While the dramatic highlight of the Torah portion of Ki Tissa is Israel’s sin in creating the Golden Calf, the theological and human highlight comes in its aftermath. First we have violence, as Moses leads the Levites and those who are “on God’s side” in a civil war to rid the Israelite camp of the wrongdoers. In the wake of that violence, Moses seeks God’s forgiveness (for the Golden Calf, though one could propose a more radical reading and say that the forgiveness sought was also for the killing of 3,000 fellow tribesmen).

Moses pleads on behalf of the people. God would rather wipe out the people and start over with Moses, but Moses tells God that he wants no part of such a plan. “You can erase me from your book” if you do this, he says. So God relents, and grants a pardon. Moses’s advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people  sets the tone for all future prophets of Israel, and is distinguished from the behavior of Elijah, the subject of the traditional haftarah reading for the Torah portion. Elijah chastises the people, and does not seek their forgiveness from God. Perhaps this is why we traditionally say that Elijah is present at ritual circumcisions and at the Passover seder–the two most serious positive commandments in the Torah. It is as though we are constantly reminding Elijah of our faithfulness to the covenant, a faithfulness that he questioned, but which Moses deeply believed in.

Moses then has a forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai–his second trip up the mountain–during which God reveals as much of God’s essence as possible to a human being. “You will see my back, but no man can see my face and live.” Moses is altered by this encounter, to the point that his face radiates with light when he descends. Here again he offers us a lesson: While at first the people recoil from him, the Torah gently says “He talked with them.” Moses reaches out to his fellow Israelites, and he begins the 3,000 year conversation of Torah study that we continue up to the present moment. We can distinguish his reaction this time from his reaction before: rather than employing violence to achieve his ends, he engages in teaching and learning. We learn here that Torah must be a tool and a process of reconciliation. Or, in the words of Maimonides: “Words of Torah are not meant to bring upon the world vengeance, but mercy, lovingkindess and peace.” (Laws of Shabbat 2:3)

Finally, after he has finished teaching, Moses dons a veil, which he would remove only to talk with God. This is a remarkable, evocative image, bringing to mind the veil of a bride at her wedding, which signifies her intimate relationship with her husband. It also evokes the veil of W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, which he used to describe the double-consciousness of African-Americans, inhabiting multiple worlds simultaneously. The veil can create a beauty of intimacy, and a danger of division. While Moses’s veil was unique, we all wear a veil all the time (see my dvar Torah from last week about clothing and identity). How and when we remove our veil, and how we relate to the rest of the world, constitute the enduring questions of Jewish consciousness.

Shabbat shalom.