Words of Torah from Caryn Aviv

This d’var Torah was offered last Shabbat morning at the ALEPH Board strategic planning retreat.

Shabbat shalom. Last week we celebrated Purim, with its themes of concealing and revealing. This week, in Ki Tisa, there’s more hide and seek. The parsha begins with deep spiritual transmission between the Divine and Moses about the building of sacred space. We learn of the requirement to give a half-shekel, to build our community’s holy meeting space and purify our collective accumulation of spiritual shmutz. We are given instruction in who will participate in the building sacred space, and we hear the radical teaching to celebrate sacred time of kedusha and menucha – holiness and rest. Both of these teachings illuminate how to build and be built in relationship to what’s holy, and to strengthen our relationship to being alive.

The narrative then moves to anxious and fearful regression of the Israelites, who are waiting for Moses at the bottom of the mountain. They experience collective separation anxiety. They insist that Aaron create a Moses substitution/replacement security object, and build a Golden Calf. The Divine sees what’s happening, and expresses anger toward the people to Moses, who pleads with the Divine for compassion. Moses descends down the mountain. He sees the separation anxiety substitution object, and his anger flares. He dramatically shatters the tablets of our freedom teachings. He burns the Golden Calf in the fire of his disappointment, frustration, and perhaps shame that his brother and the people were unable to trust in the process. Moses begs the Divine for forgiveness of the people, and asks God to lead him and the Israelites out of this constricted spiritual state.

Finally the parasha closes with a second encounter at Mount Sinai. The Divine instructs Moses to carve two more tablets, and climb the mountain alone. The text says:

As My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and protect you with My hand until I have passed by.

Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen.

It is in this place, of concealment, seeking, and presence, that Moses experiences connection with the Sacred, and a profound covenantal promise.

In that encounter, the rabbis imagined the Ineffable wearing a tallit, singing to Moses, what we now sing to God as the core of our own Selichot, our prayers of forgiveness:

יְהוָה Adonai
יְהוָה Adonai
אֵל El
רַחוּם Rachum
וְחַנּוּן VeChanun
אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם Erech appayim
וְרַב-חֶסֶד VeRav chesed
וֶאֱמֶת VeEmet
נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים Notzer chesed laalafim
נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן Noseh avon
וָפֶשַׁע VaFeshah
וְחַטָּאָה VeChata’ah (breakages and ruptures)
וְנַקֵּה VeNakeh (accepting apologies to mend relationship)

Rambam argued that these attributes are not inherent in God, they are the method of divine governance, delivered in a conceptual form that we as limited human beings can understand. In the Sifre, these attributes are called “derakim” – the ways of divinity. In other words, these attributes are not just qualities – they are profound practices to emulate and embody.

For centuries, we are the ones who voice these words as a plea, to be forgiven for our shortcomings and our mistakes. We don’t sing these on Shabbat, because they are such deeply personal supplications. And our mystical tradition introduced the singing of these words when we take the Torah out of the Aron Kodesh for Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. But in the Torah, it is God singing these to Moses, and to us – as an invitation and a promise. And perhaps, we might see this as a love song for how to live in right relationship with God and with one another.

It’s not accidental that God describes the importance of Shabbat as a source of blessing and sacred power in the same parsha where God sings and teaches us the attributes of divinity as a source of blessing and sacred power. The 13 attributes God sings to Moshe are a reminder, that every day we are given the opportunity to live in right relationship with the Divine.

We build this relationship through our doing 6 days of the week and then celebrating creation and simply being. Shabbat is an amplification, a manifestation, and a fruition of all those qualities in Shemot. When we embody and practice those ways attributed to the Great Mystery, in the rhythm of Jewish time, we have the opportunity to experience kedusha and healing in our world.

May we build sacred spaces and communities, erech appayim, v’rav chesed v’emet, slow to anger and filled with kindness and truth. May we be built by our holy work this weekend in partnership with the Divine to embody those wondrous attributes of Godliness.


Rabbinical student Caryn Aviv, who serves as ALEPH Student Board representative on the ALEPH Board, was profiled in our web series Faces of Renewal.