This week’s parashah, Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11–34:35) covers a lot of ground: starting off with God’s instructions to take a census of the entire people, through the episode of the Golden Calf, and on towards God’s personal revelation to Moses and the enumeration of God’s attributes and basic commandments.
God orders Moses to take a census of the entire people twenty years and older, by means of collecting a half-shekel in a “head tax”. Why does the parashah, which contains so much else, start here, with this instruction? How is it relevant to the rest of the parashah?
The Gemara brings down a baraita in Tractate Ta’anit (page 8b) that gives us an insight into this question:
תנו רבנן: הנכנס למוד את גרנו אומר: ״יהי רצון מלפניך ה׳ אלוקינו, שתשלך ברכה במעשה ידינו.״
התחיל למוד, אומר: ״ברוך השולח ברכה בכרי הזה.״
מדד ואחר כך בירך, הרי זו תפלת שוא,
לפי שאין הברכה מצויה לא בדבר השקול ולא בדבר המדור ולא בדבר המנוי,
אלא בדבר הסמוי מן העין:
Our Rabbis taught: When one first begins to measure the amount of their new grain, they shall recite: “May it be Your will, Hashem our God, that You send blessing upon the work of our hands.” But one who has already begun to measure says, “Blessed be God, who sends blessing into this heap.” If one first measured the grain and then recited the prayer, it is a prayer in vain, because blessing is not found in something weighed out or measured or counted, but only in something is hidden from plain sight.
This is a fascinating answer to the ancient “paradox of the heap”: the question of how many grains constitutes a heap. The sages’ answer is that even one grain constitutes a heap, once you have counted it. But they caution against reciting a prayer over “something hidden from plain sight”—in other words, something in progress, the totality of whose outcome is unknown. The sages hold that one should bless a deed that will constitute a work in progress at its outset, rather than in its middle.
The parashah resumes and picks up the narrative where it left off, with Moses atop the mountain, receiving more laws and instructions, as well as the Tablets, inscribed by the finger of God, and the people left down below start to worry whether something bad might have happened to Moses, and they feel abandoned both by their leader and by God. They press themselves upon Aaron, the natural successor to Moses, and Aaron goes along with their desires, making a calf out of gold, proclaiming (32:4), Eileh elokecha Yisrael, “this is your god, Israel!”
What is interesting here is that Aaron does not hesitate. He does not question why the Israelites asked him to do this, and he does not challenge them on it. This is in contrast to Moses, who challenges God on many occasions, to say nothing of challenging the people themselves. Moses pleads with God not to destroy the people using two arguments: one is an appeal to the covenant, but the other is an appeal to God’s vanity, for lack of a better word (32:12). “What would the Egyptians say, that You intended to do evil to them by taking them out into the mountains, and to obliterate them from upon the face of the earth?”
But Aaron does not argue back when the people begin to worry about their leader; instead, he goes along with their plan without complaint. Then, to compound his error, he gives two unconvincing, feeble excuses to Moses when he returns. First, he blames the people: “Don’t be angry with me! You know these people, ki ve-ra hu, how they are set on doing wicked things.” Then he blames, in a statement worthy of every six-year-old ever, the world, the universe, nature in general: “I cast the gold into the fire, and out came this calf!”
Moses’s reaction is furious: he grinds the statue to powder and makes the Israelites drink it, and then he leads the Levite army against the people, quite brutally. But then Moses promises the people that he will intercede on their behalf with God and pray for their forgiveness, leading to the famous personal encounter between God and Moses, where Moses is allowed to behold God’s back but not God’s face, and God proclaims the so-called “thirteen attributes”, the identity of which varies depending on how you count words and phrases.
After God produces this theophany for Moses, God establishes a new covenant (33:10): “Behold, I make a covenant: I will do wondrous things before all your people, such as never have been wrought in all the earth and among all the peoples. All the people who surround you will witness the works of God, awesome, which I am about to do with you.” In exchange for which, the Israelites will keep God’s laws and commandments, and God is very specific this time—in contrast to the first set of commandments given at the revelation at Sinai—about not bowing down to, or making a covenant with, any other gods or idols, and not making any images of them.
Why do we need this second covenant? Was the sin of Am Yisrael so great in the episode of the golden calf that God had to reestablish the covenant after atonement had been completed for the people? God had been prepared to make a new covenant with Moses and create a new people out of him, simply wiping away Am Yisrael and replacing them with a new nation. But Moses appealed to the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the founders of the Israelite nation, and God decided to stick with it. The covenant needed to be reaffirmed, not completely remade. This is why we refer to ourselves as b’nai yisrael and not b’nai moshe, am yisrael and not am moshe: even though Moses was our greatest leader, a new covenant was not made with him, but God still honors the covenant that was made with our ancient forebears.
But at the same time, this week’s parashah still marks the beginning of a new chapter in the covenant. The people Israel are not on their own, but they are adrift. Moses has to restart them, reboot them, give them a good swift kick in the rear. That is why Moses asks God to forgive the people and to bless them. He instructs the people (32:29): “Consecrate yourselves today to God, for every man has been against his son and against his brother, that God may also bestow a blessing upon you today.”
We began with a baraita which tells us to bless counting or weighing or measuring things at their outset, because blessing is not to be found except where you cannot foresee the outcome, and while things are in progress one should ask for God to send blessing into the heap that is already there. Moses asks God to bless the people: the people have sinned so greatly that he wants to throw away everything that has happened so far and restart completely, with a clean slate before God.
But that is not how God works. God chooses to move forward with continuity. God does not explicitly bless the people here, in this parashah. God never says, “You are blessed” or “I bless you” or any such thing. Rather, God inserts blessing into the heap that is already there, the heap that is Am Yisrael, a chaotic heap, one with little hope of being put right by any one human being, but only by its collective efforts, with the blessing of God. We are a perpetual work in progress; may we continue to pray that God insert blessing into our heap.