Up and Down the Mountain of Life

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: Jennifer Werby

Parashah Overview 

  • Moses takes a census of the Israelites and collects a half-shekel from each person (30:11-16)

  • God tells Moses to construct a water basin and to prepare anointing oil and incense for the ordination of the priests. Bezalel and Oholiab, skilled artisans, are assigned to make objects for the priests and the Tabernacle. (30:17-31:11)

  • The Israelites are instructed to keep the Shabbat as a sign of the convenant. God gives Moses the two tablets of the Pact. (31:12-18)

  • The Israelites ask Aaron to build them a Golden Calf. Moses implores God not to destroy the people and then breaks the two tablets of the Pact on which the Ten Commandments are written when he sees the idol. God punishes the Israelites by means of a plague. (32:1-35)

  • Moses goes up the mountain with a blank set of tablets for another forty days so that God will again inscribe the Ten Commandments. Other laws, including the edict to observe the Pilgrimage Festivals, are also revealed. (34:1-28)

  • Moses comes down from the mountain with a radiant face. (34:29-35)

Focal Point 

Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, tablets inscribed on both their surfaces: They were inscribed on the one side and on the other. The tablets were God's work, and the writing was God's writing, incised upon the tablets. When Joshua heard the sound of the people in its boisterousness, he said to Moses, "There is a cry of war in the camp." But he answered, "It is not the sound of the tune of triumph. Or the sound of the tune of defeat: It is the sound of song that I hear." (Exodus 32:15-18)

Your Guide 

  1. What do you think the actual tablets looked like?

  2. What do you imagine God's "writing" looked like?

  3. Why does Joshua hear the sound of war while Moses does not?

  4. What does Moses' going up and then down the mountain signify?

By the Way 

  • Where I wander―You./ Where I ponder―You./ Only You, You again, always You./ You! You! You!/ When I'm gladdened―You./ When I am saddened―You./ Only You, You again, always You./ You! You! You!/ Sky is You. Earth is You./ You above. You below./ In every trend, at every end/ Only You, You again, always You./ You! You! You! (part of a song that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev used to sing, cited in Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters by Martin Buber)

  • In terms of the process of purification, it is explained that when ignorance ceases, action ceases; when action ceases, consciousness ceases; when consciousness ceases, name and form cease; when name and form cease, the six sense spheres cease; when the six sense spheres cease, contact ceases; when contact ceases, feeling ceases; when feeling ceases, attachment ceases; when attachment ceases, grasping ceases; when grasping ceases, the potentialized level of karma called "existence" ceases; when the potentialized level of karma called "existence" ceases, birth ceases; when birth ceases, aging and death cease. (attributed to the Dalai Lama)

  • People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered: Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives: Be kind anyway. If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you: Be honest and frank anyway. The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow: Do good anyway. Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough: Give the world the best you've got anyway. You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway. (attributed to Mother Teresa in There's a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem, by Dr. Wayne Dyer)

  • And the women dancing with their timbrels followed Miriam as she sang her song. ("Miriam's Song" by Debbie Friedman, Sounds Write Productions)

  • Singing had an important role in Jewish life. The Jewish people came to such a deep state of despair that only singing would help. Singing is a manifestation of hope. The song is a cry, and afterwards you feel free. (Miriam Harel of Lodz, cited in Singing for Survival: Songs of the Lodz Ghetto, 1940-45 by Gila Flam)

  • Had God brought all, brought all of us, brought all of us out from Egypt, Dayeinu!/ Had God given, given to us, given to us all the Sabbath, Dayeinu!/ Had God given, given to us, given to us all the Torah, Dayeinu! (Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1982)

  • I believe with all my heart in the coming of the Messiah, and even though he may tarry, I will wait each and every day for his arrival. (Maimonides, Commentary to Mishnah: Sanhedrin, 1168, 10.1, Thirteen Principles, #12)

  • I believe in the sun even when it is not shining./ I believe in love even when I do not feel it./ I believe in God even when God is silent. (Jews in Germany, 1939, quoted in Passover Haggadah: The Feast of Freedom, The Rabbinical Assembly, 1982)

  • It is noted in another place that the writing thereon [the tablets] was like "black fire on white fire," while according to yet another, it would bear that the stones were transparent: The writing was read from behind, and that on the reverse was read from in front.… [The tablets] were cast from the hands of Moses and were broken, and here it is explained by the Zohar that this was because the letters took flight and no writing remained upon them that could possibly be seen by Israel. (A. E. Waite, The Holy Kabbalah: A Study of the Secret Tradition in Israel, 1924)

Your Guide 

  1. How does the understanding of God, worship, and faith expressed by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev differ from that expressed at the time of Moses? What impact has the Diaspora had on this evolution?

  2. Does Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev think that we have to be high up on a mountain to talk with our personal God?

  3. According to the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa, how do good and evil register in our consciousness? What explanation do you think that each of them would offer for why we do bad things?

  4. How do you think that Debbie Friedman and Miriam Harel would interpret the tune that Moses heard? What characteristics do you think make a tune joyful or sad or warlike?

D'var Torah

Moses' journey is similar to that of our own lives in both existential and mundane ways. The Torah teaches us that Moses went up the mountain and met there with God: He journeyed upward to a place that was wholly pure and divine, a place where God dwelled. Meanwhile, the Israelites were left down on the ground, growing more and more agitated with each passing day. Finally, they lost their faith and returned to familiar territory-their instinctual desire to see in front of them something they valued, namely, a Golden Calf. In that moment, there was no God for the Israelites; there may not even have been a Moses for them, with him out of sight and his authority absent from their consciousness. This led them to idolatry.

When we are aware of the Presence of God, we become holy, and our choices are clear. We don't oppress other people, and we spend our money carefully. We are not covetous; we are grateful for what we have every day of our lives; and we strive for inner peace and contentment. When we doubt, we become lost and our values become unclear; eventually we are led to idolatry and to worship what we can see, namely, our diplomas, cars, houses, clothes, etc. But if each of us strives to meet with God every day, I believe that our priorities would become clear: We would journey up and down that mountain of Sinai, striving to leave the faithless, chaotic, lost bottom and to journey up and up, around and around to the top. We may never get there, but, as we know, life itself is the journey. We are all headed to the same place in the end, and it's how we get there that matters.

Cantor Jennifer Werby is president of Ideal I Do's Inc.

Reference Materials

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520 

Originally published: