Parasha Ki Tissa

Our parashah this week, KiTissa, is extraordinarily rich in symbolism.  At the outset, Moses is instructed to prepare a special anointing oil to sanctify the holy implements and anoint Aaron and his sons. We do not know what exactly was in this oil, and we are indeed banned from concocting its like, but it would seem to have the property of making Aaron and his sons glisten. One could imagine seeing their anointed heads reflecting the light of the altar and the menorah and to imagine them as creatures of light. Indeed, the white linen worn by the Kohanim is close to the bigdei kehunah (priestly garments) that our mystical tradition believes was first intended for humanity. The Kohanim were meant to reflect divine light in the world.

The most brilliant face in our parashah is that of God. After the golden calf, God threatens either to wipe out the people, or at the very least create a “distance”, leaving an angel to guide them to the Land. Moses responds audaciously by saying that this is the time to re-engage, not to separate. Indeed, he pleads with God not to withhold any aspect from him. Verse 33:11 reassures us that Moses had intimate time with God, panim el panim (face-to-face), but he wasn’t satisfied. God tells Moses that mortals cannot withstand direct view of the divine face. Rather, Moses gets treated to a view of God’s qualities. 

Finally, we have the face of Moses as he descends from Sinai holding the second set of tablets. He was glowing so brilliantly that the people could not bear to look at him. Where did this light come from? A delightful passage is found in Midrash Tanchuma to Ki Tissa, brought in the name of R’ Yehudah bar Nechemiah, who imagines these golden lights on Moses’s head to be leftover ink from his quill that he somewhat absentmindedly smeared on his head after finishing the Torah.

With that said, some hold that the Torah is written in letters of light (a favorite trope of the Zohar and other texts), and some of that light attached to Moses so that he became a walking Sefer Torah. Perhaps this is what the prayer that closes every morning service, Sim Shalom, has in mind when saying that it was through the light of God’s face that we gained “Torat Chayim” (the teaching of life).

Parashat Ki Tissa reminds us that moments of crisis are often ripe with opportunity for breakthroughs. Without the golden calf, perhaps Israel would never have learned about the merciful qualities of God. Perhaps we would have never learned the path of repentance. Without sin and even anger, it is hard to imagine holiness and love. That is the paradox of our parashah, and it feels true to life.

My blessing for you this Shabbat is not to get discouraged. Hurdles will appear, and we are often burdened with challenges. But those very burdens can become our blessings if we respond to them with fortitude, with humility, with wisdom and with compassion, as Moses did. May the divine light shine upon our faces as we enter Shabbat; may God purify our hearts to serve God in truth.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham