25.1. A Portion of Crisis

In the paired structure of the Torah’s weekly portions[1], portion Ki Tissa is conspicuously unpaired. Ki Tissa deals with crisis, and crisis is by its very nature a violation of order. Thus, this portion itself can be seen as repudiating the regular order of things.

Actually, Ki Tissa does have a “mate,” but it is found not here in this second book of the Torah, Exodus, but in the next book, Leviticus. That portion is Shemini (a more detailed discussion of this “separate pairing” of these two Torah portions will be found in the Bible Dynamics commentary to Leviticus). This pairing of portions across two different books of the Torah should be taken as an indication that in a higher and much broader sense, the essence of this particular crisis is a feature inherent in the foundation and order of the universe.

The previous Torah portions were all about the Torah and the Tabernacle in an ideal sense. Ki Tissa represents a transition to reality – a descent from the mountain, as it were. And in descent from heaven to earth, crisis is inevitable.

Ki Tissa, “When you take a census,” the name of this portion, literally means “when you will raise.” Ascent too happens through crisis. The incident of the golden calf is a story of a downfall and destruction, which at the same time is an integral part of ascension, progress. The term for this in the Kabbalah is Shevirat Ha-Keilim, “the shattering of vessels,” which is then followed by tikkun, “correction, repair.”

This crisis follows very soon after the giving of the Torah, and in a certain sense is inseparable from it. The giving of the Torah is, essentially, the Almighty’s appeal to a humanity to strive for a level that stands higher than most people are actually able to attain. This is why the Jewish nation as a whole could not receive the Torah directly. The only option was for God to call an emissary (Moses) to the mountaintop and transmit the Torah to the people through him.

But it is then unavoidable that the disparity between the ideal emissary and his real human followers will come to the fore.

The sin of the golden calf, in this regard, was inevitable – just as the breaking of the first tablets and the creation of the second tablets and their inscription was inevitable (needless to say, however, this “metaphysical inevitability” diminishes neither from the severity of the crime, nor from the guilt of those who participated in committing it).

This is one of the important lessons of the Ki Tissa portion.

[1] We have described this in detail above, §2.2.


Bible Dynamics, VOL. 2. EXODUS Copyright © by Orot Yerushalaim / P. Polonsky / English translation of the Torah by the Jewish Publication Society, New JPS Translation, 1985. With sincere gratitude for the permission to use. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book