It’s all about a relationship – Parshat Ki Tisa
Parshat Mishpatim was all about how man is to relate to his fellow man, as well as the rest of creation. This is the parsha that talks about not gossiping as well as having mercy on the beast of burden of someone you hate. Wow, does Hashem understand human nature! He says, look, you need to treat your fellow man a certain way, and this is how you need to treat him. But, sometimes, there are going to be people you just don’t like. Maybe you even hate them. That’s no excuse to be cruel. If you see that their donkey is buckling under a heavy burden, or wandering off, you should help him – the donkey. Not for your enemy’s sake but for the donkey’s sake – for your sake.
That’s what relationships are about. Yes, they involve other people, but the point of a relationship is to help us grow, to help us develop. We’ve all heard the metaphor about rocks in a tumbling machine, right? How do you polish a bunch of ugly old rocks into beautiful decorative stones? By putting them together in a container and tumbling them together. The roughness of each stone polishes the roughness off the next stone and together they all become polished and beautiful. That’s one reason why we were designed to need people, that’s why we were given the concept of family and society – it’s what helps us develop into beautifully polished stones of value.
After Parshat Mishpatim, we got to Terumah and Tetzaveh – two whole parshas about the Mishkan (tabernacle) and the Kohanim (Priests) and the vessels for the Mishkan, etc. Now at the end of Mishpatim, we saw Moshe ascending the mountain to be with Hashem. And, eventually, Hashem is going to give us the gift of the luchot – the 10 commandments inscribed in his own hand, as it were – this is the marriage contract between Israel and Hashem, and before his shaliach (messenger or agent), Moshe, can return with the luchot, we have already created the golden calf – it’s like we couldn’t even wait until the chuppah (wedding canopy), you know what I mean?
It takes two whole parshas to get there, but that is what happens in this week’s parsha, parshat Ki Tisa. Now in order to understand a very significant aspect of Ki Tisa, we must first understand something from Terumah. Before the incident of the Cheit HaEigel – the golden calf, in the middle of this Parsha, Hashem has just spent the last two parshot telling Moshe that we are to make the Mishkan – the Tabernacle. This was a temporary version of what would later become the Beit Hamikdash – the Holy Temple. In Shemot (Exodus) 25:8, Hashem gives the command and explains why he wants the Mishkan to be built. He doesn’t say that this is because we are terrible sinners and need a way to make atonement for our sins, no. He tells us that the purpose of the Mishkan is that he may dwell among us.
Obviously, Hashem is not a corporeal being – He doesn’t have a body, so it’s not like He can just walk around with us. Now we know, that anytime we start talking about Hashem in terms of the corporeal we are headed into dangerous territory because we are trying to put limits on a limitless being. But Hashem instructed us to build the mishkan so that we would be able to know him in a way that we could not otherwise know Him.
Before the mishkan, Hashem was obviously “with us” – He spoke to Moshe, He performed miracles before our very eyes. But in that respect, the relationship was only one way, it was Hashem giving to us. Hashem created us however, to need give and take in relationships. He doesn’t need us to give to Him, but we need us to give to Him. So, He instructed us to build the Mishkan to create a structure within which our relationship with Hashem could go from one dimensional to two dimensional. With the Mishkan, our relationship went from a take relationship (us taking from Hashem), to a give and take relationship.
That’s what the Mishkan, and later the Beit Hamikdash are all about. They are all about providing boundaries – a proper structure within which we can have a healthy relationship with Hashem. Just as for any relationship to be healthy it needs proper boundaries and balance, so too, our relationship with Hashem. Not because Hashem needs it, but because we need it. And this is why in Parshat Terumah, we are instructed to build the Mishkan BEFORE the cheit haeigel – before the sin of the golden calf. For if we had been instructed to build the Mishkan after the incident, we would be led to believe that the only purpose of the Mishkan was that we needed a way to atone for our sins. This really brings us to our parsha for this week – parshat Ki Tisa. How?
There are religions other than Judaism that claim that the purpose of the Temple, the Beit Hamikdash was to allow us to make atonement for our sins and that without a Beit Hamikdash we have no atonement for our souls and therefore cannot have a relationship with Hashem and are therefore condemned to an eternal afterlife of constant punishment, burning flames and eternal separation from G-d. That last point is impossible because since Hashem is everywhere, one cannot exist separate from Him. To be eternally separated from G-d is to cease to exist. That raises another question about the concept of eternal damnation.
But back to the Parsha… if you look at all the possible offerings that could be made in the Mishkan or the Beit hamikdash, you will notice a glaring omission. The altar provided an opportunity for us to bring gifts to Hashem to thank Him for things that happened in our life, to praise him for salvation from sickness or near death, to give a portion of the provisions he has allotted us. There were offerings given at the times of festivals. Yes, the Kohein would offer offerings on behalf of the entire people, and we had a sin offering – the chattat. But, the sin offerings were, with only a few exceptions, not for intentional sins. Rather, they were for unintentional sins. The vast majority of intentional sins had no offering. This is because while offerings may have had the benefit of atonement, offerings alone did not make the atonement.
Back in biblical times what made atonement – what fixed the damaged relationship between us and Hashem has always been and will always be that of Teshuvah. The process of Teshuvah is the process of repairing the relationship between ourselves and Hashem. It works the same way in human relationships.
If a husband did something to damage his relationship with his wife, he could bring her flowers, it’s a nice gesture, but is it enough? No! She’s not going to accept his apology without obvious remorse and a statement that he wants to repair the damage done and not do it again. The flowers help as a visual aid to the remorse he is expressing, but the flowers alone accomplish nothing. The remorse alone might, but gifts without repentance are hollow and may sooth a guilty conscience, but do little to repair the relationship.
This is the case with the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash as well. They provided a structure to assist us in our relationship with Hashem, but the relationship was and still is the important thing. That’s why when missionaries try to convince Jewish people that without a Temple, we have no relationship with Hashem and that’s why we need to believe in an intermediary, they are missing a significant aspect of the relationship. They don’t understand what true purpose of the Mishkan was – it wasn’t about our sins – Hashem made that clear in Parshat Terumah – he said to build the Mishkan so He could dwell among us, and He did it before the sin of the golden calf.
These self-same missionaries will insist that without an animal sacrifice, a blood sacrifice, we cannot make atonement for our souls. But, the scriptures say otherwise. Here at the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa, Moshe is told by Hashem that when he wants to count the children of Israel, he should do so by collecting coins from each person and using those coins to figure out how many Israelites there are. But more significant than the means of counting the Children of Israel is the fact that Hashem says here, more than once I might add, that it is the coins themselves that make an atonement, a kappara for the soul. There are many ways in which atonement is accomplished because relationships are multi-faceted and complex, how much more so our relationship with Hashem?
This missionary understanding of the human relationship with G-d is flawed to say the least. Can you imagine? “I know, I’ll just go and steal from my neighbor and bring a sacrifice tomorrow and everything will be cool”. No – it won’t be cool because intentional sins didn’t have a sacrifice, remember? Why? Because it all still boils down to that “R” word – the relationship thing.
So, as we all continue our joyous celebration of Purim and the month of Adar, as we head toward Pesach – with all its details and work. Let’s not forget that it is the anniversary of our relationship with Hashem. Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom!