Since tzedakah not only means righteousness but also charity, generosity to the poor is something we should take very seriously.
“The righteous give without sparing.” (Proverbs 21:26)
It is evident throughout Scripture that God takes notice of people’s giving, especially to the poor and needy.
Generosity is a source of blessing to the poor and to ourselves: “The generous will themselves be blessed, for they share their food with the poor.” (Proverbs 22:9)
The Sin of the Golden Calf
Parasha Ki Tisa records the sin of the golden calf (cheit ha’eigel), which is linked to the catastrophic end of the generation who died in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land.
The people, who were concerned because Moses seemed to be on the mountain too long, asked Aaron to make them a god they could see and follow.
“And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.’” (Exodus 32:1)
Even though God had told Moses what was happening below, when he came down the mountain and saw them dancing in wild debauchery around the calf made of gold, he smashed the sacred stone tablets which had been written with the finger of God.
The smashing of the two tablets is often attributed to Moses’ anger; however, the 12th century Jewish Bible commentator and Talmudist Rashbam claims that at the sight of the Israelite’s grievous sin, Moses lost all his strength, unable to bear their heavy burden.
According to Rashbam, it was not due to anger that he broke the tablets of the law, but due to the disappointment, despair, and disillusionment he felt with the people he had brought out of Egypt.
In ancient times in this region, the breaking of tablets was a custom symbolizing the annulment of a contract; therefore, by breaking the stone tablets, Moses may have been destroying the “marriage contract” between the groom (God) and His bride (Israel).
In fact, Jewish custom still uses the verb shavar (to break) in reference to the breaking of a marriage contract (shoveret ketubah).
This is not to be confused with the Jewish custom of breaking a glass at the wedding ceremony, which symbolizes the destruction of the Temple. Nor is this to be connected in any way with the custom in some cultures of breaking dishes at a wedding.
It may seem incredible that the same people who, just six weeks earlier, had responded to the giving of the Torah with awe and reverence, shouting na’aseh v’nishma (we will do and we will listen), were now worshiping at the feet of an idol.
Although we tend to wonder how the Israelites could have fallen into this sin, perhaps there is a lesson here about our own generation.
Chassidic sage Rabbi Yitzchak of Slonim commented that while the Israelites “enthusiastically gave up their silver and gold to make a god; our generation gives up God to make silver and gold.”
But how could these people, who had witnessed such supernatural miracles to deliver them from Egypt, now worship the work of a man’s hands?
Granted, Moses stayed a long time on the mountain, but was this enough justification for their spiritual adultery?
Sometimes, we think that God has forgotten us or is taking too long or that He is too late to act.
“How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1)
We know that the God of the Universe exists outside the limitations of time and space, and yet we sometimes wonder why He has not yet intervened in human history or even in our own personal circumstances.
When it seems that this is the case, we must not fall into fear. God is never late.
Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the famous Mashgiach (spiritual supervisor) of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland, blames the Israelites’ sin of idolatry on fear: a frightened nation feels the need for a visible manifestation to assure them of God’s presence.
However, God does not take idolatry lightly and His wrath is against them, but Moses pleads for mercy on their behalf.
In doing so, Moses identifies so completely with the people that he says, “If you are going to forgive them [im tisa], then do so; if not, then wipe me also from Your book.” (Exodus 32:32)
This echoes the opening words of this Parasha—ki tisa et rosh, which means literally, when you lift up the head, an idiom for taking a head-count or census.
Used in a different context, however, tisa can mean to forgive or pardon; thus Moses is using a Hebrew play on words in an attempt to save the children of Israel from the wrath of God that may come upon their heads.
But what book is Moses referring to? It is likely the Book of Life, in which our names are written by God to inherit eternal life.
In fact, God declares in the verse after Moses’ plea that anyone who sins may be blotted out of His book:
“And the LORD said unto Moses, ‘Whoever has sinned against Me I will blot out of My book.” (Exodus 32:33)
The Book of Life is also mentioned near the very end of the Brit Chadashah (New Testament): “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the Book of Life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:15)
While sin causes us to be separated from God and our names blotted from His book, those who follow Yeshua may rejoice that their names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life forever: “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Yeshua the Messiah our Lord.” (Romans 6:23; Revelation 13:8)