A Hug of Confidence – Parshat Ki Tissa 5782

I’ve been a rabbi for well over a decade, but I still get nervous before I lead almost any service or lifecycle event. Yes, even after all these years. On the one hand, it helps me stay present, it keeps me focused, and it keeps me fresh and on top of my game. To help offset the nerves, I have what I call my “pregame ritual.” Before I lead, I get a hug from my kiddos and do a run-through with Duncan. That touchpoint of confidence and support can clear my head and give me the little love boost I need. 

Everyone has their own rituals to manage nerves, from athletes on the field to office employees preparing a presentation. However, these little moments are helpful anytime, not only before a “performance.” A quick touchpoint of love and connection can turn around even the worst day.

This human need to be embraced in the spirit of belief is exhibited even by Moses, the leader of the Israelite nation. This week we read Parshat Ki Tissa from 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’s 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.

How will Moshe return to his people after this rebellion has angered both himself and God? How will he continue to lead with this mistrust hanging over them? Moshe needs some kind of reassurance, not only that he can lead, but that God will be with him. God understands this need and instructs Moses to return to the mountaintop for a private meeting. In this meeting, Moshe and God, in a sense, create art together. They rewrite the tablets in a moment of intimacy, connection, promise, and reset. 

Who serves this role in your life? Is it a partner or other family member? Is it the neighbor or friend you can call anytime? As humans, we’re at our absolute best when we hold each other up and create together. Parshat Ki Tissa is an extra reminder, especially while we’re still trying to navigate life in a pandemic, that even the simplest of connections can make the biggest difference.

Team Effort – Parshat Ki Tissa 5781

Team effort

When I was younger and went to summer camp, we used to play this game where we’d each begin writing a story on our own. We’d only write a few lines, and the counselors would have us switch papers. Our job was to read the last line written by the person before us and continue the story with only that previous line of knowledge. I’ll just say it: I hated this game. I always had a vision for my story. I knew where I wanted it to go, I knew how I anticipated moving the plot along, and no one who continued my story ever seemed to share that vision. 

Of course the goal of the game wasn’t to create the perfect story. When the stories were completed, we usually ended up with silly, nonsensical (sometimes incomprehensible) plots. But the activity leader usually shared a lesson at the end, reminding us that when we write full stories on our own, they’re only from our perspective. Doing it this way as a group may not make much narrative sense, but it’s definitely a way to see things from someone else’s point of view. In a way, it’s a model of society. Your personal story overlaps with people you come in contact with, meaning we’re constantly adding plot points and continuing each other’s story. 

The Torah, which we read as our core story, has a bit of this element to it. While, for traditional purposes, the Torah is taken to be the word of God, I hold the belief that it is divinely inspired and humanly interpreted. God inspired it, “spoke” it to Moses, and Moses transcribed it to share with the rest of us. In our Torah portion a few weeks back, when the Israelites received the 10 Commandments, they heard God’s voice and couldn’t bear the intensity, so they needed Moses to be a go-between with them and with God. This partnership continues to hold true in Parshat Ki Tissa this week.

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 events. In particular, one climactic moment in this text is when Moses gets so angry at the Israelite nation that he smashes the original tablets. While this is often a memorable moment of the portion, there’s one aspect that may not be as familiar. Those original tablets, the ones Moses smashes, were given to Moses from God completed. In other words, they were carved and inscribed by God, then handed down to Moses and the people. It wasn’t a collaborative effort; it was decisively individual, if you can call God individual.

However, after Moses smashes the tablets, God asks him to create a new set. And for this new set, Moses carves the structure of the tablets first, and then God inscribes them with the mitzvot. It becomes a joint law making effort between humankind and the divine. This time the tablets, the material used to carry the message, are made by an imperfect human being, rather than a perfect deity. In this way, the rules written on them also become more human, more tangible, and more collaborative.

It’s hard to let go of your own story, your own vision. Even so, the Torah teaches us that when we work in partnership, our efforts are stronger and last longer. When we work together, we strengthen one another, and the product of our community is so much richer for it. 

Refreshing Yourself – Parshat Ki Tissa 5780

refreshing-yourself.jpg

I’m terrible at taking time for myself. So terrible, in fact, that unless I put it on my calendar, it won’t happen. I set reminders for self care, and sometimes I go so far as to ask others to remember not to email me on my day off, because emails will inevitably suck me in. It isn’t that I don’t find time away refreshing, or that I’m necessarily a workaholic; it’s just that I sometimes forget to stop and take a breath. I forget to look around at the world, my family, and my community and marvel in the gifts I receive from them. The one saving grace is Friday, when I tend to move just a slight bit slower for at least those two hours at the end of the week going into Shabbat. Sadly, though, the rest of Shabbat isn’t usually restful. Between the programming, the services, and the time chasing after my own kids, I’d say on average those two hours of actual “resting time” each Shabbat are about all I get. 

Throughout its text, the Torah reminds us of our obligation to ourselves and others to rest periodically. From the beginning, we have God resting at the end of creation, and there are similar reminders following, including in this week’s Torah portion. 

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. When Moses is on top of the mountain, he’s delayed in coming down. The Israelites are scared, unsure of this God that they have yet to trust. They gather their gold, craft an idol, and turn their attention to something tangible. 

Interestingly, right before the saga of the Golden Calf, we are again reminded of our covenant with God for all time regarding the observance of Shabbat. These two narratives – the peaceful rest of Shabbat and the frantic rashness of the Golden Calf – seem vastly different from one another, yet they are linked through their parshah, Ki Tissa. We know Moses was on the mountain for 40 days, plus one extra day. However, we don’t learn much of what Moses did on that extra day, we only hear how anxious the Israelites were to have him back and move on with their journey. 

The proximity of these ideas in the timeline of the Torah begs the question of when it’s appropriate to be refreshed, following that commitment to God. Was the Israelites’ behavior really the best time for Moses to take a personal day? Perhaps Moses took an extra day so he could gain some perspective by taking it all in. Or perhaps the lesson is that had the Israelites actually taken the same opportunity to rest, they would not have acted out by engaging in idolatry. 

Whatever the reason for the extra day was, the message is clear. To be in covenant with God and community is to hold back, to slow down, and to take time to refresh and reinvigorate yourself. Take your “plus one” and I’ll try to do the same.

Give it a Rest – Parshat Ki Tissa 5779

shabbat-rest.jpg

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

comfort-object.JPG

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.