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Ki Tissa

This long portion deals with many themes. It starts with God instructing Moses to take a census to determine the number of males over 20 years of age; each male must give a half a shekel to the sanctuary.

“The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel, with which to give the offering to the Lord, to atone for your souls”.  (Ex 30:15)

God gives instructions for making a basin (laver) for ritual washing, and also gives the precise mixture of ingredients for making the holy incense. God then gives instructions for the holy oil used for anointing. Betzalel, is given the duty of overseeing the building of the tabernacle. Even as they build the tabernacle, the Israelites shall keep the Sabbath. We read:

“Tell the children of Israel to keep My Sabbaths so that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. For those who profane My Sabbath, their soul shall be cut off from among the people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. This shall be a perpetual covenant, a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and rested”. (Ex 31:13-17)

The building of the tabernacle is interrupted to tell the story of the golden calf (the Ehel ha-Zahav). The people worry that Moses is delayed on the mountain. They want a god who will be a physical presence in front of them. So they take off their gold and Aaron builds a golden calf. Moses hears the celebration and realizes the great sin of the people Israel. He breaks the two tablets of the law he had carried down the mountain. He grinds up the calf, mixes it in water, and forces the people to drink it. He gathers the Levites to his side and slays the ringleaders of the golden calf incident.

God wants to destroy the people but Moses pleads for forgiveness. He tells God that if He is to destroy the people, to wipe his own name from the book he has written. God forgives the people. Moses asks to see God's essence, and God tells him to hide in the rock. He will see God's back but no one can see God's essence. God appears as a forgiving God, and Moses hears what are often called the 13 attributes, that the Lord is a merciful and gracious God. Moses makes a second set of tablets.

The portion ends with a number of Jewish ritual laws, including the pilgrimage festivals and the prohibition of cooking a kid in its mother's milk (mixing milk with meat).

We read:

“For you shall bow down to no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. You shall make no molten gods. Passover shall you keep. The Sabbath you shall keep. Shavout you shall keep. You shall redeem your firstborn. You shall give the first of your produce to the Temple of God. Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk. Write these words of my covenant. According to these words have I sealed a covenant with you and Israel.” (Ex: 34:15-26)

Moses is again on the mountain 40 days, and when he comes down a powerful light shines from his face. He must wear a mask in the presence of the people to cover that light.

Big Ideas Summary

  1. How could, the Kohen Gadol, make a golden calf?

  2. What was wrong with making a golden calf anyway?

  3. Taking responsibility for one’s actions

  4. What is meant by God’s back? God’s face?

  5. The relationship between the order “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” as the basis of Kashrut.

Big Ideas Elaboration

How could Aaron make a golden calf? Idolatry is one of the greatest sins of Judaism. Perhaps Aaron did not consider the calf an idol. Could it be that the calf was not meant as a god, but simply a symbolic presence? Even so, it was wrong. Rashi quotes the Midrash that said Aaron built the golden calf out of fear. The people had asked Hur to make it, and the mob murdered him when he refused. Is it possible that Aaron made the golden calf because he was a peacemaker? ("I don't want any trouble!")

Perhaps we can learn from Aaron's behavior that peace is not always the right course to pursue in every situation. Sometimes pursuing peace allows injustice, or even evil, to flourish. Sometimes by pursuing peace we tolerate that which ought to be intolerable. That is the reason why the great prophet Jeremiah taught "Peace, peace, but there is no peace" (Jeremiah 6:14). There are times when the world needs not a mediator or a reconciler, but someone willing to take a stand.

What was so wrong with building a golden calf?  What’s the difference between the golden calf and the cherubim constructed for the mishkan?

Nehama Liebovitz:  

Judah Ha-Levi maintains that the legitimacy of the cherubim and the forbidden nature of the Golden Calf derived solely from the express command of God Himself. Images were not in themselves reprehensible. The Calf was forbidden because it was not made at the bidding of the Almighty. The cherubim were permitted because they were made in accordance with His wish. Man must not arbitrarily make his own laws, create his own ritual. This must be determined strictly in accordance with the Divine wishes. 

As soon as Moses saw the calf and the dancing, his anger flared. He cast the Tablets out of his hands and shattered them. Then Moses took the calf, burnt it with fire, ground it to powder, threw it upon the water and made the children of Israel drink it.

Moses confronted Aaron,

“What did these people do to you that you permitted such a great sin?”


“Do not be angry,” Aaron answered. “You know the people are predisposed toward evil. They said to me, ‘Make us a god, which shall go before us, for we know not what has become of Moses, who brought us out of the land of Egypt.’ So I told them to bring me their gold jewelry and I cast it in the fire and out came this calf.”

Moses saw the people were out of control, since Aaron had let them get out of control. So Moses stood outside the camp gate and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come here!” Inside the camp some three thousand people were then killed.

The next day, Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. Now I will go to God and try to make atonement.”

Moses pleaded with God, “Why destroy the people whom You saved? Why should the Egyptians say, God saved them with evil intent, to kill the people later? Reconsider. Remember your promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to multiply their offspring like stars of heaven and give them the promised land.”

Moses went to God and said, “If you cannot give the people forgiveness, then blot me out from Your book which You have written.”

God responded, “Whoever has sinned against Me, him I will blot out from My book! But when I remember their sin, on that day, there will be a reckoning.” Then God sent a plague upon the people.

“Now go, Moses, and take the people to the land flowing with milk and honey, as I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I will send an Angel before you and drive out the native peoples. But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.”

And the Lord renounced the punishment planned for the people.

"Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen" (Exodus 33:23) What does the Torah mean when it speaks of "God's face?"

What does it mean by "God's back"? Most commentators explain God's face as a reference to God's essence, which is unknowable. On the other hand, God's back is God's attributes (what God does or how God behaves in the world). This can be known.

We use human metaphors for God in order to better understand God's actions. What do we mean when we use metaphors for God - Avinu Malkeinu - "Our Father, Our King." (Is God male? Can we use the female "Our Mother, Our Queen" and keep the same meaning? What about "Our Parent, Our Sovereign?") What about the metaphor "The Lord is my shepherd?" What about HaMakom ("The Place"), the name we use when comforting mourners? What do we mean when we use the kabbalistic female term Shekina ("Indwelling")? How do we feel using that term when describing God as protecting souls under her wings in El Maleh Rahamim? Some feminists have compared God to a womb or a wellspring. What do these metaphors mean? In what ways does the name we use for God in given situations affect the way we see the situation? Does a name we use to refer to God in any given instance change the essence of God? What does use of different names reflect?

There is a famous Midrash that tells us that at the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites saw God as a warrior fighting in battle. Seven weeks later, at the giving of theTen Commandments, the Israelites saw God as an elderly man filled with mercy. (Mechilta on Exodus 20:2) Could both be the same God? God does not change, but our perception of God changes at different times. What metaphors for God work for us today?

In this portion Moses is not allowed to see God's face. Yet at the end of Deuteronomy, the Torah teaches, "And there has not arisen since in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face" (Deuteronomy 34:10) Why the inconsistency? Could it be that Moses came as close as anyone could come in seeing the unseeable?

Our experience of spirituality and religion must grow and change over time--if we have the same conception of God at 50 that we did at 15, then we've missed something important. Thus the traditional commentaries insist that the commandment of Torah study lasts until one's dying day--perhaps not only because the way one understands Torah will change as we age, but the way we view our lives and world can change if we never stop viewing it through the prism of sacred texts.

The Torah itself hints at this flowing and dynamic model of spirituality, just a few verses before, by describing 13 different "attributes" of the Holy One (verses 6-7) when Moshe asks to see God's "face." Moshe may have wanted the same thing that the Israelites did when they made the Calf: a palpable, visible, imaginable, conceivable Deity.

The great genius of Judaism is its insistence that we never stop striving for holiness and spiritual growth--there's no way to "grasp" the God of Israel entirely, no ending point in our quest for insight. God is not limited by denominational ideologies (though they are valuable learning tools), political inclinations, or intellectual paradigms--rather, authentic spirituality breaks through our easy answers and forces us to admit that there is learning yet to do.

And the last theme we are going to talk about this week is the law that tells us:

Do not cook the kid in its mother’s milk. In the Canaanite ritual, the milk in which the kid was cooked symbolized the milk that the newly born gods were given when suckled by the pagan goddesses Athirst and Rahmay. The cooking of a goat in milk was forbidden in the Bible because it "symbolizes the suckling [by the pagan goddesses} of the newborn gods!"

Several commentators have suggested that the prohibition against boiling a kid in its own mother's milk has a humanitarian basis, that it’s a sort of "kindness to animals" legislation. Those who espouse the humanitarian theory point to the biblical passages showing a special concern for the comfort and even "feelings" of animals. The Israelites are commanded to be especially sensitive to the tender relationship between a mother animal and her young. For example, animals may not be slaughtered on the same day as their offspring (Leviticus 22:28); a wild mother bird may not be taken out of her nest along with her eggs or fledglings (Deuteronomy 22:6-7); and no animal may be

sacrificed to God unless it has first been given a week with is mother (Leviticus 22:27; Exodus 22:29). According to these scholars, a kid may not be boiled in its mother's milk for the same reason: to prevent cruelty to animals.

Philo, the first-century Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and exegete (interpreter of texts) believed that it is "grossly improper that the substance which fed the living animal should be used to season or flavor it after its death" (De Virtute, 13).

Hence, according to Philo, the root rationale behind the kid prohibition is its opposition to commingling life and death. A substance that sustains the life of a creature (milk) should not be fused or confused with a process associated with is death (cooking).

This prohibition is, thus, simply another instance of the emphasis on opposites characteristic of biblical ritual and practice: to separate life from death, holy from common, pure from impure, Israel from the nations. The reverence for life and

Israel's separation from the nations are ideas reflected throughout the dietary laws.

So how do we get from the specific, "Do not boil a kid in its mother's milk" to the much more general, "do not mix milk and meat"? As Rabbi Gunther Plaut wrote in his UAHC Torah Commentary, "Rabbinic Judaism developed the command into the cornerstone of dietary law and saw it as a prohibition of eating milk and meat products together - a meaning entirely extraneous to the text." So let's look first at what the Torah text might really mean, and then try and figure out how the Rabbinic Sages understood it.

Often it is maintained that the laws of Kashrut are maintained for health or hygienic reasons. But, as Maimonides and others clearly point out, Jews do not keep kosher for health reasons (if that was the case, then modern refrigeration and cooking technics would invalidate most of these laws) but rather we keep kosher because God has asked it of us. The dietary laws, as presented in Torah, are considered to be Chukim, mitzvot whose purpose is not clear to humans (as opposed to Mishpatim, whose meaning is clear and self-evident).

But we can speculate, as many have done. Since God makes it clear in the Torah that we are to avoid the practices of the idolatrous peoples and maintain ourselves as a distinct nation, many assume that the Chukim, and particularly the laws of Kashrut, exist to counteract certain idolatrous rituals. While this sacrificial practice may have ceased, the item is still on the menu today. On a Mediterranean cooking web site, I came across a recipe from Syria/Lebanon called "Lamb Cooked In Its Mother's Milk." Oy. I don't think this is a coincidence. Obviously, the practice existed, or the Torah would have no reason to prohibit it.

Other reasons were also suggested for this prohibition. Ibn Ezra connects the law against boiling a kid in its mother's milk with the Torah's injunction against slaughtering a cow and her offspring on the same day (Leviticus 22:28) and the edict not to take a mother bird from the nest along with her eggs (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). For  Ibn  Ezra,  it was clear that all  three of  these mitzvot draw their inspiration from a single idea: to kill a mother and its offspring at the same time reflects a lack of sensitivity to life that is inexcusable.

So, if you must seek a rationale for the Torah's disdain for Lamb and Milk stew, then either of these reasons is as good as the other: the Torah seeks to distance Israel from a practice that was common among the idolatrous peoples, and/or, the Torah was emphasizing the sanctity of life and denigrating those who devalue life by destroying mothers along with their children.

But how then did the Rabbis get from "not boiling a kid in its mother's milk" to "no mixing dairy with meat"? Well, this is a classic case of "fence around the Torah," the halakhic device by which mitzvot, as recorded in the Torah, are expanded, sometimes to a great extent, to help Jews avoid inadvertently breaking a law. Basically, the rabbis were concerned about the possibility of confusion. Milk all looks the same, no matter what the source, and most red meat looks similar. How can you ever be sure that the milk you are using to boil the kid did not come from its mother? You can't. So we avoid mixing all milk and meat. And if we develop too much of a taste for other kinds of meat, especially lamb, cooked in milk or served with dairy, then how can we be sure we will draw the line when it comes to kid cooked in its mothers milk? By extending the law against boiling a kid in its mother's milk to a law prohibiting all meat with diary, the rabbis sought to avoid accidents that might result in a transgression against God's law, and help us develop disciplines that will prevent sin. The Rabbis started with a specific law, but, in the spirit of that law, they developed it into an entire way of life.

That's one way of looking at it. But here's another. Everything we do as Jews is meant to imbue the ordinary with holiness - from the simple act of eating to the appreciation of a rainbow to the respect we show to the dead - every aspect of Jewish life is subject to the idea of "added-value", to coin a modern marketing term. We add value to our lives by making the ordinary, extraordinary. We separate Shabbat from the other 6 days of the week and we make it special, we make it holy. We separate life from death, clean and unclean, holy and profane. We separate milk and meat to make ourselves aware that even the simple, animal act of eating can be imbued with holiness. And maybe, by referring back to the order to not boil the kid in its mothers milk, we are expressing a beautiful reverence for the very special relationship that exists between a mother and her child. Each time we refrain from eating a cheese burger or swilling a milk shake with a corned beef sandwich we are bringing honour and holiness to that very special relationship.

Holiness means to hallow our lives - and it is a way that we separate ourselves from the other nations. One of the primary functions of kashrut is to distinguish us from others, to separate us from the nations, to preserve us amidst the maelstroms of history. Jews are a small nation scattered amongst the peoples. How can we be prevented from being swallowed up and assimilated in the course of the years. Kashrut helps us to separate, to distinguish ourselves and to preserve us; to remind us three times a day who we are and what God chose us to stand for. When we honour the simple act of eating by keeping kosher, we say "yes" to the glory and grandeur of Jewish tradition and we show the courage to say "no" to the world with all of its allurements and seductions, with all of its captivating call to conformity.

It takes work to be a Jew. It isn't easy. And sometimes we slide and back pedal and struggle with the responsibilities our ancestors accepted for us a Sinai. We are Israel and Israel means to struggle. Kashrut demands sacrifice, self-discipline and determination - but what that is really worthwhile in life does not? It demands the courage to turn our face against the powerful current of conformity that almost overcomes us daily, not only against the gentile world, but against the majority of the Jewish world! Is this not what the prophet Isaiah spoke of when he sang of a saving remnant of Israel? Throughout our long history - from Egypt to Palestine to Babylonia to Spain to Germany to America and ultimately to Israel, it has always been that loyal "remnant" not the entire people which has been faithful to our task and preserved our heritage from generation to generation. Kashrut is a uniquely Jewish way to add holiness to our lives every single day. It is a way we can hallow a simple, animalistic act into something beautiful and meaningful. And in so doing further our mission to be a light unto the nations.

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