The parasha for this Shabbat is entitled Ki Tissa, meaning “When you take or carry out (having to do with the taking of a census)” and spans Exodus 30-34. Included in this section of the Torah are the commands to sanctify with sacred oil the tent of meeting, the altar, its tools and Aaron and his sons the priests. In fact, holiness is the theme woven through the entire reading. God is holy, and He wants Israel to be holy.

In chapter 31 we’re introduced to some very creative people – Bezalel and Oholiav, who, together with a group of artisans, were uniquely gifted by God, and commissioned to produce all the ornate furnishings for the Tent of Meeting. Do you have artistic or musical skills? If you do, it is because you were given them by God. Don’t neglect those gifts. Don’t bury them, as it were, like the lazy and wicked servant who was rebuked. At the same time, don’t take the credit for them, but give all the glory to God.

At the end of chapter 31 God reminds Moses of the seriousness of the Sabbath, declaring that it was to be a sign between the Lord and the people of Israel throughout our generations. After this, we read that God gave Moses the tablets which He Himself had inscribed, and we’re suddenly reminded that everything recorded between chapters 19 and 31 took place between Adonai and Moshe atop Mt. Sinai.

Meanwhile trouble has been brewing down in the camp. When Moses seemed to have been gone too long, our people panicked. We urged Aaron to construct an idol. This was in spite of the fact that just six weeks earlier God met us at Sinai and we were told in no uncertain terms not to make gods (idols) for ourselves. Aaron acceded to their wishes, instructing the people to bring him their fine jewelry and he took their golden earrings and performed a little “artistry” of his own. He produced an abomination: a golden calf. Our people declared collectively, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” Our people offered sacrifices to the idol and sat down to eat; and then – the Scriptures say euphemistically – “rose up to play” which is a figure of speech still employed in some places to refer to illicit sexual activity.

God tells Moses to go down quickly, saying, “Your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves…” Moses pleads on their behalf, but says to the Lord that they are, “Your people, whom You brought out from the land of Egypt…”. Moses entreats God to be merciful for the sake of the Patriarchs and reminds Him of His covenant promises to Israel. On account of Moses’ plea, God relents and Israel is spared, but that did not mean there would not be consequences. After smashing the tablets containing the 10 Commandments, Moses drew the proverbial line in the sand and said, “Whoever is for Adonai, come to me!” Out of the entire nation, all twelve of Israel’s tribes, only the tribe of Levi was willing to stand up for what was right. Three thousand of the leaders of that rebellion were put to death that day. It is a tragic chapter in our history, and its central placement in this part of the Torah (it actually interrupts the narrative otherwise dealing with the Tabernacle) – is quite intentional.

God declared our people to be stubborn and obstinate. Our people went into mourning, and for the duration of the wilderness wandering we no longer wore jewelry or any ornamentation. Now it was time to move on. God instructed Moses to cut two stone tablets like the first ones, and to climb Mt. Sinai again, and God would inscribe the second set. When Moses returned from the mountain after 40 days (during which he fasted) his face shone from being in God’s presence.

Chapter 34 contains reminders that we were not to make any treaties with the inhabitants of Canaan, nor to intermarry with them, which would lead inevitably to idolatry. We were also commanded to celebrate Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, the three annual pilgrimage festivals, and charged with honoring the Sabbath. It is important to note that the prohibition against intermarriage had nothing to do with ethnicity, but rather idolatry. Moses himself later married an Ethiopian woman. Aaron and Miriam grumbled about it, and God rebuked the two of them!

Three thoughts I’d like to leave you with from parasha Ki Tissa:

  1. Only one out of the twelve tribes was willing to stand up for Adonai that day. What does that tell you? It tells me that following the majority never, ever, makes something right. It will never excuse our wrong choices or our wrong actions.
  2. This reveals the folly of the claim that Jewish people do not need a middleman, but can go directly to God. Had Moses not placed himself squarely between the wrath of God and our people, the entire nation would have been obliterated – and justly so. Neither would this be the last time that Moses had to serve as intermediary between God and Israel. If Jewish people don’t need a “middleman” then someone explain to me why God instituted an entire caste of middlemen called kohaneem – priests – to serve between Himself and the nation. In fact, a correct understanding of the Levitical system makes obvious why Messiah Yeshua had to offer His life in place of ours; the innocent for the guilty; the just standing in for the unjust. As the prophet Yeshayahu declared “… by His wounds we are healed”.
  3. A veneer of religious activity does not transform what is evil into what is good. Aaron attempted to sanitize the making of an idol by saying, “Tomorrow will be a feast to Adonai”. We must not confuse “spirituality” with theological reality. God is real, and He is holy, and we had better not ignore or re-interpret His instructions. Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect (Matt. 5:48). We may never attain to perfection in this lifetime, but do you really suppose that in the New Covenant the standard has been lowered! If anything, we ought to be doing it better, because we have the full revelation of God. May God empower us to do His will, particularly when we are required to go “outside the camp” on account of the sin inside the camp.