Ki Tissa: Gd in the Background, To Allow People to Do Well (or Not)

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Hashem Stays Behind the Scenes Where Possible

Parshat Ki Tissa combines episodes where Gd is more and less prominent, leaving room for people to succeed or fail. Let me start at the end, because Onkelos slips the point in in a way we might miss. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews mourn Gd’s plan to send “only” an angel among them, and Gd says, 33:5, rega ehad eeleh bekirbecha vechiliticha, usually understood (such as by Sefaria) to mean “were I to go in your midst for a moment.”

Onkelos instead writes asalek Shechinti mibenach, I would remove my Presence from among you. For him eeleh, literally “I will go up,” apparently means to leave. I think it is because eeleh, is the reverse of vayered, Gd went down, such as in 34;5, when Gd “comes down” to teach Moshe the Attributes of Mercy. For vayered, Onkelos writes veitgelei, Gd became revealed.

Going down refers to Gd being revealed, so going up refers to Gd’s Presence being removed. Especially since we know Onkelos rejected any idea of Gd occupying physical space above or below, Onkelos seems to think the Torah portrays Gd as generally removed, it being a metaphorical “coming down” for Gd to appear to or among a people.

Why would that be? I think the other comments we will see suggest a reason: Gd has a “preference” to be removed from blatant involvement in the world, I think to leave people the freedom to make their contributions.

The Plague of Being Counted

The idea suggests a way to understand the danger Rashi sees in counting the people. Gd tells the Jews to donate a half-shekel to allow them to be counted without a plague, 30;12. Rashi says counting brings the evil eye and pestilence (or plague). Three verses later, when the Torah says the half-shekel is to atone for the people’s souls (when no sin was noted), Rashi again says it is to protect them from the plague being counted would otherwise bring.

He does not explain, but does remind us of II Shmuel 24, where Gd lures David to count the people, as a way to bring punishment. Yoav balked at the idea, 24;3, argues with David “let Hashem increase the people…a hundred times” rather than count them. He seems to have felt a census would impede Gd’s multiplying the people.

Not multiplying is not the same as plague. I suggest an exact count means the people are more clearly known to the world and, in a sense, to Gd. The world knowing how many Jews there are interferes with any “behind the scenes” blessings Gd could give, while an exact count brings the Jews to Gd’s attention more, as it were. Too much focus brings up flaws or sins that deserve punishment (in a moment, we will see reason to believe we as a people always have such sins).

The More Successful Version of the Giving of the Torah

Rashi uses the term tzeniut to describe Gd’s “choice” to stay in the background for the giving of the second Luhot, 34;3. The first time, the Torah was given with loud noises and a large assemblage, and it brought an ayin hara, an evil eye. This time around Gd opted for a private giving to Moshe, and it worked well, Rashi says because some or many important parts of life do better out of the limelight. Gd acts with tzeniut, from our human perspective.

In the background does not mean gone. Onkelos reads Moshe’s plea, 33;16, veniflinu ani veamecha mikol haam—for Rashi a matter of Gd’s Presence—to refer to perishan, acts Gd would perform on the Jews’ behalf that would set them apart from other nations. In addition, for all the dangers in counting the people, the parsha did open with ways to count them, and Rashi took such counts as expressions of Gd’s love.

Fostering a Productive People

Gd’s staying in the background leaves room for people to make valuable contributions to how the world develops, and I suspect that was the point (if Gd wanted the world to go in a certain direction, Gd could have forced that result; it seems Gd wants people to move the world in the right directions). Two examples come with the building of the Mishkan, the residence where Gd’s Presence would reside.

Ramban takes the idea Gd has called Betzalel by name, 31;2, to mean He implanted Betzalel with the innate ability to oversee all the necessary crafts for building the structure (that includes working with wood, metals, sewing materials, engraving gems, and more). Later in Shemot, the Torah says the same about the other artisans, they found themselves with the talents to do what was needed.

Ramban goes out of his way to stress the supernatural element of this. In his view, the Jews in Egypt were burdened with building with bricks and mortar, and never had time to learn any of the other necessary skills (where he theoretically could have said some of the people were slaves to masters in each of these fields). Although elsewhere Ramban found more naturalistic ways to understand events, such as the plagues, here he insists the Jewish people simply found themselves with people expert at intricate crafts with no training.

He invokes Yeshayahu 41;4, Gd is korei hadorot merosh, sets up the generations ahead of time, because He wanted a Mishkan in the desert. With the same balance; Gd “wanted” a Mishkan, but instead of building it, Gd set up the Jewish people to be able to do it, by performing a background miracle.

The Sanctified Coinage of the Jewish People

Ramban gives another example of the people’s role in shaping their future as a sanctified nation. The Torah says they were to donate a half-shekel of shekel hakodesh, 30;13, a “sanctified” shekel. Ramban first says Moshe established this as coin for the Jewish people, since he was a great king. A new people, just freed from hundreds of years of slavery, I might have thought they would need some help in developing institutions of governance. Ramban disagreed, thought Moshe was ready to take his place as king of a working nation, including overseeing the minting of coins of exact weight.

Once minted, what made them shekel hakodesh? Ramban says use for sanctified purposes. These coins were to create a Mishkan, a sanctified structure, to redeem their first-born, a task set by Gd, and therefore the money becomes kadosh, sanctified.

He says much the same about Hebrew, it is called lashon hakodesh because it is the language of Scripture, is how Gd speaks to prophets and the people, is the language in which humanity was taught the Names of Gd. Ramban does get a step metaphysical, it is the language with which Gd created the world, named all in it, the angels, heaven and earth, and humanity, the Avot, the Patriarchs, yet he still means the language became sanctified by how it was used.

For language, Gd did much of the sanctifying actions, but for the shekel hakodesh, it was all people. Moshe minted coins (or had some of the metalworkers do it), those coins were used for sanctified purposes, and thus became shekel hakodesh.

With Great Power

The idea Gd “wants” to stay in the background and have people build the world explains the attitudes towards sin in our commentators to this parsha. Onkelos translates the Attribute of nosei avon, 34;7, which we likely would translate as “bears sin,” with the words shavak leavayan, leaves aside sinsSimilarly, when Moshe asks Gd to forgive the people’s Golden Calf sin, 34;15, he says vesalahta, forgive, where Onkelos writes ve-tishbok. The root means to leave or abandon rather than pardon or forgive.

Onkelos does use the Aramaic salah, forgive, for another Attribute, nakeh lo yenakeh, where he says Gd salah to those who return to the Torah, and is not mezakeh, does not vindicate, those who do not.  Elsewhere in the Torah, Onkelos does translate the idiom of nesiat avon, bearing sin, with a form of salah, forgiveness.

The root shavak thus seems to mean something other than forgive for Onkelos, and I suggest it means to refrain from response, neither punishment nor forgiveness. It fits the idea of “bearing” the sin as we have it in English, too, Gd as it were “carrying” the sin on people’s ledgers, not resolving the issue until more evidence comes, either pushing towards forgiveness or its opposite.

Rashi, too, sees sin, especially of the Golden Calf, as a lasting challenge or problem. He thinks Moshe broke the Tablets, 32;19, because the act of worshipping the Calf demonstrated a loss of connection to proper faith that made them unfit for receiving the Torah. Ramban agrees, 32;7, where Gd says the nation had sinned, Ramban notes “only” three thousand were killed for their direct worship of the Calf, then adds the entire nation had lost the necessary faith to stop such an event from occurring.

After Moshe secured some atonement for the people, Gd says it is still a stain that will stay forever, as Rashi tells us to explain the idea Gd will extract punishment whenever in the future the people are punished for some other sin, 32;14. The Jews have become a people who once worshipped the Golden Calf, and it figures in all their sins for the rest of time.

Gd meant the Jewish people to operate within a largely “natural” world, the Presence in the Mishkan a sort of background assistance to a destiny they will chart with their choices. Sadly, our parsha shows a time where, early on, they made a very poor choice, one that resonates throughout Jewish history. Because with great power, the power to build a “house” for Gd on Earth, to make items that attain sanctity through their use, comes great responsibility.

About Gidon Rothstein

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