Parasha Ki Tissa

Like an oasis in the dessert, Parasha Ki Tissa provides powerful narratives in the midst of endless verses of detailing the tabernacle. The primary action focuses on the incident of the golden calf and its aftermath, yet Ki Tissa provides other rich material. Two things that emerge are the copper washing basin (kior) and the veil worn by Moses (masveh).

Shabbat plays a large role in the Book of Exodus, though it keeps shifting paradigms.  Our parashah includes the fundamental commandment to guard Shabbat because it is a sign between God and Israel. What does that mean, really? It seems that the core rationale of Shabbat is that Israel is meant to share the divine experience of work followed by rest. Just as God rested after creation and just as God stops providing manna every Saturday, so too must Israel alternate between active and passive states. 

Midrash Tefilim emphasizes this collective experience of work and rest as being the sign “between” God and Israel. For 40 years in the wilderness God trained the people to gather and then rest until it became their unique habit and could function as a sign of the covenant. The Kedushat Levi, one of the classic Hasidic commentaries by Reb Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810), speaks of the generative power of Shabbat—when resting, a new sense enters the world and fructifies the entire week. And Rabbi Zadok HaKohen from Lublin (1823-1900) speaks of God’s sharing the task of sanctifying Shabbat with Israel. God restrains God’s own flow of holiness in order to leave room for us to sanctify the day.

These texts add up to the insight that resting is a creative activity that changes the very fabric of existence on every level. We often take our rest for granted, seeing it as down time. For many of us the most profound experiences of family, friendship and community are tied to Shabbat. Likewise, the sweetest prayers, songs and words of Torah come to us on Shabbat. For this to be possible we need to create space—by refraining from melakhah, work, we create spiritual potential.

In our meager county there are those whose Shabbat observance pales when compared to mine and others who may well think I am misheguna about Shabbat.  Each of us needs to proceed on a unique, individual way and pace.  The last thing I want to impose on anyone is my level (or lack) of observance.  As recently as last Shabbat the question came up about Benny using markers, with Lauren and me differing.  A few weeks ago, we were at a friend's of friends home in Texas, and the father would not read the local newspaper to see who had won a football game the night before but was later reading a news magazine.  I inquired and he explained the magazine had been printed before Shabbat, whereas the newspaper had been printed (created) late Friday night or early Saturday morning.

Rashi tells us that Moses use of the masveh (veil) may have been to mitigate the powerful light that emanated from his face, not to separate himself from his flock but separate the mundane from the holy.  When Moses taught the word of God to the people, he did not wear the mask, nor did he wear it when he spoke with God.  My most fervent hope would be that whatever I am able to humbly impart to each of you it is done as Moses did, panim el panim, face to face.

Outsiders to Shabbat have trouble grasping this experience. They see a list of restrictions—“You can’t write? You can’t shop? You can’t cook? You can’t travel???” In that precious period of 25 quiet hours we not only rest—we create holiness, beauty and peace.

Just as God shares Shabbat with us, making room for us to add to its holiness, our task is to make Shabbat a sign between us and others. By inviting people to our table, to study and sing with us, we expand the circle of holiness. Just imagine one more person enjoying Shabbat as a result of your efforts!

Do not go too fast or try to “do it all”.  Just go at your own pace—one step at a time.  So go “make Shabbos”—create a beautiful day of rest beginning tonight!

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham

Please Note that Rabbi Abraham will be away next week; his message will return on Friday, February 28th.