This week’s biblical portion of Ki Tisa gives us a most profound insight into the real purpose of both the Sanctuary and the Torah, as well as the true meaning of God’s presence in the world. These deep theological truths can best be explained by contrasting the two verbs of re’iya (seeing) and shemiya (listening, or more correctly, internalizing).
The portion Yitro (Exodus 18:1) opens with the words, “And Yitro / Jethro internalized (Vayishma Yitro) all that God had done for Moses and for Israel…” until he could declare, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods…” (Ex. 18:11), and, according to a major view in the Midrash, he even converted to Judaism.
We have already shown (in our commentary on Mishpatim) how the Israelites, in contrast, seem to be inured by the more superficial experience of “seeing” rather than “internalizing”. Even after they say, “we shall internalize” and enter into the Covenant, the nation quickly reverts to only “seeing the Lord of Israel”, with Nadab, Abihu and the elders even degenerating to “gazing upon the Lord, and eating and drinking” (Ex. 24:10-11)
God wants His words to be ingested within the hearts and minds of the Israelites, rather than for His “Persona” (as it were) to be “perceived” – or thought to be perceived – by their eyes alone.
Indeed, even before the Revelation at Sinai, God told Moses: “Behold, I am coming to you in the thickness of a cloud in order that the nation may internalize that which I speak with you” (Ex. 19:9). Similarly, “…and Moses drew near to the nebulous mist, where only there is God” (Ex. 20:18). This is why, throughout the Bible, the Sanctuary is identified with a cloud and a mist. And alas, it is the obsessive desire of the nation to “see” God, to objectify and limit Him to some external, finite and physical entity that leads directly to the sin of the Golden Calf.
Unfortunately, the Israelites still don’t understand. They seek an icon; an entity called God which will visually and physically be in the midst of rather than merely within the hearts and minds of the nation.
God explains that what they want is impossible; God will send human leaders, messenger-angels, informed by His spirit, who will lead them (Ex. 33:1-11). And Moses then makes a logical and important request: “Teach me (and through me, the nation) that I (we) may know – may cleave to, internalize and become united with (Your ways/Your attributes/ Your inner character traits) so that we may become informed by Your spirit, so that You may truly dwell within us.”
God agrees to do this, explaining that in the unique morality, compassion and loving-kindness of the nation, it will become clear that God is specifically within Israel (Ex. 33:14-17). Moses then asks (perhaps as a concession to the nation), “Can I not see (with my eyes) your glory?” to which God responds, “No mortal can see Me and live”; but God will reveal His inner spiritual traits, and these must lead the Jews in their quest for God, in their desire to be a holy nation and a kingdom of priest-teachers to the world. This revelation will constitute the second Sinaitic epiphany.
What follows seems a bit misplaced, but it is essential, precisely at this point in the text. God now commands Moses, “Hew out for yourself two tablets of stone like the first” (Ex. 34:1), as a sign of Divine forgiveness for the Golden Calf; a “tikkun” (repair) for the broken fragments of the Ten Commandments which Moses smashed when he saw the people dancing around the Calf. This time, however, there is one major and crucial difference: These tablets will be the work of Moses, not of God. Religious leaders and the Jewish nation will be God’s partners in the development of the Torah in the form of the Oral Law.
The Jewish nation will become the tablets of stone, with the words showing through on both sides (Ex. 30:15). Moses must hew out these stones “for himself and from himself,” from the God within him. And the Hebrew word for stone – even is a contraction of av and ben, father and son, Knesset Yisrael, the historic House of Israel. God is in words, not objects or “houses,” God is in ideas and ideals, not in any specific individual. And these Divine messages must be expressed by Israel and then the world.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.