Give it a Rest – Parshat Ki Tissa 5779

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One of the best parts of the week for me is the moment when we settle into our Shabbat routine. I try to leave work a little bit early on Fridays so I can go home, go on a walk to clear my head, go over last minute details of the weekend with my husband, and then, take a deep breath and settle into the weekend of family time, friends, good food, and if I’m lucky, a good nap. This is, at least in theory, how I refresh myself before turning off my phone and turning on family time. Shabbat is this sacred moment in time when I recharge in so many ways.

As the Israelites leave Egypt, they receive several laws and guidelines for how to exist in a community outside of slavery. In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we receive that next set of rules to help create this successful society. There are rules for giving, rules for receiving, and rules for counting and being counted. The text ends with the incident of the Golden Calf and the Israelites navigating what it means to transfer leadership, and have faith. The text is full of so many fascinating moments and strategies for success.

In chapter 31, verses 16-17 we receive an essential element to success as a society: refreshing of our soul. “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout all time. It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.” These verses are a part of the Friday evening and Saturday morning liturgy and a part of the Saturday morning Kiddush over the wine. God was refreshed, and we should be too.

The Hebrew word used for refresh, vayinafash, comes from the noun nefesh, which means soul or essential life essence. Our life essence gets beaten down, exhausted, and worn out during the week. We’re constantly creating and engaging, connecting and reflecting, and it is exhausting. Like taking a sip of a nice cold beverage on a hot day, Shabbat is that time that refreshes our soul and our relationships so we can get back to doing all the work that makes our lives run. Here’s to a thorough and meaningful rest.

Comfort Object – Parshat Ki Tissa 5778

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As a new parent I had mixed feelings about “lovey” usage in our house. I myself was a lovey kid. In fact I still like to hold my old Snoopy whenever I’m home in Detroit, and I feel an immediate sense of calm. Selfishly, I didn’t want to be responsible for looking for and keeping track of a precious stuffed animal day and night. I had nightmares about it getting lost at school or leaving it on an airplane or in a restaurant, never to be seen again. I was adamant against a lovey.

Of course I quickly saw that Shiri had an attachment to one particular blanket material animal and knew we were going to be a lovey family. One secret (don’t tell Shiri) that eased my mind was having two identical loveys: one lives at school, the other at home, and they’re never seen in the same place.

When the world feels out of control, when things just don’t feel safe, children want their lovey to bring them back to calm. Whether it’s a tangible object or a mantra we repeat, it is human nature to have something that brings us calm and connects us to our most patient self. The Israelite nation is no exception. This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa from within the story of the Exodus. The Israelites are in the desert, they have received the 10 Commandments, and they are now set to continue on their journey, learning from Moses and God. Moses is on top of the mountain, and he is delayed in coming down. The Israelites are scared, unsure of this God that they have yet to trust. They gather their gold, make an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible.

The Israelites needed comfort. They needed their lovey. Moses, the only leader they have ever known, the one who has the connection with God and who took them out of Egypt, is gone. They have no tangible, physical way of understanding that God is with them. They badly need to know that there is something that grounds them, keeps them connected, and so they remember in Egypt the power of gold and idols. Hence, the golden calf is built. Despite the emotion of the moment, it wasn’t out of malice or anger or even rebellion that they built it. They simply needed a physical connection to God, and this was the only way they knew how to do it.

In my case, my “lovey” is ritual. I find myself most comfortable living a life of routine and regularity, which is perhaps part of what has always drawn me to the yearly cycle of Jewish tradition. Hearing the melody of the Kiddush for a holiday or singing Yedid Nefesh on erev Shabbat puts my heart and soul into a calm, cool, and collected place.

Parshat Ki Tissa reminds us that for better or worse we crave familiarity. May our lesson be to recognize this need so that when it is in fact time to step out of our comfort zones, we’re ready.

Mirror, Mirror – Parshat Ki Tissa 5777

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I have a love/hate relationship with the mirrors in my house. On the one hand, they serve a helpful purpose, making sure I leave the house looking presentable. No food in my teeth? Check! On the other hand, sometimes all they do is mock me, inviting me to nitpick at my self-perceived imperfections. As a mom of two, I have become extra aware of my obsession with my image, and I work desperately to only model positive self-reflection. However, occasionally I simply can’t help allowing that reflection to be a source of sadness and frustration when the image looking back at me isn’t what I imagined or hoped.

When I think of mirrors, I think of fashion and modern living, but mirrors actually played an essential role not only in the Torah, but in the very existence of Judaism today. This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa, a turning point in the narrative of the Israelite people. We read of the initial census taken after leaving Egypt and of Moshe on top of Mount Sinai. The text contrasts the failures of the Israelites (building the Golden Calf) and the creativity and craftsmanship of the building of the Mishkan by Betzalel and Ohilev. This section of the narrative ends with Moshe descending the mountain as rays of light radiate off of him. Central to the narrative are the materials used to build the Mishkan.

In chapter 30, verse 18 of the Book of Exodus we read, “Make a basin of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing, and place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar.” The introduction of copper into the list of construction materials certainly raises the question where did this copper in the middle of the desert come from? According to tradition, these items were fashioned from the bronze mirrors used by the Israelite women in Egypt to make themselves attractive to their husbands. Maybe this comes as no surprise, but it’s interesting to realize that even in the Torah physical attractiveness was essential to intimate relationships.

At first Moshe was upset at the notion of symbols of vanity being used for this purpose; after all, holy spaces should be built on inner strength and dedication instead of a superficial understanding of beauty. But God reminds him that without this “vanity” the Israelite nation never would have flourished.

Parshat Ki Tissa suggests we can achieve a healthy balance in our self-obsession. Inner beauty is our true nature, yet outer beauty in the eyes of a soul mate or even a lifelong friend is often what first attracts us to one another. Even in the midst of Pharaoh’s oppression, the Israelites were able to find the beauty in themselves as a way to persevere. We might not see what we consider perfection every time we look in the mirror, but perhaps we can learn, as Moshe learned from God, to see beyond what is immediately in front of us and look to the future ahead.

Jackpot – Parshat Ki Tissa 5776

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The excitement over the recent $1.5 billion lottery jackpot now seems like a distant memory. I probably don’t need to confirm this for you, but sadly, I did not win. Still, in my fantasy scenario, the money would have been spent on paying off my rabbinical school debt, setting aside money for my children’s future, some charitable donations to help offset the cost of Jewish education in the community, and a little left over to enjoy as I travelled the world and pursued my passions. It was a nice dream, though since I never actually bought a lottery ticket, it remained just that, a dream.

The thought of coming into money, especially great windfalls like the lottery, lets us dream about all that we might be able to accomplish if only we had the financial means. However, studies show time and again that winners of large sums of money often find that the initial boost in happiness quickly wears off, and their overall lifetime happiness is in fact lower than it would have been otherwise. We dream big, but find the reality cannot be changed overnight.

This week we read parshat Ki Tissa from within the story of the Exodus. The Israelites are in the desert, they have received the 10 Commandments, and they are now set to continue on their journey, with Moshe and God leading the way. Moshe is on top of the mountain and he is delayed in coming down. The Israelites are worried, scared, and unsure of this God that they have yet to trust, so they gather their gold, make an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible.

The golden calf is often the center topic here, but there’s something else interesting about money, power, and faith that happens earlier. At the beginning of the parshah, Moshe takes a census of the people by asking the Israelites to each give a half shekel. He says “This is what everyone . . . shall pay.” Having the word “this” at the beginning suggests that Moshe was holding something up as an example, but was it actually money? An Eastern European commentary shares that God uses a flame in the shape of a half shekel to demonstrate the offering. The flame is symbolic because money is like fire: it can provide warmth and comfort or it can consume and destroy.

In parshat Ki Tissa, we see the golden calf as a moment of destruction of faith and dissolution of the community of trust established between God and the Israelite nation. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition to the half shekel given in support of the community. Clearly, money has the power to build up and tear down. I might still fantasize about being independently wealthy, but now I’m realizing it’s not so much a question of how the money would change me, but how I would remain me in spite of it.