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Parshat Ki Tissa - Purim

And so, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month -

That is, the month of adar -

When the king's command and decree were to be executed,

The very day on which the enmeies of the jews

Had expected to get them in their power,

The oppoisite happened,

And the jews got their enemies in their power.

(Esther 9:1)


"...if any person, man or woman, enters the king's presence in the inner court without having been summoned..." But could she [Esther] have not entered the outer court, as did Haman!? However, this an intimation that Purim is p'nimiyut (internal-ness), and this is the meaning of the inner court, as related in the name of the Elder Rabbi of Kotsk z"l, the megilla is so called because in it the p'nimiyut opened and revealed [the Hebrew word for scroll, 'megillah' and the Hebrew for revelation, "histgalut" share the same word root]. It is [cited] that Amalek covers the countenance, and it is written "And it shall be when the Lord your God gives you rest from all your surrounding enemies, etc." then the p'nimiyut will be revealed. When the "and the opposite happened" is realized, everything will be open. It is written [in a Mishnah] that Petahia was in charge of the 'nests' - the couples of sacrificial birds [a matter which only experts dealt with]; Petahia was Mordecai, and why was he called Petahia? Because he would open subjects and homiletically expound upon them ['Petahia', 'Yiftach' and 'open' share a common Hebrew root], he would even open secret matters. It is stated that "Yiftach in his generation was like Shmuel in his generation", and in the name of the Hiddushei HaRim, z"l, it is said that whoever opens an opening is called 'Yiftach', therefore Mordecai was called Petahia.

(Rabbi Avraham Mordecai Alter of Gur; Imrei Emmet - Shushan Purim, 5688)



And the same month which had been transformed for them

from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy

They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking,

and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another

and presents to the poor. (Esther 9:22)



Between The Worshippers of The Calf and the Priests of Baal

Yehonatan Chipman

This Shabbat our synagogue readings - in the Torah parashah and the haphtarah - are focused upon two confrontations with idolatry: the Torah reading, which deals with the incident of the Golden Calf and Moses' struggle against it; and the confrontation between the prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal at Mount Carmel read in the haphtarah, taken from 1 Kings 18 (a haphtarah which is not read every year, as Shabbat Ki Tisa frequently coincides with Parshat Parah). While the Torah portion and the haphtarah usually bear upon related subjects, they are often a study in contrasts as well, offering different perspectives on the subject at hand. I would like to reflect upon these two passages, both in terms of their obvious similarities as well as what I see as a striking difference between them.

The incident of the Golden Calf is a familiar one. The people, confused and frightened when Moses "tarries" on Mount Sinai, asks Aaron to make "a god, who will go before us"; he gathers their golden ornaments and fashions a molten calf, which becomes an object of orgiastic worship. Upon descending from the mountain and seeing this spectacle, Moses is filled with wrath, hurls the two tablets of the covenant from his hands and, gathering a faithful remnant from the tribe of Levi, goes through the camp killing some three thousand people who had worshiped the calf. God then tells Moses that He is ready to destroy the people and make his family His people in their stead. Moses refuses this offer; having meantime calmed from his anger, he returns to his earlier role as defender of the people and begins a protracted process during which he beseeches God's mercy, persuading Him to relent of His destructive intention. God recants (in two stages) and ultimately reveals to Moses His Thirteen Qualities of Mercy. Thus, by the end of the chapter both God and Moses relent of their consuming anger and instead turn to a position of compassion, understanding, and a renewed attempt to continue covenantal life with this often "stiff-necked people."

Several years ago I suggested in this forum (Shabbat Shalom, Ki Tisa 5762), that this chapter ought to be read as offering a new understanding of the covenant, based upon mercy, compassion and understanding of human weakness, as against the original Sinai covenant, which was based upon unconditional obedience to the Law. I referred to these as the "Covenant of Sinai" and the "Covenant of the Cleft of the Rock," or as the "revelation of Shavuot" and the "revelation of Yom Kippur." My original inspiration for this idea came from the late biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom who, in an Appendix to his JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, observed that, if one analyzes the structure of the Hextateuch - that is to say, the six books consisting of the Torah plus the Book of Joshua - one finds a pattern of symmetry at whose center one finds Exodus 34: that is to say, the revelation to Moses in the Cleft of the Rock. Thus, the very structure of these biblical books alludes to the centrality of the quality of Divine mercy.

The chapter concerning the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal presents us with a very different sort of story. Elijah sees himself as virtually alone in confronting the wicked King Ahab and the priests of Baal and Asherah, whose cult enjoys a privileged position under Ahab's rule. Elijah is persecuted by the king for his loyalty to the God of Israel and his outspoken criticism of the latter's support of idolatry. In a dramatic confrontation on Mount Carmel, Elijah proposes a test to demonstrate to the people, who " hop between the two branches," the identity of the true god: Baal or the Lord God of Israel. Two altars are constructed - one on which a sacrifice will be offered to Baal, and the other on which a sacrifice will be offered to the Lord - and "the God who answers in fire, He is God" (1 Kings 18:24). Elijah allows the worshipers of Baal - who are far more numerous than himself - to go first; they try all morning and through early afternoon, calling on Baal to show his acceptance of the sacrifice. Elijah mocks them with biting sarcasm: "Call out with a loud voice... perhaps he is talking, or has gone for a walk; or perhaps he is sleeping and will wake up" (v. 27). The priests of Baal redouble their efforts, mutilating themselves with swords and spears (reminiscent of contemporary Shi'ites?), but to no avail. Finally, "at the time of the afternoon offering," Elijah builds an altar, slaughters a bull, and pours water over the sacrifice and the altar and the deep ditch he has dug all around it, to assure that it will not ignite easily. He then utters a brief but eloquent prayer, and immediately is answered by fire coming down from heaven, consuming the sacrifice, the wood, the earth of the altar, and all the water around. "And all the people standing there fell on their faces declared, 'the Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God'" (v. 39). In the dénouement, the prophets of Baal are all slaughtered near the Brook Kishon.

What is the difference between these two stories? Why in the end do both God and Moses have mercy upon the people of Israel who made the calf (notwithstanding the murder of many of the leaders), whereas Elijah is unrelenting in his zealotry against the priests of Baal? The difference is rooted, both in the nature of the respective idolatries, and in a difference between the two principle figures and their conception of their respective roles. The worshippers of the Calf were ordinary people, recently freed slaves who had participated in the Exodus, stood at Mount Sinai and now, in a moment of weakness, had succumbed to the need for a substitute for their revered leader who seemed to have abandoned them. More than anything else, this story illustrates the limitations of human beings. Even the greatest ideal, the most impressive and soul-shattering experience, do not change people forever: after a short period of time - in this case, a mere forty days - in face of some powerful emotion, be it trauma, fear, and insecurity, it may be forgotten. God, so to speak, comes to realize that the strict path of uncompromising demands He had imposed upon them does not work. The people require mercy, forgiveness, and need allowance to be made for their all too human shortcomings. In brief, the making of the calf, even if not committed in error in the technical sense, was very close to being unintentional. It was a decision made by people who were not fully cognizant of the implications of what they were doing, who were moved by strong emotion and fear.

Moses, for his part, served a dual role here (as he did throughout his life as a leader): he was the teacher par excellence of Torah, the prophet who brought God's word to the people, and was as such passionately opposed to this incursion of paganism into the life of the people. But he was also the leader of the people, a kind of loving father who sought, in whatever way possible, to reconcile them to their Heavenly Father so that they might continue on their path towards their destiny - with all the stumbling blocks and backsliding they might encounter on the way.

Elijah, by contrast, was a zealot - indeed, the very archetype of the zealot in Israel (some midrashim even identify him, in an almost literal sense, with Phineas). He was concerned, in single-minded fashion, with convincing the vacillating people that the Lord alone is God. The entire confrontation on Mount Carmel was intended for that purpose alone. He saw himself as utterly alone in this struggle: "and I alone remain as a prophet of the Lord" (1 Kings 18:22), with only Obadiah and a handful of prophets whom he hid hidden away in a cave sharing his loyalty to the Lord. This self-image is repeated later on, at his encounter with God at Mount Horeb: "I have been very zealous for the Lord of Hosts... I alone am left" (19:10) - and, even after receiving a clear message that God is not to be found in loud, bombastic manifestations but in the "small quiet voice," he does not change so much as a single letter of this perception (v. 14).

Moreover, unlike those who worshipped the Calf, the priests of Baal were deeply rooted in their idolatry, and enjoyed a privileged status within Ahab's kingdom. They were, so to speak, a classic example of people who acted out of zadon, deliberate choice; and the only way to deal with this, at least so Elijah believed, was through frontal confrontation, aimed not so much at them as at the public who were vacillating between the two positions as to which was true. And this is what he did.

To summarize: the selections from the Torah and the haphtarah illustrate two models of leadership. The one, the zealot, is needed in certain special situations, when there is a great danger to the moral and religious integrity of the people, which can be combated in no other way. But the path of zealotry is fraught with dangers which there is no need to elaborate, as we unfortunately see in our own day. The second path, that of Moses, is the high road that on occasion incorporates momentary anger and zealotry against an overall, long-lasting paternal love. "His anger is but a moment; He favors life." May we always merit to have wise leaders of this type.

Rabbi Jonathan Chipman is by profession a translator, specializing in Jewish Studies. He writes a weekly bulletin called "Arrows of Jonathan" on the weekly Torah reading (in English). Readers interested in receiving this bulletin should email to


"Face to face"

And god would speak to moshe face to face, as a man speaks to his neighbor. Now when he would return to the camp, his attendant, the lad yehoshua, would not depart from within.

(Shemot 33:11)


"Face to face" meaning: Present, without intermediary, as is written, "Let us confront each other", and this is elsewhere explained, saying, "You heard the sound of words but perceived no shape - nothing but a voice." Thus, "and God would speak to Moshe face to face" is an expression describing the kind of speech - "And he heard the voice speaking to him." Thus it has been explained to you that the hearing of the voice without the intercession of an angel is called "face to face".

 (Rambam, Guide for the Perplexed, I, 37)


[Another explanation, this one] in the style of the Midrash: "Face to face" - an expression of anger. Said The Holy One, Blessed Be He, to Moshe: Moshe, I did not tell you [to punish the people] when I was angry and you were conciliatory, nor when you were angry and I was conciliatory. But now I am angry and you are angry; "return to the camp"; read not "v'shav el hamachaneh" [and he - Moshe - returned to the camp], but read it "v'shuv el hamachaneh" ["return to the camp"], if we are both angry who will bring Israel close?

(Rabeinu Bahaye, Shemot 33:11)


The First and Second Tablets

The first tablets were shattered because they were given with noise. However, regarding the second tablets, of which it was said 'and no man shall ascend with you,' endured. Even Jerusalem was destroyed because of this [evil] eye, the city of which they called 'perfect in beauty.

(Yalkut Shimoni Bereishit 42, from the middle of section148)


"Two tablets of stone as the first" - the similar and the different

"And i shall write on the tablets the words": On the first tablets were inscribed only the ten statements, and now that you have expressed sorrow, I give you midrash halachot v'agadot [halachic explications] the meaning behind all this is that the first set of tablets did not include the authority to create new laws, only that which Moshe received, close readings and fine distinctions and those laws inherent in them; they did not authorize creation of new laws through the 13 rules and Talmudic exposition. The oral law consisted only of those things received from Moshe's mouth; and those not directly received were extracted by comparison of like things. The second set of tablets, however, authorized every distinguished scholar to create laws according to the 13 rules and the Talmud And for this reason, the Holy One ordered that the second set be engraved by Moshe, not because they were not worthy of Divine inscription, but in order to teach that new legislation authorized by these tablets are with the partnership of human endeavor with the help of Heaven, just as the tablets themselves were the work of Moshe and the script of God the writing was also with Moshe's participation. And this is what was meant by Chazal's statement that even that which authorized scholars will in the future innovate was already on the tablets, the meaning being that everything existed potentially in the second tablets and because of this the Holy One [adding on to "the first tablets" the words ] "Asher shibarta ["which you have broken" ] and Chazal expounded [emending the text with word play] "Yasher kochacha sheshibarta" ["Good for you that you broke them" [an rewriting based on the similarity between asher and yasher], because this [breaking of the tablets] strengthened the authority of the oral law which is the essential part of the second covenant made after the golden calf, because after the first set was smashed and the second set was written in a version which was initially received orally, they then knew that even the tablets, which were the beginning of the written law, included matters of received tradition which already existed in the beginning. From this we can understand the power of received traditions which came down and were passed on, and all are the words of the Living God.

("Haamek Davar", Shemot 34:1)


Everything which a distinguished scholar is destined to innovate is included in the Oral Law down until the arrival of the Messiah, for then the earth will become full with knowledge, and men will no longer learn war, etc,. and there will be no more new laws The Oral Law derives from the heart of Israel. And as I have written elsewhere on Chazal's statement in Tractate Avodah Zara "At first the Torah of God and at the end, his [man's] Torah" (Psalms 1:1), that the beginning is the Written Law, and then began the Oral Law, which is called 'Divrei Sofrim - words of the scribes, which is created by the Children of Israel and it their Torah alone.

(Ohr Zarua LaZaddik by Rabbi Zadok HaCohen of Lublin).


The first tablets, whose giving was accompanied by powerful noises, were broken. But the latter tablets, with regard to which it was written "And no man shall ascend with you", survived. And even Jerusalem was destroyed because of the [evil] 'eye' - the city that "was called Perfect in Beauty."

(Yalkut Shimoni, Bereishit Chap 42, continuation of Article 148)


It was taught in a Barayta of Rabbi Eliezer: The Scroll of Esther was composed with the Holy Spirit, as is written (Esther 6): "And Haman said in his heart."

Rabbi Akiva said: Esther was composed with the Holy Sprit, as is written (Esther 2) "And the matter became known to Mordecai".

Rabbi Yossi ben Dormaskis said: Esther was composed with the Holy Sprit, as is written (Esther 9) "And they did not partake of the spoils."

Shmuel said: If I were present [among the above Tannaim] I would have said something superior to all their proofs. It is said "kiymu v'kiblu" - "they fulfilled and accepted" - they fulfilled above that which they accepted below.

(Megillah 7a)


Considerations of Ethical Sensitivity in the Editing of the Holy Scriptures

Said Rav Shmuel bar Yehudah: Sent Esther to the Sages, saying : "Commemorate me for future generations." They replied, "You will incite the ill will of the nations against us". She sent back reply: "I am already recorded in the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia."

(Megillah 7a)


"You will incite the ill will of the nations against us": The nations will say that we are happy to recall their downfall.

(Rashi, ibid.)


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