Ki Tisa: Moses, the Human
This week’s portion is one of the longest, and it tells us the story of Moses as he receives the tablet of the Torah. To receive this, he is forced to leave the Israelites and climb a mountain. There, he is given messages directly from G-d. However, he spends 39 days and 18 hours doing so, and in his absence, a dangerous influence is exerted over his people. Doubt is cast over his status as a prophet, and a negative element begins to convince the others that G-d is a golden calf instead.
This plot against the Israelites leads to idol-worshipping, which we know to be a terrible sin. The idol of the golden calf received its power from none other than Moses’ brother, Aron, who was tricked into providing the energy that brought it to life. Thankfully, he later saved the world from collapse by building an altar to G-d, thereby taking this power back from the idol. He still suffers personal repercussions, though: his two sons die as punishment for his initial error. Much as it pains spiritual people to hear this, actions always have consequences.
While we read this portion, we may feel inclined to judge the Israelites for their weakness. It seems terrible that they’d succumb to such a scheme after all that Moses did for them. However, we should instead try to understand what lay behind their mistaken thinking. We can learn from what they did wrong. Wouldn’t we also have experienced doubts, waiting for Moses for such a long time? We are only human, after all. And what makes Moses such an interesting prophet was the fact that he was only human too.
Unlike the prophets of other religions, we understand Moses as a fallible being. He reminds us to worship G-d, not him. Moses was a unique figure because he was a human being who reached the level of an angel through his own work. He made mistakes. He questioned himself. He even doubted G-d’s plan sometimes. This is what continues to keep him so relatable to us, despite his elevated status as a leader. We can see ourselves in Moses and aspire to improve ourselves and serve G-d just as he did, with all of our imperfections.
An interesting side note regarding this portion is that it was poorly translated at one point, and this resulted in a misunderstanding. Because similar letters are used to express both, where it says that Moses returned from the mountain with a shining face, some Christians understood it to say he returned with a horn. This inaccurate reading has resulted in an ongoing myth surrounding Jewish people having horns which are supposedly hidden under a kippah.
Silly as this story undoubtedly is, it teaches us an important lesson. Just like the portion, it reminds us of the destructive potential of human error. The unavoidable fact is that we are all capable of making mistakes. The real question is are we all humble enough to accept that? Because if not, we certainly won’t be humble enough to rectify them. In this portion, Moses’ brother Aaron makes a mistake, but thankfully he realizes this and rectifies it too. He redeems himself for his poor judgement.
When we think about it, though, this whole problem wasn’t caused by Aaron. It was arguably caused by Moses’ himself. After all, when Moses travelled from Egypt, G-d told him to only take the pure with him. Moses was the one who refused and took everyone, and as a result there was this dangerous and negative element amongst his people. We can understand and appreciate his good motivations for doing that, but we must also learn from his example. It’s so, so important to be selective about the people that surround us.
We must protect ourselves from toxic influences, from those who would lie to us and lie to themselves. One way to protect ourselves is by giving — G-d tells Moses that the Israelites should give charity to protect themselves from the plague. However, when we give we must ensure that we are giving with the correct attitude. Being forced to give doesn’t have the same positive impact. In fact, it can even make things worse in our lives!
Finding a community and following a strong leader are other factors that keep us safely on track, away from negative distractions. The leader doesn’t need to be perfect, and Moses is the evidence of that. What makes a great leader and teacher is not necessarily someone who has achieved perfection, but someone who is devoted to fulfilling their divine purpose, working always on themselves in order to better their service to G-d. That is how we should strive to be too.