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.