11-18 Adar I 5779


KI TISA: The Twenty-first Sedra of the Torah
Exodus 30:11-34:35

On Mount Sinai, Moses has been receiving instructions from the Eternal for the central sacred institutions of Israel.  These include components of the sanctuary including the priesthood and its official garments.  In last week’s Sedra Tetzaveh, one of the considerations was atonement made through the sacred foods of Aaron and his sons as well as for the altars.  In some contrast with corporate atonement, this week’s Sedra opens on the note of personal atonement although within the context of communal needs.  It then continues the description of components of the sanctuary with instructions regarding their execution, subject to Sabbath observance, and presents ultimately the dramatic and profound experience of the tablets of the covenant.


The Eternal instructs Moses: When you take the sum (Ki Tisa) of the Children of Israel, each person, twenty years and older, shall provide ransom for himself to the Eternal when being counted, so that no harm will result when counting them.  The ransom shall be a half-shekel, by the sanctuary weight, a shekel being the equivalent of 20 gerahs, a half-shekel contribution to the Eternal.  The amount shall be the same for rich and for poor.  The money shall be used for the service of the tent of meeting, and it shall prompt the Eternal to provide atonement for your persons.


The Eternal instructs Moses: You shall make a brass laver and base for Aaron and his sons, and you shall place it between the tent of meeting and the altar and put water in it.   Aaron and his sons shall use it to wash their hands and feet when they enter the tent of meeting, so that they do not die.   When they approach the altar to perform their service of making a fire offering smoke to the Eternal, they must wash their hands and feet, so that they do not die.  This is an everlasting statute for Aaron and for his offspring throughout their generations.


You take the choicest of spices, by units of the sanctuary shekel: 500 of flowing myrrh, 250 of sweet cinnamon, 250 of calamus, 500 of cassia—and a hin of olive oil.  Make it holy anointing oil, an ointment mixture, the product of a compounder.  Use it to anoint the tent of meeting, the ark of the testimony, the table and all of its implements, the menorah and its implements, the incense altar, the burnt offering altar and all of its implements, and the laver and its base.  You shall sanctify them so that they become most holy: whatever touches them shall become holy.  You shall also anoint Aaron and his sons, and you shall sanctify them to be My priests.

Tell the Children of Israel that this is My holy anointing oil throughout your generations.  It may not be poured upon the flesh of any other person, nor shall you compound anything like it.  It is holy, and it shall be holy to you.  Whoever should compound anything like it or should put it upon others than Aaron and his sons shall be cut off from his people.


The Eternal says to Moses: You take spices—stacte, onycha, galbanum—and pure frankincense, in equal parts, and make it incense, a mixture, the product of a compounder, salted, pure, it is holy.  Beat some of it finely and put some of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting, where I shall meet with you; it shall be most holy for you.  You shall not make incense for yourselves using the same proportions; it shall be holy for you to the Eternal.  One who makes a compound like it to create a scent shall be cut off from his people.


“See, I have identified by name Bezalel…” (31:2)—the Eternal informs Moses of His appointment of Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and as his associate, Oholiav ben Achisamach, of the tribe of Dan, to execute all that the Eternal has commanded Moses: the tent of meeting, the ark for the testimony and the propitiatory upon it, all of the implements of the tent, the table and its implements, the pure menorah and all of its implements, the incense altar, the burnt offering altar and its implements, the laver and its base, the plaited garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons to serve as priests, the anointing oil, and the incense of spices for the sanctuary.  With respect to Bezalel, “I [the Eternal] am filling him with the divine spirit, with wisdom and understanding and knowledge, and with all aspects of workmanship, to devise plans for doing work in gold, silver and copper, for the cutting of stones to be set in place, and for the carving of wood to be done with all manner of workmanship.” (31:3-5)  The Eternal declares that He has placed wisdom in the heart of the wise-hearted to accomplish all that He has commanded Moses.


The Eternal tells Moses to explain to the Children of Israel: However, you must observe my Sabbaths, for the Sabbath is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations to know that I, the Eternal, sanctify you.  For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Eternal and for you.  Those who profane it shall be put to death; the life of anyone who does work on it shall be cut off from its people.

“The Children of Israel shall preserve the Sabbath to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as an eternal covenant.  It is a sign between Me and the Children of Israel for ever that in six days the Eternal made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.” (31:16-17)


“When He finishes speaking with him, He gives to Moses on Mount Sinai the two tablets of testimony, tablets of stone, inscribed by the finger of God.” (31:18)  Meanwhile, the people is under the impression that Moses has delayed coming down from the mountain.  Not knowing what has happened to him, they assemble against Aaron and demand that Aaron make for them “a god to lead them.” (32:1)  Aaron responds, “Tear off the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring them to me!” (32:2)  The people comply, and Aaron uses a graving tool to fashion from the material a molten calf, about which they say, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (32:4)  Aaron responds by building an altar before it and declaring for the morrow “a festival to the Eternal.”  (32:5)  Promptly the next morning the people offer up burnt offerings and present sacrifices of well-being.  They sit down to eat and to drink, and they rise up to celebrate.

The Eternal speaks to Moses on the Mount:  “Go, descend!  For your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, has acted perversely.” (32:7)  They have turned away quickly from the path that I commanded them.  They have made a molten calf, bowed down to it, sacrificed to it, and heralded it as the god who brought Israel up from the land of Egypt.  I have seen that this is a stiff-necked people: my anger prompts Me to destroy them and make you instead into a great nation.  But Moses entreats the Eternal his God to reconsider, in view of the strength and the power that He displayed in bringing His people out of Egypt: why should the Egyptians say that the Eternal so acted out of evil motive, only to destroy them from off the face of the earth?  Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Your servants—Moses continues—to make their offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and to give them all of this Land that You promised them for ever.  “Then the Eternal repented of the harm which He had promised to inflict upon His people.” (32:14)

Moses turns and descends from the mountain—in his hand the two tablets of testimony, the tablets themselves the work of God and the writing graven upon them from both sides the writing of God.  Both Moses and Joshua hear the shouting of the people below.  Joshua relates it to Moses as the sound of war in the camp.  But Moses says, “The sound I hear is neither the singing of victory nor the singing of defeat; it is the singing of song!” (32:18)  Indeed, as he approaches the camp, he sees the calf and the dancing, and, his anger blazing, Moses casts the tablets from his hands and shatters them at the foot of the mountain.  He burns the calf in fire and grinds it into fine ash, which he strews upon the water and makes the Children of Israel drink.

Moses says to Aaron: What did the people do to you to make you bring upon it such an immense sin?  Aaron responds: Be not angry, my lord, for you already know that this people is set on evil.  Aaron recounts to him the events that led up to the calf and adds: I threw the gold into the fire, “and this calf came out!” (32:24)  But Moses judges that Aaron enabled the people to earn the derision of their enemies, so, standing at the gate of the camp, he announces, “Whoever is for the Eternal, let him follow me!” (32:26)  All of the sons of Levi answer his call and wield their swords from gate to gate throughout the camp, against family and friends, striking down some 3,000 men.  Moses calls upon them to be consecrated to the Eternal for the sacrifice of sons and brothers that they have made and that the Eternal “would bestow upon you this day a blessing.” (32:29)


On the morrow Moses announces to the people that, notwithstanding their monumental transgression, he will go up to the Eternal and seek to obtain atonement on their behalf.  Moses returns to the Eternal and acknowledges their sin of “making for themselves a god of gold.” (32:31)  His words fail to complete the presumption that the Eternal could forgive such a sin—“And now if You would forgive their sin . . . [the thought is broken; no apodosis follows]—but he asserts his own demand that if the Eternal does not spare the people, then He should erase him, Moses, too, “from Your book that You have written.” (32:32)  To this the Eternal responds that only the one who has sinned against Him will be removed from His book.  Moses should continue to lead the people to the stated destination, which He promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give to their offspring, but now guided not by the Eternal in their midst, but by His angel.  The time will come when He will visit their sin upon them and the Eternal will strike down the people “for making the calf which Aaron made.” (32:35)  In the meantime, the Eternal promises to expel the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, and to deliver the people “to a land flowing with milk and honey,” but “I shall not go up in your midst, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I destroy you on the way.” (33:3)  When the people hear these tidings, they go into mourning, and they remove their personal ornaments, in accordance with the prescription of the Eternal, from Mount Horeb onwards.


Moses would pitch a tent far outside of the camp, and he called it the tent of meeting.  Whoever sought the Eternal would have to go out to the tent of meeting outside of the camp.  When Moses himself would go out to the tent, everyone would stand at the entrance of his own tent and watch Moses until he arrived at the tent of meeting.  There a pillar of cloud would descend at its entrance, and the Eternal would speak with Moses.  When the people saw the cloud, everyone would bow at the entrance of his tent.  The Eternal spoke with Moses face to face, as one person would speak with another.  When Moses returned to the camp, his young minister Joshua son of Nun would not depart from the tent.


Now it was Moses’s turn to address the Eternal with certain questions (33:12):  (1) Whom will You send with me to bring up this people (cf. 32:34; 33:2)?  (2) How can I know that I have found favor in Your sight as You have claimed (cf. 32:32-33)?  (3) What is Your name, as You claim to have made it known to me?  Underlying the presumption reflected in these demands is Moses’s recognition on behalf of the Eternal: “See that this nation is Your people!” (33:13)

To the first question, He answers, “My face shall go, and I shall give you rest.” (33:14)  Moses emphasizes that only under that circumstance should He bring them up from their current place (33:15).

As to the second question, Moses underlines its importance not only for him but for “Your people” as well, “to be distinguished from every other people that is upon the face of the earth.” (33:16)  The Eternal agrees to answer the second question but as interrelated with the answer to Moses’s third demand (33:17).  In anticipation Moses entreats with urgency and respect, “Show me Your grave presence.” (33:18)

I can show you My goodness, I can declare to you My name [referred to herein as “the Eternal”], and I can demonstrate My favor by compassion (33:19), but no living person can see My face (33:20).  Then He bids Moses take his place “with Me” (33:21) in the cleft of a rock, and as “My grave presence passes by…I shall put My hand over you…then, when I remove My hand, you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.” (33:22-23)


Moses Ascends

The Eternal tells Moses to carve two tablets of stone like the first ones, “and I shall write upon the tablets the words which were on the first tablets that you shattered.” (34:1)  Then, in the morning, you shall go up to Mount Sinai and be present to Me there upon the top of the mountain.  Let no one else come up with you, not even be seen in all the mountain, and let no flock or herd be pastured at the foot of the mountain.  So does Moses, taking up with him the two tablets of stone in his hand.

The Eternal Descends

The Eternal descends in the cloud and stands with him there, proclaiming the name of the Eternal.  The Eternal passes over his face and declares, “The Eternal, the Eternal, God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and truth, preserving lovingkindness for the thousandth, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, but without acquitting, visiting the iniquity of fathers upon children and upon children’s children to the third generation and to the fourth generation.” (34:6-7)

Moses Requests Divine Presence

Moses quickly bows down to the ground and prays, “If indeed I have found favor in Your sight, O Lord, let the Lord go in our midst,” then offering the very reason of the Eternal’s expressed demurral as cause to grant his request for reconsideration: “for it is a stiff-necked people,” and therefore he asks directly, “forgive our iniquity and our sin, and accept us as an inheritance.” (34:9; cf. 33:3)

The Eternal Outlines His Covenant

He says: I hereby make a covenant.  I shall perform before the people, in whose midst you are, awesome wonders that have not been created before.  Observe well what I command you this day!  (34:10-11a)

Do not make a molten god.  I am expelling from before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.  Do not worship another, for the Eternal is a jealous God.  Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the Land that you may encounter, but break down their altars, shatter their pillars, and cut down their idols, lest they become a snare in your midst and you make a covenant with them and sacrifice to their gods and accept their invitation to eat of their sacrifices, or you marry your sons to their daughters and your sons are drawn to their wives’ gods.  (34:11b-17)

Observe the festival of Pesach.  For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, for the festival of the month of Aviv, as in that month you went out from Egypt.  (34:18)

All that opens the womb is Mine.  Sanctify the firstborn males of ox and sheep.  Redeem with a lamb the firstborn of an ass, otherwise break its neck.  Redeem every firstborn of your sons.  Let them not appear before Me empty-handed.  (34:19-20)

Six days shall you work.  On the seventh day shall you rest.  You shall rest in ploughing and in harvest.  (34:21)

Observe for yourself the festival of Weeks, first fruit of the wheat harvest.  (34:22a)

Observe the festival of Ingathering, at the completion of the year.  (34:22b)

Three times in the year shall all of your males appear before the Lord, the Eternal, the God of Israel.  For I will drive out nations from before you and expand your territory, so that no one will covet your property when you go up to appear before the Eternal your God.  (34:23-24)

You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice while there is leavened bread, and the sacrifice of the festival of Pesach shall not remain overnight until morning.  (34:25)

The prime quality of the first fruits of your Land shall you bring to the house of the Eternal your God.  (34:26a)

Do not boil a kid in the milk of its mother.  (34:26b)

Words Are Written

The Eternal instructs Moses to write these words, as they constitute the covenant that He is making with Moses and Israel.  Moses remains there with the Eternal for forty days and forty nights.  He has nothing to eat or drink.  He writes upon the tablets the words of the covenant, “the ten items” (34:28; cf. 34:1).

When Moses descends from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand, he is unaware that the skin of his face is casting beams “from His speaking with him” (34:29).  But Aaron and the Children of Israel see and at first fear drawing close to him, until he confers with Aaron and all the leaders of the community.

Afterwards all the Children of Israel draw near, and Moses imparts to them all that the Eternal told him on Mount Sinai.  When Moses finishes speaking with them, he places a veil over his face, which he would remove henceforth only when speaking with the Eternal.


Haftarah for Shabbat Ki Tisa
I Kings 18:1-39

Ahab enjoyed a long reign as king of Israel.
He married Jezebel, daughter of the king of Sidon,
and thereupon built a temple to Baal in Samaria.
The prophet Elijah has confronted Ahab
for his idolatry and demonstrated
the dominance of the Eternal
by selectively withholding rain from the Land.

The famine was severe in Samaria.  After many days, the word of the Eternal comes to Elijah, in the third year: Appear before Ahab and I shall provide rain.  So Elijah sets out to appear before Ahab.

Obadiah was over the household of Ahab.  But he feared the Eternal.  When Jezebel destroyed the prophets of the Eternal, Obadiah hid 100 of them, 50 in a cave, and sustained them with food and water.  Now Ahab is calling Obadiah to help him go through the land to all the springs and brooks and collect whatever grass could be found to sustain the horses and mules amid the famine.

When Obadiah meets Elijah on the road, he falls upon his face and says, “Is it you, my lord, Elijah?” Elijah replies, “It is I. Go, say to your lord: Elijah is coming!”  Obadiah replies, “What sin have I committed that you should hand your servant over to Ahab to kill me?  Ahab has sought you everywhere with no success.  If I should now lose your protection because the Eternal carries you off to I-know-not-where and I deliver your message to Ahab, he will kill me; and remember, your servant has feared the Eternal from my youth!  Has it not been told you how, when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Eternal, I saved 100 of them?”

But Elijah convinces Obadiah not to worry that he will lose Elijah’s protection: “As the Eternal of hosts, before whom I stand, lives, I will appear before Ahab yet today!”  When Obadiah delivers Elijah’s message to Ahab, Ahab goes to meet Elijah: “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?” says Ahab, to which Elijah responds, “Not I have troubled Israel but you and your father’s house, when you forsook the commandments of the Eternal and went after the gods of Baal.  Now summon all of Israel to Mount Carmel and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of the Asherah, who eat at the table of Jezebel.”  Ahab summons and gathers them to Mount Carmel.

Elijah says to the people: How long will you jump back and forth between two opinions?  If the Eternal is God, follow after Him!  And if Baal, then go after him!  But the people answer not a word.  Then Elijah says: I only am left as a prophet of the Eternal while the prophets of Baal number 450.  Let me and them each cut up a bull for sacrifice, lay it upon the wood, but not kindle any fire.  You call by the name of your god, and I shall call by the name of the Eternal, and let the one who answers with fire be God.  All of the people answer in support of Elijah’s test.

Elijah bids the prophets of Baal to choose their bull and to go first since they are the larger number.  They cry out by the name of Baal all that morning, “O Baal, answer us!” but there is no voice and there is no answer.  They dance upon the altar without result, and Elijah taunts them: Raise your voices, perhaps your god doesn’t hear you; maybe he is busy or out for a walk, maybe he is sleeping and needs to be awakened!  They cry out in a loud voice and cut themselves, as was their custom, with swords and spears, until blood gushes out upon them.  They prophesy until the time of the evening offering, but there is no voice, no answer, no attention whatever to their calls.

Elijah then draws the people near to him.  First, he repairs the altar of the Eternal that was thrown down.  Then, he takes twelve stones for the twelve tribes of the sons of Jacob, who was named Israel, and he makes of them an altar in the name of the Eternal.  He makes a trench about the altar with the capacity of two seahs of seed and arranges wood and puts pieces of the bull upon  the wood.  Then he has four jars of water poured upon the burnt offering and upon the wood.  He has the same amount of water poured another two times, until the water is flowing around the altar and the trench is full of water.

At the time of the evening offering, Elijah draws near and says: “O Eternal One, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are the God of Israel, and that I am Your servant and by Your word I have done these things.  Answer me, O Eternal, answer me!  Then this people, whose heart You have turned backward, will know that You, the Eternal, are God!”  Thereupon the fire of the Eternal comes down and consumes everything—the offering, the wood, the stones, the earth—and it licks up the water that is in the trench.  Seeing all of this, the people fall upon their faces, and they declare: “The Eternal is God! The Eternal is God!”


Exodus Rabbah 40:1

See, I have identified by name Bezalel…” (31:2)—
so did Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba open his discourse
with the words:
“He saw it,
He went over it,
He prepared it,
and He delved into it…”
(Job 28:27)

He saw it and went over it at Sinai,
He prepared it in the Tent of Meeting,
and He delved into it at the plains of Moab
in the Book of Deuteronomy.

The Rabbis said that one should learn a lesson from these words regarding any public discourse that one presents.  He should not think: I know this material so well that I can just start speaking without special preparation.

Rabbi Acha said:  One should take a lesson from God!  Before He declared Torah to Israel, He reviewed it four times.  Only then did “He say it to man!” (Job 28:28)

The Rabbis related:  Rabbi Yochanan ben Torta once approached Rabbi Akiba, asking him to read from the Torah.  “But I haven’t reviewed the portion!” he responded.  For this the Sages praised him.

Rabbi Hoshaya taught:  If one knows the material but lacks fear of sin, he has nothing.  Any carpenter who does not have his tools is not a carpenter.  How so?  The fear of sin is a padlock that secures the Torah, as was said: “Fear of the Eternal constitutes its treasure!” (Isaiah 33:6)

Exodus Rabbah 41:5

“He gives to Moses
when He finishes speaking
with him on Mount Sinai,
the two tablets of testimony…”

The Rabbis say:  If Israel had committed the sin [of the golden calf] before the tablets were given to Moses, the Holy One, blessed be He, would not have given Moses the tablets.  But Rabbi Levi said: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Moses the tablets after Israel committed the sin, as is written: “He gives to Moses when He finishes speaking with him…” [that is, at the completion of the forty days (cf. 24:18), during which time Israel had committed idolatry].

Exodus Rabbah 41:1

When He finishes speaking with him,
He gives to Moses on Mount Sinai
the two tablets of testimony…”

This inspired Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba
to open his discourse with the words:
“Yours, O Lord is the right,
and ours is the shame…”
(Daniel 9:7)

Rabbi Nechemia taught:  Even when we consider our compliance with your law, our deeds which we consider righteous, we cannot help but feel ashamed.  For example, it is general practice that tenant farmers receive land, seed and stock, from their lords and divide the produce with them in equal shares.  But the Holy One, blessed be He, may His name be praised and His remembrance be held high, is different.  The world and all that is in it is His, as we say, “The Eternal’s is the earth and all that is in it” (Psalms 24:1): the earth is His, the produce is His—He brings down the rains and brings up the dews to make them grow—and He protects them.  He does everything, yet the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: I require of you only one-tenth for tithing, only one-fiftieth for terumah.  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…”!

Rabbi Judah offers an example from the Red Sea:  Israel crosses the Sea along with the idol of Micah, as was said: “A rival to God crossed the Sea…” (Zechariah 10:11).*  Still, the Sea was divided before them!  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…!”

* The peshat there is that the redeemed of Judah and Israel will be so great in number that they will be tsarah, “pressed together,” in crossing over the sea on their return to the Land.  Here, the derash is based on the fact that tsarah can also mean “rival wife,” as in I Samuel 1:6.  For the derash proposed by Rabbi Eliezer, identifying the “rival” of God at the [Red] Sea anachronistically with the idol of Micha, cf. Judges 17:4 ff., see Mechilta Pischa 14.

Said Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman:  It was good of our fathers to accept the Torah and to say, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do and we will hearken!” (24:7), but was it good of them to say, “This is your god, O Israel!” (referring to the golden calf) (32:4)?  At that very time Moses was coming down from the heights and Joshua said to him, “There is the sound of war in the camp!” (32:17)  Moses replied, “The sound is not the singing of victory” (32:18) as “When Moses raised his hand and Israel prevailed” (against Amalek) (17:11), “nor is the sound the singing of defeat” (32:18) as “when Joshua was weakened” (by Amalek) (17:13).  What is “the sound of singing that I hear” (32:18)?  It is not the sound of victory or defeat, but the sound of blasphemy and reviling is what I hear!  The Men of the Great Assembly went on to explain these words:  “Even though they made for themselves a molten calf, and they said, ‘This is your god, who brought you up from Egypt’” (Nehemiah 9:18), was all lost?!  What is the meaning of, “They made great expressions of contempt” (ibid.)?  The expressions of blasphemy and reviling that went on there, after which there should not have been any more manna!  Yet, “You did not withhold your manna from their mouth” (ibid. 20)!  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…!”

Said Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Shalom:  If this were not enough, not only did the Holy One, blessed be He, continue to provide them with manna after they had blasphemed and reviled Him, but then they took some of the manna and offered it in worship of idols, as was said, “The food that I gave you…and fed to you, you gave to them for a pleasing aroma” (Ezekiel 16:19), yet the manna comes down for yet another day!  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right, and ours is the shame…!”

Said Rabbi Levi:  Israel stands below, carving out an idol to incense their Maker, as is written, Aaron “takes [the gold from the people] and uses a sculpting tool to fashion it into a molten calf” (32:4), while the Holy One, blessed be He, sits above, carving tablets for them, in order to provide them with life, as was said, “When He finishes speaking with him, He gives to Moses on Mount Sinai the two tablets of testimony….”  Indeed: “Yours, O Lord is the right…!”

Exodus Rabbah 42:1

“The Eternal speaks to Moses:
Go, descend!
For your people,
whom you brought up
from the land of Egypt,
has acted perversely.”

Rabbi Yochanan taught:  At that moment Moses saw that the ministering angels were prepared to destroy Israel, in accordance with the divine harsh words.  Moses thought: If I abandon Israel and just descend, they will have no hope of survival, so let me not move from here until I have sought mercy for them.  Immediately he began to offer arguments in their defense.

To the Holy One, blessed be He, he said: Do You remember, when You offered the Torah to the children of Esau and they refused it, that Israel accepted it?  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: But they have reversed that act: “They have turned away quickly from the path that I commanded them!” (32:8)

Said Moses: Do You remember, when I went to Egypt on Your behalf and announced to them Your name, they believed and bowed down to Your name? (4:31)  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: They have undone their bowing down, as was said, “They have made a molten calf and bowed down to it!” (32:18)

Said Moses: Do You remember their young men whom I sent to offer sacrifices before You? (24:5)  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: They have gone back on the sacrificing, as was said: “They have made a molten calf…and they have sacrificed to it!” (32:8)

Said Moses: Then please remember what You said to them at Sinai, “I, the Eternal, am your God!” (Exodus 20:2)  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: They have undone that one, too, as was said, “They said: This is your god!” (32:8)

Withal Moses revoked the punishment, but how so?  Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba considered relevant here these verses: “A man who gives praise for a false gift is like vapors and winds without rain; but by length of suffering may a prince be persuaded, and a soft tongue may break the bone.” (Proverbs 25:14-15)

Exodus Rabbah 46:1

“He tells you
the secrets of wisdom.”
(Job 11:6)


When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Go, descend, for your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, has acted perversely” (32:7), Moses was holding on to the tablets and could not believe that Israel had sinned.  He said: If I do not see it, I do not believe it, as was said, “As he drew near to the camp and saw the calf…” (32:19): He did not shatter the tablets until he saw it with his own eyes.  Granted that human beings may testify unreliably to facts that they have not seen, but is it possible that Moses would not believe the Holy One, blessed be He, when He says, “For your people has acted perversely?” (32:7)  Here Moses is teaching an important principle to Israel: Even if a person should hear a thing from a trusted individual, it is forbidden to accept his testimony and act upon it if he has not been an eyewitness.


The writing flew off from the tablets; therefore Moses shattered them, as was said, “I saw that their sin was to the Eternal your God.” (Deuteronomy 9:16)  This may be likened to a man who marries a woman and writes her a ketubah, which he deposits with a trustee.  Some time later, a bad report is heard about her.  What does the trustee do?  He tears up the ketubah, thinking: better she should be judged as an unmarried woman than as an adulterous wife.  Thus thought Moses: If I do not shatter the tablets, Israel has no defense, as was said: “One who sacrifices to any but the Eternal shall be completely destroyed.” (22:19)  So he shattered them and told the Eternal: They knew not what was written in them!


“I saw that you sinned to the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 9:16): Moses saw that Israel had no defense, so he bound himself with them and shattered the tablets, saying to the Holy One, blessed be He: They sinned, and I sinned by breaking the tablets; if You pardon them, pardon me along with them!  These his words, “Pardon me along with them,” were left out of his plea in Scripture: “And now, if You pardon their sin . . . and if not, erase me from Your book which You have written!” (32:32)

Exodus Rabbah 44:1

Rabbi Tanchuma bar Abba
opened with this verse:
“Tear out a vine from Egypt;
expel nations and plant it.”
(Psalms 80:9)

Why is the vine a metaphor for Israel?

When the vintner wants to improve his vine, what does he do?  He uproots it from its place and replants it in another place, where it thrives and improves.  Similarly, when the Holy One, blessed be He, came to make Israel known to the world, what did He do?  He uprooted them from Egypt and brought them to the wilderness.  There they began to improve, and they began receiving the Torah and saying, “All that the Eternal has spoken, we shall do and we shall hearken!” (24:7), as was said, “You made a name for yourself among the nations in your beauty…” (Ezekiel 16:14).

Finally you may interpret it as follows:  Just as the vine is alive and depends upon dead trees, so are Israel living and enduring and depending upon the dead, which are the patriarchs.  Thus you find that Elijah offered several prayers on Mount Carmel that fire should come down, such as, “Answer me, O Eternal, answer me!” (I Kings 18:37) and he was not answered.  But because he mentioned the dead and said, “O Eternal One, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel” (Ibid. 36), he was answered immediately.  What is written?  “Thereupon the fire of the Eternal comes down…” (Ibid. 38).  So also Moses, when Israel committed that act, stood up and defended their virtue for forty days and forty nights (cf. 32:11-12, 30-32; 33:12-13; 34:28) and was not answered.  But when he mentioned the dead, he was answered immediately, as was said, “Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel!” (32:13)  What is written?  “Then the Eternal repented of the harm…” (ibid. 14).  So it is: Just as that vine is alive and depends upon dead trees, so are Israel living and depending upon the patriarchs when they are dead.  That is the import of: “Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel” (ibid. 13)!

Exodus Rabbah 47:2

“The Eternal says to Moses:
Write for yourself these words,
for in accordance with these words
do I make a covenant
with you and with Israel.”

Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses:  The first set of tablets—I wrote, as is written, “Written by the finger of God” (Deuteronomy 9:10).  But the second set, you write, and hopefully I will add My hand to it!  This may be compared to a king who married a woman and wrote her a marriage contract himself.  After some time she proved unworthy and he drove her from his house.  Her representative came to the king and secured her pardon by the king.  The king, however, said to her representative: I am reconciled to her, but you should write a new marriage contract and hopefully I will add my hand to it.  That is what is meant by: “I shall write upon the tablets” (Deuteronomy 10:2)!


Copyright © 2019 Eric H. Hoffman
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