The narrative of Ki Tisa can be roughly divided into three parts: 1) The conclusion of G‑d’s instructions to Moses regarding the making of the Mishkan (Tabernacle); 2) The sin of the Golden Calf; 3) The granting of the second tablets. (For the different opinions among the commentaries as to the chronology of these events, see Sin and Sanctity.)
Two full Parshiot—Terumah and Tetzaveh—have already been filled with G‑d’s detailed instructions on how the people of Israel should construct the Sanctuary in which He promises to “dwell amidst them.” Still, several items remain to be described: the manner in which the silver for the making of the “foundation sockets” should be collected, and the making of the basin (kiyor), anointing oil (shemen hamishchah) and incense (ketoret). These items, followed by a roundup of all the Mishkan’s components, occupy the first 38 verses of Ki Tisa.
The materials for the Mishkan’s construction were received “from every man whose heart impels him to give” (Exodus 25:2)—each contributing whatever, and how much, his generosity and ability dictated. This rule applied to 14 of the 15 materials used for the Mishkan’s construction. There was one material—silver—which G‑d instructed should be contributed equally by each individual Jew:
G‑d spoke to Moses, saying:
When you raise the head of the children of Israel by their numbers, they shall each give a ransom for his soul to G‑d . . .
This they shall give, every one that passes among those who are numbered: half a shekel according to the shekel of the Sanctuary—a shekel is twenty gerah—a half-shekel shall be the offering of G‑d . . .
The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than half a shekel . . .
The half-shekels should be designated “for the service of the Tent of Meeting, that it be a memorial to the children of Israel before G‑d, to make atonement for your souls.”
A water basin and pedestal, both of copper, should be made. These should be placed between the Sanctuary and the outdoor altar, so that the priests should wash their hands and feet from the water in the basin before “they go into the Tent of Meeting . . . or when they come near to the altar to minister.”
Anointing Oil and Incense
Take for yourself the best spices: pure myrrh, five hundred shekels; sweet cinnamon, twice two hundred and fifty shekels; sweet calamus, two hundred and fifty shekels; cassia, five hundred shekels, according to the shekel of the Sanctuary; and of olive oil a hin.
You shall make it an oil of holy ointment, an ointment compounded according to the art of the perfumer: it shall be a holy anointing oil.
Moses is to consecrate the Mishkan and its vessels, as well as those who serve therein (Aaron and his sons), by anointing them with this “anointing oil.”
The incense should be prepared from
sweet spices, storax, onycha and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense; of each shall there be the same weight.
You shall make it an incense, a confection according to the art of the perfumer, well-blended, pure and holy.
(The incense was burnt on the golden altar twice a day, as specified in the closing verses of the previous Parshah.)
Betzalel and Aholiav
Having detailed the construction of the Mishkan and all its components, G‑d proceeds to designate those who shall be in charge of the work:
See, I have called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Chur, of the tribe of Judah.
I have filled him with the spirit of G‑d, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge and in all manner of workmanship: to contrive works of art, to work in gold, in silver and in copper, in cutting of stones for setting, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship.
And I, behold, I have appointed with him Aholiav, the son of Achisamach, of the tribe of Dan . . .
Betzalel and Aholiav shall oversee a team of “wise-hearted” artisans, who shall make:
• The Tent of Meeting, the ark of the testimony and the cover that is on it, and all the vessels of the Tent;
• The table and its vessels, the pure menorah with all its vessels, and the altar of incense;
• The altar of burnt offering with all its vessels, and the basin and its pedestal;
• The prestigious vestments and the holy garments for Aaron the priest, and the garments of his sons, to minister;
• The anointing oil, and the incense of spices for the holy place.
“According to all that I have commanded you shall they do.”
At Marah, the people of Israel had been instructed to observe the seventh day as a day of rest—a mitzvah which was repeated to them when the manna began to fall, and again as the fourth of the Ten Commandments proclaimed at Sinai. Now, when being told to construct the Mishkan, they are once more commanded:
The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.
The Golden Calf
The Torah now resumes the narrative (left off at the end of the Parshah of Mishpatim) of the events that followed Moses’ 40-day sojourn on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from G‑d:
He gave to Moses, when He had concluded speaking to him upon Mount Sinai, two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of G‑d.
But down below in the Israelite camp, the people were already abandoning their newly forged covenant . . .
When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people converged upon Aaron and said to him: “Arise, make us a god which shall go before us; for as for this man Moses, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.”
Aaron said to them: “Remove the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters, and bring them to me.” All the people unloaded the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron.
He received the gold from their hand, and fashioned it with an engraving tool and made it a molten calf. And they proclaimed: “This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”
Aaron saw, and he built an altar before it, and Aaron called out and proclaimed: “Tomorrow is a feast to G‑d!”
They rose up early on the following day, offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to make merry.
Moses Pleads for His People
“Now therefore leave Me alone, that my wrath may burn against them and I consume them: and I will make of you a great nation.”
Moses besought the L‑rd his G‑d, and said: “Why, O G‑d, should Your wrath burn against Your people, whom You have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should Egypt speak and say: ‘In evil did He bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from Your fierce anger, and relent of this evil against Your people!
“Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them: ‘I will multiply your seed like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give to your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.’”
G‑d regretted the evil which he thought to do to His people.
The Breaking of the Tablets
Moses descends the mountain, carrying the two tablets on which the Ten Commandments were “inscribed from end to end, on the one side and on the other were they written. The tablets were the work of G‑d, and the writing was the writing of G‑d, engraved upon the tablets.”
Joshua, who had been awaiting Moses’ return at the very foot of the mountain, wonders at the sounds coming from the camp. “There is a noise of war in the camp,” he says to his master.
“These are not shouts of victory,” says Moses, “neither is it the wail of defeat. I hear the sound of singing.”
It carne to pass, as soon as he came near to the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing. Moses’ anger burned, and he threw the tablets out of his hands, and broke them at the foot of the mountain.
He took the calf which they had made, burnt it in the fire, ground it to powder and scattered it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.
Moses admonishes Aaron for having “brought a great sin” upon the people. Aaron replies that he had no choice but to go along with their demands.
Moses stands at the gate of the camp and calls out:
“Whoever is for G‑d, come to me!”
The tribe of Levi gather around him. Moses instructs them to put to death the major culprits in the making of the calf, even if they be their “brother, friend or close relation.” The Levites execute about 3,000 men. “Today you are ordained,” says Moses, as the tribe dedicated to the service of G‑d.
On the following day,
Moses returned to G‑d, and said: “I beseech You: this people has sinned a great sin, and they have made for themselves a god of gold.
“Now, if you will forgive their sin—; and if not, I beg you, blot me out of Your book which you have written.”
G‑d says to Moses: “Whoever has sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.” He tells Moses to lead them on to the Promised Land, but that His own Presence will not go with them; instead, He will send His angel. G‑d also says that while He will not mete out the full punishment of their sin, “On the day that I remember, I will remember their sin upon them.”
Moses moves his tent outside of the camp, and “all who sought G‑d” would go there. There, “G‑d would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his fellow.” Moses’ faithful servant, Joshua, remains at all times in his master’s tent.
Moses is not reconciled with G‑d’s reserved forgiveness. Again he approaches G‑d, and says: “If Your own Presence does not go [with us], do not take us out of here.” This time G‑d acquiesces: “My Presence shall go, and I shall lead you.”
“Show me Your glory,” begs Moses.
“You cannot see My face,” says G‑d, “for no man shall see Me, and live. . . . You shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.”
The Second Tablets
G‑d said to Moses: “Hew for yourself two tablets of stone like the first; and I will write upon these tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.
“Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to Me on the top of the mountain.
“No man shall come up with you, nor let any man be seen throughout all the mountain . . .”
On the mountain, G‑d reveals to Moses His “thirteen attributes of mercy”:
G‑d, G‑d, mighty, merciful and gracious; forbearing, and abundant in love and truth; keeping kindness for thousands [of generations], forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin; who clears guilt] . . .
G‑d renews His covenant with Israel.
Moses was there with G‑d forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And He wrote upon the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten Words.
When Moses descends from the mountain, his face shines with a divine light. So overpowering is its luminance that Moses wears a veil to shield the people from it, which he removes only when he conveys to them the laws and teachings he receives from G‑d.