This week's Torah portion, Ki Tisa, is filled with action, drama, and explosive notions of faith and fear. Not once but twice, we are taken on a journey with Moses to the top of the mountain, where he encounters God and receives the teachings that will guide the Jewish people forever. We read about mountain climbing, tablet smashing, golden calf worship, anger, fury and, tragically, much killing as well.
But what particularly strikes me is a seemingly simple verse that occurs at the beginning of the parashah. God instructs Moses: "When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay Adonai a ransom for himself on being enrolled...." (Exodus 30:12) Why must a ransom be paid to Adonai by each person who is counted?
In The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Rabbi Gunther Plaut explains that "counting was considered a privilege belonging to God, and humans conducting a census without divine approval thereby placed themselves in dire danger." (p. 632) Only God merits the privilege of counting. But surely we human beings count things all the time. We count what we have; we count what we don't have; we count our money, our attendance, our votes, and our Beany Babies. We count just about everything that is quantifiable.
So what makes counting a divine act? Maybe it is precisely because human counting is so quantifiable. We cannot count love, and we cannot count faith, and we cannot count patience, and we cannot count belief. But these kinds of counting are the most important of all!
If we think about it, the ways in which we use the word "count" reveal that we know that God's kind of counting is most important. We say "Let's make this one count" when we mean "Let's make it matter." We say "I'm counting on you" when we mean that we are depending on someone. All of a sudden, we can see that counting is not just about numbers but about significance and dependability as well.
Just think: Our parashah teaches us that the two stone tablets were written "with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18), the very part of our body that we use when counting.
Could it be that our parashah begins with this lesson about counting because it is the key to understanding all that is yet to unfold regarding the golden calf, the smashing of the tablets, and the second opportunity that Moses and the people are given to do the right thing?
How would the story of the golden calf have been different if, while waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain, the Children of Israel had made each day count instead of counting the days until Moses' return? How would the story of our lives be different if instead of counting our money, we made our money count; if instead of counting the days until our next vacation, we made each day count? The question is, Can we be counted upon?
For further reading: W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. (New York: UAHC Press, 1981).
Rabbi Stacy Offner is the rabbi of Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison, CT.
The profound and dynamic drama in this week's Torah portion ranges from God's design specifications for the wilderness Tabernacle, to the sin of idol worship (the golden calf), to Moses' subsequent ascent of Mount Sinai to receive a second set of tablets that reestablish God's covenant with the Israelites. Some of the Torah's most powerful and informing events in the evolution of the Jewish religion and peoplehood appear in Parashat Ki Tisa.
In addition to the magnitude of these events and the eminence of Moses, Aaron, and Joshua, this text also introduces us to a new and, by biblical standards, a seemingly minor character: "God spoke to Moses, saying: See, I have singled out by name Bezalel....I have endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge of every kind of craft: to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood―to work in every kind of craft [to] make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark for the Pact...and all the furnishings of the Tent." (Exodus 31:1-7)
Is Bezalel really a minor person in the biblical story? What is so important about his role that God singles him out by name? As an artist, Bezalel has been endowed by God with supreme aesthetic and technical capabilities. Why does God feel that an artist is the only person who can be trusted to captain the construction team of "all who are skillful" (other artisans) so that they may fashion and execute God's precise plan for the Sanctuary of service in the desert? The implication is that Bezalel the artist is a person with special talents who is not only inspired by God but also reflects the creative aspect of God. God gives the artist the unique ability to take the divine architectural vision and realize it on earth through craftsmanship that is worthy of the holiness of the Sanctuary and the ceremonial implements. By creating these items, which are necessary for the worship of God, the artist becomes an integral part of the process that enables human beings to love God.
This requisite for beauty―aesthetic integrity―as one of the attributes of holiness desired by God follows a passage in which God commands three things: the creation of a "laver of copper...for washing" (Exodus 30:18); a sacred anointing oil; and incense that "should be most holy to you." (Exodus 30:36) Each of these items is also necessary for the purification and consecration that sanctify God's sacred space, ritual objects, and priestly practice.
God's appointment of Bezalel as the chief architect and artist for the Tabernacle illuminates how instrumental both the making and the beauty of holy items are to the creation and condition of holiness and sanctity. Not every person is talented or qualified enough to achieve the "beauty of holiness." The midrash tells how Moses himself failed as an artist in the fabrication of the golden menorah even after God had instructed him how to make it three times: "When [Moses] found it still hard to form...the candlestick, God quieted him with these words: 'Go to Bezalel, he will do it right.'" (Ginzberg, p. 411) The name Bezalel means "In the Shadow of God" in English. With such a name and God-given task, Bezalel represents the importance of the arts to the relationship between God and human beings. They bring holiness, spirituality, and humanity to our lives. The artist creates beauty in the world that reflects the beauty with which God imbues the world. Bezalel, whose artistic spirit "shadows" God's intentions, exemplifies the creative abilities that all of us, created in God's image, possess. They are our God-given gift through which we express our relationships with others, with the world, and with God.
Some points to consider:
Is praying in a place of beauty important to you? Why or why not?
Is the creative process in each of us an essential part of our humanity? Explain.
How are we linked to Bezalel's contribution to the Tabernacle when we use beautiful ceremonial objects such as the Kiddush cup or candlesticks you are using for this Shabbat celebration? How does using a beautiful ritual object link our modern lives with those of our ancestors in the desert?
For further reading
Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961).
Grace Cohen Grossman, Jewish Art (Hugh Lauter Levin, 1995).
At the time of this writing in 1999, Nancy M. Berman was the director of the Skirball Museum at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA.
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