glory,” I do not want to show it to you. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korḥa interprets Moses’ initial refusal to look upon God’s glory negatively, as he rebuffed God’s desire to be close to him.
And Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba also said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Had there been left open a crack so much as the size of small sewing needle in the cave in which Moses and Elijah stood when God’s glory was revealed to them, as it is written: “And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock” (Exodus 33:22), and: “And he came there to a cave…and, behold, the Lord passed by” (I Kings 19:9–11), they would not have been able to endure due to the intense light that would have entered that crack, as it is stated: “For no man shall see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20).
Mordechai of Chernobyl, 19th century, Ukraine
The essential thing is to believe with perfect faith that the Creator “fills the entire world with divine glory” (Isaiah 6:3) and that “no place is empty of God,” and that when you look at the world, you are looking at the Creator. When you speak to people, you are speaking to the soul within them, for if the soul were to depart from the body, you would not be able to speak with them, for they would be like a dumb stone. When they are alive, you can speak with the soul within them …, even though you cannot see the soul. How much the more so are you unable to see the Creator, for God is the Soul of Souls! … Therefore, you must believe that God is here, even though you cannot see God, as Scripture says, “For no one can see My face and live” (Exodus 33:20).
You shall not make molten gods for yourselves.
After citing a statement of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya that was transmitted by amora’im, the Gemara quotes additional expositions attributed to him. And Rav Sheshet said, citing Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya: Anyone who disparages the Festivals, it is considered as though he engages in idol worship. This, too, is derived from the juxtaposition of verses, as it is stated: “You shall make yourself no molten gods” (Exodus 34:17), and afterward it is written: “The Festival of matzot you shall keep” (Exodus 34:18), from which it can be inferred that anyone who does not observe the Festivals properly is likened to one who fashions idols.
Mordechai of Izbica, 19th century, Poland
“Molten”–these are generalizations, and concerning this Scripture is saying that when you have the explicit understanding of the heart, you must not look to generalizations to determine your behavior, but with the understanding of the heart you will know how to behave in each specific case, as we find in the case of Elijah on Mount Carmel.
Elijah had violated a halachic prohibition against doing sacrifices outside of the Temple.
It seems that Mordechai of Izbica is saying “don’t turn halacha into an idol.”
What does it mean to have a “explicit understanding of the heart”? How do you know that it is not your Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) that is speaking?
The Ein Yaakov / Talmud section last week is a particularly famous incident in the Talmud.
There was another incident involving one gentile who came before Shammai and said to Shammai: Convert me on condition that you teach me the entire Torah while I am standing on one foot. Shammai pushed him away with the builder’s cubit in his hand. This was a common measuring stick and Shammai was a builder by trade. The same gentile came before Hillel. He converted him and said to him: That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, and the rest is its interpretation. Go study.
There was another incident involving one gentile who was passing behind the study hall and heard the voice of a teacher who was teaching Torah to his students and saying the verse: “And these are the garments which they shall make: A breastplate, and an efod, and a robe, and a tunic of checkered work, a mitre, and a girdle” (Exodus 28:4). The gentile said: These garments, for whom are they designated? The students said to him: For the High Priest. The gentile said to himself: I will go and convert so that they will install me as High Priest. He came before Shammai and said to him: Convert me on condition that you install me as High Priest. Shammai pushed him with the builder’s cubit in his hand. He came before Hillel; he converted him.
Hillel said to him, to the convert: Is it not the way of the world that only one who knows the protocols [takhsisei] of royalty is appointed king? Go and learn the royal protocols by engaging in Torah study. He went and read the Bible. When he reached the verse which says: “And the common man that draws near shall be put to death” (Numbers 1:51), the convert said to Hillel: With regard to whom is the verse speaking? Hillel said to him: Even with regard to David, king of Israel. The convert reasoned an a fortiori inference himself: If the Jewish people are called God’s children, and due to the love that God loved them he called them: “Israel is My son, My firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), and nevertheless it is written about them: And the common man that draws near shall be put to death; a mere convert who came without merit, with nothing more than his staff and traveling bag, all the more so that this applies to him, as well.
The convert came before Shammai and told him that he retracts his demand to appoint him High Priest, saying: Am I at all worthy to be High Priest? Is it not written in the Torah: And the common man that draws near shall be put to death? He came before Hillel and said to him: Hillel the patient, may blessings rest upon your head as you brought me under the wings of the Divine Presence. The Gemara relates: Eventually, the three converts gathered together in one place, and they said: Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world; Hillel’s patience brought us beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.