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Ki Tissa 5782 ~ February 18, 2022

A congregant recently shared with me that his tefillin may no longer be kosher. He sent them to a sofer, a Torah scribe,  to be checked because he noticed that there was a problem with the retzuout, the black straps on the head piece. His request was not as simple as one might think.  It did not just involve replacing the straps. Checking tefillin involves opening both the head piece and the hand piece and verifying that the words of Torah hand calligraphed on the klaf, the parchment, by a scribe were still intact and hadn’t faded.  His request: if they are found to no longer be kosher, might you know where I can purchase a new pair? Again, not a simple question. Why? 1. Not every sofer is reliable; 2. There are different types of leather boxes and straps – some are thinner (dakkot); some are thicker (gassot); some are really simple and while less costly won’t hold up for the duration of one’s lifetime. These last ones are usually purchased for a bar/bat mitzvah. 3. The cost varies from one store to another . 4. Some stores unwittingly are selling non-kosher ones where the words written on the klaf may not be written correctly. Did you know that you can purchase them on Amazon or a used pair on eBay?  And now, with Covid, inflation, supply chain shortages and delays, the cost to produce the materials to make the tefillin is astronomical.

What might be your immediate response to such a request? Mine was quite simple: I’m saddened.  In many ways it is no different than hearing, that over the years, the wear and tear of a Torah has made the scroll not fit for reading, even with scribal repairs. It is much different than a Torah that has been destroyed by some wanton act. That would evoke an entirely different emotion.

Often in situations such as these, words escape our thought process and our emotions may not reflect what we truly sense.  Perhaps you might have experienced a similar moment when an heirloom passed on to you has fallen out of your hands and shattered.  I am certain that the words one uttered at the moment were less than soft and kind.

When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, what he observed was in many ways quite devastating. Witnessing with his own eyes the Golden Calf, Moses casts onto the ground the  Shnei Luchot Habrit, The Two Tablets of the Covenant on which God had in His own hand inscribed the Ten Commandments. While we all know the outcome: the people will immediately return to Moses and God with fear, trepidation and remorse, the fact that the Ten Commandments themselves become pasul, invalid, and shattered should automatically bring a sense of utter tragedy, not simply sadness, as we read the narrative both for ourselves and for the people in the narrative itself.

We recognize that Moses himself was quite distraught and his actions exacting.  Some say otherwise, not that Moshe threw the Tablets to the ground. Rather, with such anguish, they simply fell from his hands. The sound must have been deafening; the sadness even greater.

What the Torah does not share with us at that moment is the raw sentiment of the people as they experienced the breaking apart of the covenantal document with the crashing of the Two Tablets upon the ground.  Perhaps they were just accepting. A possibility, since we are immediately told that they are willing to drink of a mixture of water mixed with the ground down and burnt ashes of the idol they had been worshipping, a potion expressing willingness to be prove their fidelity to God and their allegiance to Moses’ leadership.

The commentator Nachmanides suggests: “When he (Moses) reached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, they immediately packed up and fled. He took the calf, burnt it, gave them to drink of it, which they did without a murmur. Had they acknowledged it as a god - no one would allow his king and god to be burnt. Would he burn their god and they not stone him!”

Perhaps that is the lesson of our Torah reading for this Shabbat – a need to know what is the proper expression, when to say it, when to remain silent, and when to accept what is. 

Moses understood the power that his response would bring. The midrash suggests that “Moses made it appear, said R. Isaac, as though he were angry at Israel. When the Holy One saw Moses' anger, He said: Moses, shall two faces be boiling with anger? Shall you and I both be angry at Israel? Both faces should not be boiling with such anger! Rather, when I pour hot, you must pour cold; and when you pour hot, I will be pouring cold. Moses responded: Master of the universe, now I know that You love Your children and are only looking for a person who will plead in their behalf.” (Sefer Haagadah).  For me, this midrash evokes a most impressive thought – knowing that Moshe’s response was not to rebuke or to castigate, rather to bring out that emotion of a deep bond of love that Hashem had for the people, despite everything that transpired. A most wonderful way of flushing out that most revealing response of love for the people.

And then to move forward with the next phase --  despite the fracture of the union between God and the Children of Israel, both God and the people were able to overcome their differences and reconnect and rebuild a relationship represented by a second set of stones that Moses himself hewed.

Some say it was God who inscribed the words, once again, on the pact of the covenant we know as the Aseret Ha’Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. The implication is quite succinct and profound, not only for the people, but for God as well.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782