Opening Space for Holiness

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By Rabbi Shelly Barnathan

Parashat Ki Tisa

This week’s Parasha —Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 —34:35 — is filled with many gems.

The Parasha opens with the concept of the half-shekel — Machatzit ha’Shekel (Exodus 30:13) — the equal contribution of silver from both rich and poor that Moshe will use for taking a census of the Israelites.

How interesting that the command is for a half-shekel, rather than a whole shekel, highlighting the concept that we are each incomplete until we join in holy community with one another. And the Hebrew word used to command this equal giving — (V’natnu) is a palindrome, spelled the same way forward and backward indicating that holy giving is a reciprocal process.

When we contribute from a true and open heart, we receive back in equal or even greater abundance.

Parashat Ki Tisa also contains the Friday night V’shamru prayer (Exodus 31:16-17), the famous expression “Panim el Panim” (Exodus 33:11), referring to Moshe speaking “face to face” with G-d, the 13 attributes of G-d (Exodus 34:6) (Adonay, Adonay, El Rachum V’chanun … ), and the expression “Karan Or Panav” (Exodus 34:29), “the radiance of the skin of Moshe’s face” from which the mistaken image of Moshe’s “horns” was derived. And also within Parashat Ki Tisa, of course, is the central narrative of the Egel Hazahav, the golden calf.

For three Torah portions, Terumah, Tetzeveh and now Ki Tisa, the main theme has been the construction of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites were instructed to build for their journey from Mitzrayim/narrowness to freedom. So why do we find this challenging narrative of the Golden Calf placed amid these Torah texts describing the building of the holy Mishkan?

Back in Parashat Terumah, in which Moshe first receives instructions for building the Mishkan, Moshe is told of the purpose of the Mishkan. In Exodus 25:8, G-d says to Moshe: “V’asu Li Mikdash V’shachanti B’tocham.”

“They shall make me a holy place, and I will rest/dwell among them.”

The Mishkan, this sanctuary, was about holy space. Yes, Torah provides many physical details regarding its construction — its “form” was very important, but the primary purpose for the building of the Mishkan was so that G-d could dwell in holiness within and among the people.

And, in order for G-d to dwell among the people, the Israelites needed to make space for G-d. The holiest part of the Mishkan was its interior space.

In contrast to the holy space within the Mishkan, the Golden calf had no interior space at all. This calf, created out of fear and anxiety when the Israelites were without their leader, Moshe, was made of solid gold. When Moshe sees the golden calf and confronts his brother Aaron about the creation of this idol, Aaron explains the appearance of the golden calf in this way, (Exodus 32:24), “Va’yitnu Li —V’ash’licheyhu Va’eysh, Vaytze Ha’egel Hazeh

“They gave it [the gold] to me and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

It is as if this calf, made of solid gold, created itself! Rabbi Shefa Gold, author of the book Torah Journeys describes this calf as “full of itself, representing the most dangerous hindrance in the life of spiritual practice: that of worshiping and staying attached to forms, rather than allowing those forms to send us inward to the Etzem, the essence, the holiness within the forms.”

As we know from Torah, the holy Mishkan did have a specific form, but the Etzem, the essence, of the Mishkan was the holy space within it. In contrast, the Golden Calf was only a form, so full of itself, that it had no space at all for holiness.

So, perhaps this is the spiritual challenge of Parashat Ki Tisa. How do we resist creating a Golden Calf in our lives, instead building a holy Mishkan? How do we live from our Etzem, our essence, creating a holy space in which G-d can dwell?

As humans, we are each barraged with so many details in our lives — being human often means attending to outward form — to appearance, to reputation, to possessions — but for each of us, there is the danger that, when we are feeling anxious or insecure, just like the Israelites were when Moshe was not present, these outer forms can become our Golden Calves, our false gods. They can take on a life of their own, leaving no room for that which is essential and holy.

So, instead we must try, as best we can, to build holy community, each one of us contributing our Machatzit ha’shekel — our half shekel, making time and space in our lives to return to our essence in an effort to create holiness.

May our Kavanah/intention for this Shabbat of Parashat Ki Tisa be that each one of us can find the Koach, the strength, to turn aside from the temptation of the Golden Calves in our lives, each one of us becoming holy vessels from which we can speak, act and contribute with open hearts, therefore making this world a holy Mishkan in which G-d can dwell.

Rabbi Shelly Barnathan is a Reconstructionist rabbi and morah ruchanit/spiritual educator of adults and children. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.