Ki Tisa (When you take a census)

Ki TisaExodus 30:11 to 34:35

For a third time, Moses asks God for his name (identity). Rather than learning about the Eternal, God’s answer tells us more about the world around us and the world God wants man to create.

This parsha opens at a time just before the building of the Tabernacle…. The Eternal tells Moses to take a census of all men according to their army enrollment. Each man shall pay a half shekel which will be used to maintain the Tabernacle.

As Moses is about to return to the Israelite camp, God informs him that the people had built an idol… The Golden Calf…. As punishment for this infringement of God’s commandments, God threatens to destroy the Israelites and make Moses’ line a great nation. Moses successfully pleads for the people by reminding the Eternal of the past covenants to the patriarchs and by showing how important the Israelites are to God’s future plans.

Moses then returns to the people; but, upon seeing this forbidden idol, he smashes the tablets of the Ten Commandments on the ground and tells the people they have created a great sin against the Eternal. (Ex. 32:7-35)

Moses again goes up the mountain to meet with God. For a third time since the start of Exodus, God reveals his name to Moses – But, each time the name is different while telling us more about the Eternal.….

Moses first asked at the burning bush. “When I come to Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” “And God said to Moses, ‘Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (I am who I am), continuing; ‘Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you… The Eternal, the God of your ancestors – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you. This shall be My name forever.” (Ex. 3:13-16)

At the start of the following parsha , Va-eira, God tells Moses, “I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, But I did not make Myself known to them by My name Adonai.” (Ex. 6:1)

In this week’s parsha, during a meeting with the Eternal, after returning from the people and the Golden Calf incidence, Moses again asks: “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!”

“And God answered, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Eternal, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show…. But you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live.’ And the Eternal said, ‘See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of rock and shield 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.” (Ex. 33:18-23)

Moses did as requested …. And he was satisfied. But, what did he see? Did Moses see the back of God?…. If so, what was its form? Torah does not provide an answer. It is left to our understanding…. This writer has a possible answer…. Moses came to believe that God was the source of all on earth… all people, all vegetation, all land … Moses looked out from behind the rock and saw the world that God had created. And now Moses understood that everything in this world was part of God’s work…. And now part of God’s presence. … Moses understood that this world was created as the Eternal passed, and what Moses saw was God’s creation… now part of God’s total being.

Later as Moses and God parted, the Eternal proclaimed words that have become known as the Thirteen Attributes of God (with comments by W. Gunther Plaut that appear in the commentary after the text of the parsha):

1 and 2. “The Eternal, the Eternal” … The name “Eternal” is repeated twice to show the mercy of God both before and after a person sins and repents. This shows God’s mercy to all.

3. “El” … Shows that God is all mighty

4. “Compassionate” … Sympathetic to suffering.

5. “Gracious” … Showing helpful concern.

6. “Slow to anger” … Gives people the opportunity to repent.

7. “Abounding in kindness” … Kindness beyond what should be expected.

8. “Truth” … In God’s case, this precedes kindness

9. “Extending kindness to the thousandth generation” … God remembering human merit.

10, 11, and 12. “Forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin” … God is indulgent with mankind’s evil disposition, rebelliousness, and guilt.

13. “Yet not remitting all punishment” … Indicates there are limits to divine mercy. (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Rev. Ed., p. 601)

In addition to being attributes of God, if we consider that mankind was created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), these are attributes to which all righteous people should aspire.

So in response to Moses’ request for the name of God, we learn little more about who or what God is …. But, we do learn more about the world God has created and what God expects of mankind. The latter is even more relevant after the Golden Calf incident.

Earl Sabes

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

World Of Judaica
Learn Hebrew online with Israel's best teachers