This week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, covers a range of thought-provoking events, as did this week’s events in general:

The parashah begins with a general poll tax of a shekel, required to be paid by everyone over a certain age….might we think of that as minimal membership dues?  It goes on to relate the incident of the Golden Calf, which so angered G-d and Moses that our people were in jeopardy of being wiped out, but, while Moses placates G-d, thereby saving most of the people, he was so personally angered at what the people had done while he was on the mountain, that he smashes the Stone Tablets of the Asseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances.

The Torah, as we know, only goes so far, and it is up to us to fill in the spaces…which we do through the aggadah of the Talmud or other midrash.  Rav Kook points out that, after G-d is placated about the Golden Calf incident, and sees that Moses has broken the tablets, G-d commanded Mosheh to quarry the stone for carving out a second set of luchot ha-brit, tablets of the covenant:

“וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה פְּסָל־לְךָ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִֽאשֹׁנִים וְכָֽתַבְתִּי עַל־הַלֻּחֹת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹת הָרִֽאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ:

Carve out two tablets for yourself just like the first ones. I will write on those tablets the same words that were on the first tablets that you broke.” (Ex. 34:1)

Now one might derive from this insertion of “for yourself” that the second set of tablets was to have been only for Moses, as this seems to imply a sense of ownership; but the Talmud explains that G-d wanted Mosheh to provide the actual material from his own supply of precious stone.  According to Midrash, there was a sapphire quarry located directly beneath Mosheh’s tent, making Mosheh rather wealthy.  Wealth was not what made Moses great, yet Rav Kook reminds us that the Talmud distinguishes several leaders, Moses, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, and Rav Ashi, as being great and with extraordinary impact on the people, not because they were wealthy, but because they were “impervious to the temptations of wealth.  They were able to harness this resource for its holiest task…to elevate the entire nation.”

Perhaps this is a reminder to us that no matter how wealthy or how poor, it is always incumbent upon us to use our resources for the betterment of the whole.

There is yet another part of this parashah that intrigues us…that is, the question of what happens to the shards of the broken tablets, the original set of luchot ha-brit?  One might think that they were buried at Sinai, as we traditionally do to holy documents, but, according to the Talmud in B’rachot 8b and M’nachot 99b draws a poignant and haunting conclusion from the need for preserving and venerating, rather than burying (or,worse yet, discarding) the broken remains of the first tablets:

“R. Yehoshua ben Levi said to his children:…Be careful regarding how you treat an elderly individual who has forgotten his learning due to an extenuating circumstance (e.g., old age, sickness, accident, struggle to make a livelihood, etc. as opposed to where his learning may have deserted him due to lack of interest, belief, regular review), as we say, “The tablets as well as the broken pieces of the tablets were placed in the Ark.”

The analogy between the remnants of the first tablets and an individual who no longer possesses the academic acumen with which he was once endowed and therefore commanded respect, is particularly apt when we imagine the letters that had originally been engraved by God on the tablets, flying up from the stone.  In the same manner that stones can be stripped of their uniqueness and importance once special markings or historical detail are obliterated, so too a unique and talented human being can in short order be reduced to ordinariness should his/her special skills desert him/her.

From this, we might remember our imperative to revere and pay attention to our elders.  “Do not abandon me in my old age,” we see in Psalm 17.

But there is more to learn from this Parashah, and the lessons truly hit home this week.

A dear colleague of mine, Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, related this true story:  He is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Chayim, in Danville, California.  It is a lovely congregation that has a fairly recently built sanctuary, containing space for a number of Torahs and covered with a brilliantly colored stained glass door.

This week, Rabbi Goldblatt was meeting with a Bat Mitzvah student in the sanctuary, when they were both startled by a disturbing sound from the Aron Kodesh.  Rabbi Dan rushed to the ark and carefully opened the door, in time to catch one of the Torahs that had somehow become loose from its mooring and had fallen against the door.  The glass on the interior of the door was visibly cracked in multiple places, and the young Bat Mitzvah student called out in distress, “Rabbi, what does this all mean?”

Rabbi Goldblatt, himself rattled by the entire experience, thought quickly and realized the significance of both the falling of the Torah and the breaking of the glass.

“Clearly,” he said, “the Torah is yearning to be in our hearts.”  That seemed to satisfy the young girl, but she was clearly upset about the broken pieces of the stained glass.

The Iturei Torah, a collection of commentary on the Torah emphasizing Chassidic texts, speaks of wholeness and brokenness, in relation to our parashah this week, Ki Tissa.  It speaks of the necessity to recognize our own brokenness in order to begin to work towards our wholeness.  Perhaps that was one of the reasons Moshe kept the broken remnants of the first tablets of the Covenant and transported them with the people as we continued our journey through the wilderness; and that was the reason Rabbi Goldblatt decided then and there not to repair the broken pieces of stained glass on the door to the Beth Chayim Aron Kodesh.

This week, our mishpachah, our congregational family has suffered and feels broken in pieces.  Our beloved Ken Elgart died yesterday and our sweet Dotti Elgart is grieving.  The brokenness of her heart and ours must be acknowledged and recognized before we can begin to work towards wholeness and an ever-changing new normal.

We feel helpless, yet attending the levayah, the funeral, is one thing we can do.  A mitzvah.

Contributing to a fund to help pay for both the Shiva Tray that the congregation is donating and for the Shomeir who is guarding Ken’s body until the actual funeral are also mitzvot.

Visiting Dotti during Shiva, not before, and being cognizant that we do not speak until she initiates conversation, allows us to properly fulfill that mitzvah and allows Dotti the space for silence, if that is what she needs.

Chevreh, each of us experiences shattering moments in our lifetime.  We can bury them and discard them or acknowledge them and carry them with us in a revered space in our souls that we may grow from them.

There is one more lesson in this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, that is the reminder to observe the covenant of the Shabbat.  We are here together, having put away our cares of the week, shelved our own sadness or concerns, and have gathered to observe Shabbat.  Some of us will continue in the morning, with Torah Study, or other personal observances of this Yom M’nuchah, this day of rest and renewal.  Our par’shah says “V’Sham’ru b’nei Yisraiel et haShabbat l’dorotam.”  The Children of Israel will guard and observe Shabbat throughout the generations.  I usually wish you “Shabbat Shalom”…a peaceful Shabbat.  This week, in this time of the recognition of our brokenness, I wish you at Shabbat Shaleim.  A Shabbat of Wholeness.  Shabbat Shaleim….


Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

1 March 2013/20 Adar 5773