I. Read 30:11- 16.
A. Questions: Why a census? Why the payment? From whom? For what purpose?
(1. The census is taken at various times in the Bible. It could be important for various organizational reasons, including to know how many people there are - perhaps for military purposes or, as here, for purposes of collecting the assessment to support operations of the sanctuary. So, while the group and its size matters, it also has the connotation that each person counts.
2. Yet, there seems to be a notion that there is in the counting something that is foreboding for the persons counted, something for which expiation is required. Do you see that? What could that mean?
(What this is is a bit mysterious. Maybe the knowledge of numbers would be useful to a foe. Or there are other problems in counting - we may tend to take each other for granted; we may think our group is more or better than others; we think numbers are more important than they really are.
Or it's simply the idea that a consequence of being counted is to assume the responsibility of a counted member of the community. Being counted is insufficient in and of itself. "Expiation" involved doing one's duty to support the community and its relationship to God through the sanctuary. Plus it's a duty that is to be borne equally by rich and poor alike, indeed all who are "counted." The space is there for each of us equally, and we all are to have an equal stake in it.
Or, as some have said, this might take place after the golden calf story (though we haven't read it yet), and thus is an expiation for it. In other words, the way back for a people from whom many devoted their gold to the creation of the golden calf around which some sort of worship and/or revelry took place surely would involve at the very least the counting of the ones who remain and their making of a payment to construct and maintain the God-directed means through which "nearness" between God and the people will be effected.)
3. The notion of an equal payment for each is not to say that some won't bring more than others to support the space, the priests, and the Levites; rather it conveys the clear idea that there's a basic and foundational payment that is equal, and there's a significant meaning in this equal payment that is made at the initial level.
4. Take note of vunatnoo, the Hebrew word for "each shall pay." [write it out on the board]. It's a palindrome, spelled the same way from right to left as left to right. One receives as one gives, perhaps. Or the payment from one side is the same as the payment from the other.
II. Read Exodus 30:17-21
Why the exercise of washing hands and feet?
(a separation from secular to sacred, from the ordinary to the holy. This is not so much about cleanness, though it has a touch of it, but more a ritual of separation. Hands "are busy;" their busy-ness in ordinary life is a wholly different endeavor than it is here.)
III. We won't stop at the verses on all the beautiful elements of the ingredients for making the anointing oil special and the incense fragrant, but you might enjoy these on your own, asking how especially the smells and richness of the oil and incense might contribute literally or metaphorically to the experience of sacred space.
IV. Read 31:1-6
Note the roles of Bezalel and Oholiab. Look at the words: Bezalel is endowed with the divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in every kind of craft (ruach elohim, hachma, v'tvunah, da'at). Oholiab has skills, too, and indeed God grants skills to others who are skilled or, more literally, God has set wisdom in the heart of every wise-hearted man (as if they have some skill innately or contribute to garnering it AND have some separate God-granted inspiration or skill, too! There's a sense here that the workers are here renewing and completing Creation in a way. ). These artisans are a kind of sage who work on behalf of the great Artisan.
This devolution of roles and responsibilities from Moses continues. Not this progression from judges to the people generally in some ways to the priests now to the artisans. What's this about?
(It's key to the development of a people or a nation. And it's what a great leader must do, not as a political populist to further his own power but instead to find the best God-directed people to do what's needed and what the leader cannot do on his own. Also, there's a sense that each person has a special role to play, and that role entails a combination of what we have, what we add, and what God may give us to be and do.)
V. We note in 31:18 that now God gives Moses the two tablets of the Pact, inscribed by the finger of God. But right after that verse,
A. We read 32:1-8.
Many questions: What has happened? Did the people so quickly forget their commitment, or did they not understand? Or is something else at play here? And what explains Aaron's seeming complicity?
(The people seem to be so anxious, lonely, needy but not having someone or something in the role Moses had played (AND God) that they became "desperate" and followed leaders who took them astray. They had been so accustomed in Egypt to tangible displays of the divine they just apparently weren't ready to live true to the complex and difficult reality of the 2nd commandment. So, they substituted with calf and potentially a faux festival for Moses and/or God.
We clearly have a story that, though there seems to be a trajectory of gradually increasing growth, is one in which despair rears its head again and again, which leads to alienation and then rebellion. But we will later find that it leads to reconciliation that accompanies yet a new maturity and deeper relationship. This is not a simple story, is it?
Here's an important question full of irony: Is it possible that the people's not having access to the structure of sacred space that brings the Divine near - the very system that God is teaching Moses on these days the people begin to stray - is it the void that made them vulnerable to stray in this way? I'm not trying to absolve them of culpability, but I am just asking.
(maybe so, but there was no instruction to build the calf and perform rites around it, as there must be at least fundamentally to live and worship as God expects)
As to Aaron, he may be a peacemaker who apparently wants to meet the people where they are. Is he spared because the people needed a structure they didn't yet have, though God is furious about their apparent apostasy?
Or is it possible he went along to keep worse from happening such as his murder or others' and even greater apostasy, by keeping the ritual oriented toward a festival the next day to be directed to Adonai?
We won't get into it today, but the story throws out the possibility that the calf, for some at least, was not opposite to God, but rather may have been an intermediary with God (in Moses' absence) or perhaps a "footstool of sorts" for God. Nevertheless, it's unacceptable to God and, as we will see in a moment, to Moses.
Plus, the text makes it additionally difficult to be sympathetic with Aaron, especially given the distorted story Aaron tells Moses in upcoming verses about how the golden calf came to be.)
B. We then encounter the poignant and powerful scene of Moses' advocacy for the people which, in effect, turns away a Divine offer (or passes a Divine test that offers up the possibility) of the creation of a new people to lead and, thus, softens the Divine anger. Much as with Abraham and Sodom and Gamorrah, this seems as much an opening by God for Moses to show leadership than a challenge to God.
Moses' humility and servant leadership, respectful of tradition, and with commitment to save the people, are lovely and inspiring and enduring. They show how one can turn the attribute of justice into the attribute of mercy. This, as we shall see, turns out to be one of the most significant, inspiring, impactful stories of leadership in the Bible.
This episode acknowledges that we make pledges. In weakness, we often fall short in keeping the pledge. There remains something of the broken pledge to recover. But recovering it (and maybe building on it) will indeed entail justice but not a destroying sort of justice, a preservation and saving, a remembering of our virtues and lifting them up, and a restoration and returning. Could it be that Moses' passing this "test" creates the possibility of an advance in faith and the nature and strength of the relationship between God and the people? Let's see.
C. Read 32:19
Why did Moses break the tablets that God had inscribed? Could that be seen as contemptuous of God in abrogating the agreement, or was it in some way supportive of God? What does Moses see? What must he have thought? What does he do? Where does this leave the people with respect to God and the testimony that had been so central to the covenant and their relationship?
(What a combination of emotions Moses must have felt in the wake of the merciful, effective advocacy he had made on their behalf, his awareness of the still inadequate relationship between the people and God, and his horror at actually seeing this awful display of apostasy.
Clearly there was no going forward on the basis of what had been done here. God wrote the tablets just as the people, out of abject alienation, spun out in an idolatrous fit. The pairing of receiving the tablets and the people's contemporaneous actions created a no-future for the tablets he carried. While the remnants of the old would be kept and remembered, there was no future without "new tablets."
Aside from the anger Moses felt, whether inappropriate or justifiable, the people were not yet fit for the Torah. But what he saw and experienced was even worse. He knew quickly and viscerally that much was terribly wrong. Indeed if they would idolize the calf, might they not idolize the tablets? This is evidence that nothing created is intrinsically holy. There is holiness where and when and with whom God's presence is manifested.
Obviously there were powerful people in the group who were prepared to take others in a very wrong direction. They preyed on a still inadequate commitment, an immature spirituality, a weakness, an unmet deeper need. He must have been both shocked and wanting to shock the people.
Did Moses trust that God would create a way for those who remained true and that a new foundation for covenant would be constructed and for that portion of the people who would turn back, see error, and stand with Moses and God? He acted as if he did.
There was no place for those who instigated the apostasy or those who would persist in it. Yet, the people as a whole were saved, but an extraordinary atonement was in order. Moses must push for a deeper relationship with God. And the support and guidance of Torah was needed now more than ever.)
Let's see what Moses does next. Surely, his leadership here might have been, among all his remarkable moments, his very finest hour.
VI. Read 33:1-3, 7, 11, 12- 23.
My oh my. God says the people can go on to the Land but without Him. Moses sets up a temporary Tent outside the camp where he continues his discussion with God. Moses makes a remarkable appeal that we won't be able to dissect today but is well worth your careful examination. And then God grants Moses' request, saying the words of verses 19-23.
What does this mean, that God will make all the Divine goodness pass before Moses and that Moses will see God's back but not His face? What is going on this remarkably dramatic series of events?
(Recall Moses had asked to know God's ways. The Hebrew word is duhrahchecha, rooted in derekh, the right path through the wilderness as well as God's ways, nature. And Moses wants to behold God's presence or glory (kavod).
To this, God assures Moses He will lead the way (literally, My Face will go, and make rest for you) and assents to allow all the Divine goodness (tuv) to pass before Moses. God also proclaims the name, Adonai, showing the grace and compassion God shows.
Seeing God's back is to say we see the effects of God, the difference God makes, the ways that God has demonstrated. So, one might understand that when one sees goodness in the world we've come upon God's presence and effect.
Because of 34:6-7, we interpret this as a demonstration of the13 attributes of God: mercy, rulership, compassion, grace, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, true, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, and yet expecting accountability. As Alter says, Moses sees "the directional pitch of His ethical intentions, the afterglow of the effulgence of His presence."
Yet, direct sight or penetration of the mystery and non-material Divine, the intrinsic nature of the Divine, are, as described as God's face, inaccessible to human beings.
Moses wants to move from the catastrophe of the people's experience with the calf to a deeper relationship with God. He can't let it slip away, so he presses on in what I think is what of the finest moments in religious history.
We go from the possibility of all is lost and abandonment to one of the keenest experiences of Divine revelation in the Hebrew Bible. We see forgiveness, restored nearness and the prospect of God's nearness, a renewal of covenant promise, and God's revealing more of the Divine Self to guide and help Moses and ultimately the people (see also 34:8-10).
VII. Read 34:1, 8-10, 29-32.
A. Final Questions
1. There are differences in the recitation of the utterances here from the first time we encountered them at Sinai. But what one difference jumps right out from the first verse, and why is it important?
(Moses carves the tablets! There is a greater human stake in the execution of God's instruction. This is a very important advance in its extension of our commitment. These are God's, AND they are ours.
Some sages say that one way of reading this verse is to see that we become the stone tablets upon which God carves the words. We are the clay, and God, the potter. Lovely!)
2. In what ways do we see, as we close out this portion's remarkable narrative of Moses' leadership and relationship with God, additional ways in which the covenant with God is not only preserved but actually enhanced?
(One matter that we didn't read about today is the clearer instruction about idolatry - its nature and seriousness and how it must be avoided. Further, there is a sense in which the second tablets are richer and more in sync with our needs, perhaps more revealing (inclusive of the Oral tradition?).
Another is this much clearer understanding of God and the Divine Attributes that God shares with Moses and that we learn from Moses' request and God's answer, one that instructs us to this day.
One, as we mentioned just a moment ago: we now have more of a stake in the Instruction in that we (Moses) "carved the tablets."
Another is the special blessing of nearness, honor, response, and inspiration (in the lovely account of the radiance of his skin and face reflecting divine radiance) that God bestows upon Moses - both for what he has done and for our benefit, at that time and for all time.
And, finally, there is a restoration of Divine favor, as manifested in this encounter and the newly sharpened words of expectation and understanding.)
B. We conclude by going back to the beginning - Ki Tissa - when you take a census, each shall pay an amount in ransom to support the sanctuary. One almost gets the feeling that these words fit the end of the portion as much as the beginning.
Those who are committed to the covenant after the horror of the experience of worship of the calf, those who persevered and saw the radiance on Moses' face and heard and benefited from God's grace and compassion and this new and deeper sense of God - all of those are counted and ransomed and committed not to some alien practice but to support of God-directed space and God's needed nearness there.