Signs of His Presence

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Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35

by Dr. Vered Hillel, Netanya, Israel

In Parashat Ki Tisa the Israelites are in the desert waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain (Exod 24:18). Up until this point the narrative in Exodus has moved rather rapidly: the enslavement of Israel, the events leading up to the calling of Moses, the drama of the plagues culminating in the killing of the first-born, the events of the first Pesach, the Exodus itself, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, and traveling through the desert to Mt. Horeb. Suddenly, the fast-paced and miraculous events have stopped. Israel waits.

Israel waits and waits for Moses who is at the top of the mountain meeting with Hashem. They do not know what is transpiring on the mountaintop. All they know is that their leader is gone. We, the readers, however, know that Moses is receiving detailed information from Hashem. Over the past few Torah portions, we’ve been eavesdropping on their conversation: in Parashat Mishpatim we hear about the laws governing community life, and in Parashat Terumah and Tetsaveh about the instructions for building the Tabernacle. B’nei Israel, however, has no idea what is happening. All they know is that they are in the desert with no permanent home, no idea where they are going or what they should be doing, and to top it off, with seemingly no leader to direct them. This moment of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear precipitates the building of the Golden Calf.

The people’s demand for a “god” seems to stem from Moses’ disappearance and their want of a visible, tangible object that would recall Hashem’s presence in their midst. I say this because Hashem indicts Israel for making a molten calf, not for worshiping other gods, and he does not accuse them of turning aside from him, but of turning “aside from the way that I enjoined upon them” (Exod 32:8). No matter their intentions, B’nei Israel acted rashly, impulsively, and corruptly, and the consequences of their apostasy were dire; Moses smashes the tablets inscribed by Hashem, and Hashem sends a plague on Israel. In a tragic irony, instead of a reassuring tangible symbol of the continuing presence of Hashem in their midst, their chosen symbol, the calf, becomes the instrument of their alienation from him. Notice that Hashem tells Moshe, “Hurry down for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted corruptly” (Exod 32:7). In contrast, until now in the Exodus narrative Hashem has said “my people” (Exod 3:7, 10; 5:1; 7:4, 16, 26; 8:16–19; 9:1, 13, 17; 10:3, 4; 22:24).

We are also privy to Moses’ intercession on behalf of B’nei Israel and of Aaron to turn Hashem’s anger from them. In the Torah, Israel does not learn of this matter until later, when Moses recounts the Golden Calf episode in his final address to B’nei Israel just before they cross over into the Promised Land. At this time Moses shares how it was only by his intercession that Israel and Aaron were saved from Hashem’s anger and desire to destroy them (Deut 9:12–22). Hashem listens to Moses, and by the end of our parashah the relationship between Hashem, Israel, and Moses is restored.

Like Israel, we too can find ourselves in situations where we need more than an abstract idea of God, where we need the tangible reassurance of God’s presence and of our relationship with him. This week’s parashah gives two such signs. The first is Shabbat. The last instruction Hashem gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai before he descended with the inscribed tablets was to tell Israel that they “must keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Lord have consecrated you” (31:12–18). At the end of our parashah Moses descends from the mountain with the second set of tablets. In next week’s parashah, vaYakhel, Moses addresses the assembled community, beginning with a command to keep Shabbat (Genesis 35:1). Thus, Shabbat forms an inclusio, a set of bookends, around the Golden Calf episode, showing that Hashem had already provided a tangible sign of his presence. Though Shabbat was sanctified by God at creation for all time (Gen 2:3), Hashem called Shabbat a sign of the relationship between himself and Israel. Hashem had provided for Israel before they recognized their own need. When we find ourselves in uncertainty, anxiety, or fear, longing for some sign of Hashem’s presence, let’s not act rashly and impulsively as our ancestors did, but remember that Hashem has given Shabbat as a sign, as a reassurance of his presence and of our relationship with him.

The second tangible sign is the Tabernacle. Like Shabbat, the Tabernacle sandwiches the incident of the Golden Calf, which falls between the giving of the instructions for the Tabernacle (25:1–30:10) and its construction (35:1–40:38). Also, like Shabbat, the placement of the Tabernacle before and after the Golden Calf incident is a planned response to the people’s need of a visible sign of Hashem’s presence. It is a place wherein they could encounter Hashem and gain access to him. In his instructions to Moses, Hashem stated that he would meet with Israel between the cherubim (Exod 25:22). The Tabernacle is a tangible expression of Hashem’s presence and of the ongoing nature of the covenant between God and Israel. Today this can be expressed in Shabbat, which as Abraham Joshua Heschel has noted, is a concrete sanctuary in time (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005], 8–10).

Looking forward in time from Mt. Sinai to Yeshua, we see another concrete sign of God’s presence. As the Word become flesh, he tabernacled among us (John 1:14), and after ascending and being seated at the right hand of the Father sent Ruach Hakodesh (John 14:26) in his stead. May we all cling to the tangible signs of his presence—Shabbat, Tabernacle, and Yeshua.

Russ Resnik