“The tablets were God’s work, and the writing was God’s writing.” (Exodus 32:16)
Parashat Ki Tisa is either the beginning of the end, or merely the continuation of an ongoing process. The Israelites are edgy because Moses is late returning from the top of Mt. Sinai and they implore Aaron to fashion something for them to worship. The Golden Calf is the result. God is incensed at this betrayal and when Moses descends and sees the Israelites dancing, he shatters the luchot (tablets) with the law. Only Moses’ pleading on their behalf persuades God to merely punish the people, rather than destroy them completely.
A longer-term impact of the episode is revealed later: God, who previously requests a sanctuary, “…that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8), now consciously steps away from the people: “But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiff-necked people…” (Ex. 33:3). In a symbolic move, Moses then erects the Tent of Meeting outside the Israelite encampment (Ex. 33:7).
Richard Elliot Friedman (1946-; Bible scholar and Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia) claims God’s withdrawal in Exodus is simply one more step in God’s gradual disappearance throughout the Bible: Genesis, the first book, opens with God as the primary actor and in complete control; God is not even mentioned in Esther, the special scroll read on Purim and the last book accepted into the Jewish canon. God’s withdrawal from history and from our sacred texts can be interpreted as either punishment or abandonment. Or, it can be understood as a transfer of responsibility to humanity and specifically, to the Jewish people. Sinai, then, represents an idealist’s opportunity. Esther, in contrast, becomes a realists’ polemic about survival strategies in a diaspora world.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom