Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVII, p. 410 ff;
Sichos Shabbos Parshas Ki Sissa, 5751, 5752

The Path Upward

The name of this week’s reading, Ki Sissa, raises a question. Literally, Ki Sissa means “when you raise up,” and refers to the elevation of “the heads of the children of Israel.”1 Since the majority of the reading centers on the sin of the Golden Calf and its consequences, one is prompted to ask: How can this terrible sin contribute to the elevation of the Jewish people?

The sin of the Golden Calf represented a tragic descent. The impurity imparted by the sin of the Tree of Knowledge had departed from the souls of the Jewish people at the Giving of the Torah, but returned after the sin of the Golden Calf.2 Thus this sin is the source of all subsequent sins. Similarly, all the punishments suffered by the Jewish people throughout the centuries are connected to this sin.3 What place can such an event have in a portion whose name points to the Jews’ ascent?

For Man to Become More than Man

To answer this question, we must expand our conceptual framework, for the state to which G‑d desires to bring mankind is above ordinary human conception. This is indicated by the very expression: “When you lift up the heads”; “the heads,” human intellect, must be elevated.

The essence of our souls is “an actual part of G‑d from above,”4 and G‑d desires that man transcend himself and experience this Divine potential. Moreover, the intent is not merely that we rise above our human intellect, but that we “lift up the heads” themselves, reshape our minds. Tasting a superrational connection to G‑d is not sufficient; our very thoughts, the way we understand the world, must encompass a Truth which transcends intellect.

A Journey Charted by G‑d

Intellect is a crossroads. On one hand, it is the faculty which enables humanity to grow and expand its horizons. On the other hand, a mortal’s intellect is by definition limited. Moreover, all intellect is rooted in self; the more one understands, the stronger one’s sense of selfhood becomes.

Following one’s own understanding can lead to seeing material existence or at least certain aspects of it as being apart from G‑d. Our minds can understand how certain entities and experiences might serve as conduits for the expression of G‑dliness. Other material entities and practices, however, appear to be foreign to that purpose, and we reject the possibility that they might also serve this function.

Taking this approach to the extreme, some modes of Divine service endeavor to avoid confronting material existence altogether, staying instead within the realm of the spiritual. Although there are certain virtues to this approach, it contains an inherent shortcoming: It encourages the notion that material reality exists apart from holiness.5

The ultimate truth the “heights” to which Jewish heads should be lifted is that every aspect of existence can express the truth of His Being.6 This is reflected in the Torah’s description of Avraham’s efforts to spread the awareness of G‑d’s existence:7 “And he proclaimed there the name of G‑d, eternal L-rd.” The verse does not state א-ל העולם “G‑d of the world,”8 which would imply that G‑d is an entity unto Himself and the world is a separate entity unto itself. Instead, it states א-ל עולם, implying that G‑dliness and the world are one.

Even after this thrust is accepted, however, there exist certain aspects of being that appear separate from Him. Is there G‑dliness in evil, for example? And if so, how can man cause this G‑dliness to be revealed?

Although mortals cannot conceive of a meeting point between evil and sanctity, G‑d can. Indeed, He charts paths leading each individual, and the world at large, to such an intersection. With Divine Providence, He creates situations into which no righteous man would enter voluntarily, forcing the righteous to become involved with (and thus elevate) the most base material concerns.

This is the intent of the command to “lift up the heads of the children of Israel”; that even within the realm characterized by separation, evil and self, there may flourish an awareness of G‑d’s unbounded spiritual truth.

G‑d’s Awesome Intrigue

In this vein, Chassidic thought describes sin as,9 “an awesome intrigue devised against man.” Jews by nature are above any connection with sin.10 If a person’s yetzer hora overcomes him and makes him sin, this is because the yetzer hora was prompted from Above to bring him to this act. This is purposeful, “an awesome intrigue” devised by G‑d to bring about a higher and more complete unity between G‑d, that individual, and the world at large.

In his explanation of our Sages’ statement11 that “In the place of baalei teshuvah, even the completely righteous cannot stand,” the Rambam states12 that baalei teshuvah are on a higher level because “they conquer their [evil] inclination more.” The righteous do not have to struggle so hard against their evil inclination; to the extent that they are righteous, their evil inclination is nullified.13 A baal teshuvah, by contrast, possesses a powerful evil inclination as evidenced by his sin and yet still desires to cling to G‑d.

Moreover, our Sages teach14 that teshuvah transforms even sins which a person commits intentionally into merits. This elevates the lowest aspects of existence which derive sustenance from the realm of kelipah and brings them into a bond with G‑d.

Why does a baal teshuvah have the potential to elevate aspects of existence which are by nature distant from G‑dliness? Because in order to strive for teshuvah, a person must tap his deepest spiritual resources, that soul which is “an actual part of G‑d.” When he reaches this point, he is able to appreciate that nothing is apart from Him. And in his life, he is able to show how every element of existence expresses His Truth.

This process is an example of the pattern, “a descent for the purpose of an ascent.”15 Our climb to those peaks which our intellect cannot reach on its own involves a descent to levels which our intellect would normally reject.

Three Phases

Based on the above, we can appreciate the sequence of parshas Ki Sissa. The purpose the ascent of the Jewish people is stated in the opening verse. Afterwards, the reading continues with the final commands for the construction and dedication of the Sanctuary, the incense offering and the giving of the First Tablets. All these subjects reflect a connection to G‑d above the limits of ordinary experience.

In order for that connection to penetrate the worldly realm, and to have it permeate even the lowest aspects of existence, follows the narrative of the Sin of the Golden Calf and the breaking of the Tablets. This terrible fall motivated the Jewish people to turn to G‑d in teshuvah, evoking a third phase16 the revelation of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy a totally unbounded level of G‑dliness that encompasses even the lowest levels.

This highest peak finds expression in the giving of the Second Tablets17 and the final event mentioned in this week’s Torah reading, the shining of Moshe’s countenance.18

The shining of Moshe’s face manifested the ultimate fusion of the physical and the spiritual. G‑dly light shone from Moshe’s physical body.

And Ultimately, Ascents Without Descent

Similar cycles of descent and ascent have shaped the history of our people. The aim of this process is a final union between the spiritual and the material the Era of the Redemption, when “the world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the waters cover the ocean bed.”19

When seen in this context, all the years of exile appear as merely “a fleeting moment.”20 For exile has no purpose in and of itself; it is merely a means by which to evoke a deeper connection to G‑d, and a medium which enables that bond to permeate every aspect of experience. When this purpose is accomplished, the exile will conclude; to quote the Rambam:21 “The Torah has promised that ultimately, at the end of her exile, Israel will repent and immediately be redeemed.”

And then will begin a never-ending ascent, as it is written:22 “They will proceed from strength to strength, and appear before G‑d in Zion.”