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.

Not My Problem – Parshat Ki Tissa 5775

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Once there was a kingdom referred to by its residents as Paradise. The kingdom had adopted this name not for the beauty of the land or for the natural bounty it provided, but for the way everyone loved and cared for one another. If anyone needed anything, a neighbor always stepped forward and cheerfully volunteered, often without ever being asked. Why were the king’s subjects eager to help each other? Because the king led by example. The wise king knew that the people would only treat each other as well as he treated them.

When the king was old, he knew he would soon need a successor, and he appointed his son to take over. But the prince was not wise or considerate like his father. When people approached him with an issue facing the community, the prince was blind to their needs because he couldn’t see how the problems of the common people affected the royal family. His response was always the same: “It’s not my problem.”

Years later, after the king was long gone, the prince’s attitude had infected the entire kingdom. Few people remembered the town Paradise once was because everyone had become self-centered, focused only on their own problems. The only person who remembered the former paradise of Paradise was the old fisherman, who had lived before the time of the previous king. The old fisherman was fed up with the place Paradise had become under the prince’s rule. So he took his oldest, biggest boat and invited the whole town to a party on the water. The whole kingdom came out to enjoy a party on the fisherman’s enormous boat. Even the prince came.

Everyone was having the time of their lives until the host of the party literally pulled the plug. The old fisherman uncapped a hole in the boat, and the boat began to sink. The people were terrified and outraged, but the fisherman didn’t seem to care. The prince begged him to plug the hole, saying “If you let this boat sink, we’ll all drown!” The fisherman calmly responded, “That’s not my problem. I have plenty of other boats.” The Prince was flabbergasted. “Don’t you understand?” he cried. “A sinking boat affects us all! You’ll drown too!”

Finally the old fisherman’s lesson clicked with the prince. In that moment, the prince understood that other people’s problems could be his own, and the town of Paradise couldn’t continue to thrive unless everyone took responsibility for their actions and for each other. The old fisherman plugged the hole and steered the boat back to shore, as everyone, including the prince, helped by bailing water.

Too often we feel disconnected from those whose job it is to lead us in a positive, forward direction. It can seem like politicians, appointed leaders, and office management don’t always have our best interests at heart. If you were one of the prince’s subjects, how would you have acted in this story? Would you have stepped up to address the problem as the old fisherman did, or would you have continued the downward spiral of ignoring problems because they didn’t directly affect you? This is the lesson seen in this week’s parshah, parshat Ki Tissa, which details the story of the golden calf and the ways in which Moshe, God, and the Israelite nation respond to the situation.

The Israelites are portrayed as children who act out because they feel ignored, scared and frustrated. God and Moshe are like the parents whose children have misbehaved. God calls Moshe up the mountain after He sees what has happened and yells out, “YOUR people that YOU brought out from Egypt are a disgrace.” Moshe responds later to God saying, “YOUR people that YOU brought out of Egypt did this.” Neither Moshe nor God wants to take responsibility for this misbehaving child. Each responds with a “not my problem” answer. God doesn’t want to admit that He has created a people that would behave so rashly, and Moshe doesn’t want to take responsibility for being the leader of a people so distrusting of leadership. We all have the power to realize, just as God, Moshe, and the story’s prince do, that the problems facing the people as individuals affect the entire nation as a whole, leaders and all.