November 15, 2019

Weekly Parsha: Ki Tisa

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist.

“And you, speak to the children of Israel and say: ‘Only keep My Sabbaths! For it is a sign between Me and you for your generations, to know that I, the Lord, make you holy.’” –Exodus 31:13

Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny
Temple Beth Am, Los Angeles

The year I turned 7, I read my first “chapter book,” Beverly Cleary’s “The Mouse and the Motorcycle.” I couldn’t have been prouder of the big sticker I got on my library card. At the time, the source of my pride was sheer volume; look at all those pages I’d read! 

You know what the really impressive thing is about reading a chapter book, though? It’s not picking up a big, heavy title for the first time; it’s putting down that book, and then coming back to it. My real accomplishment was taking that dog-eared paperback, planting it upside-down with the spine smashed wide open (sorry, librarians) and running off to do something else. And then returning to the book, to its story, and jumping back into the narrative with perfect elasticity. Picking up where I left off as if I’d never left that fiction world, not even for a snack break.

Rabbeinu Bachya (13th- and 14th-century commentator) points out that one plain, contextual meaning of Exodus 31:13 is simply a reminder that Shabbat, unlike other holidays, happens over and over throughout the year. It’s the temporal destination for a weekly homecoming. With Shabbat, as with any great book, we return to fully immerse in an alternate, alluring universe and depart from our own world. And we do so with the promise that we’ll return to mundanity soon enough, with a bookmark to save our place for the Shabbat to come.

Yekusiel Kalmenson
CEO, Renewal Health Group 

Theologian Thomas Merton once said, “Some people spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” I am amazed by how many people never really dream about a future for themselves. They can spend months planning a holiday, but not even a day planning a life. This isn’t the best recipe for a life. 

In English, we commonly greet one another by saying, “What’s happening?” In Yiddish, the typical greeting is, “Vos tutz zich, vos machstu?” (What are you doing, what are you creating?) I’ll never forget a certain mentor in my yeshiva who would always ask us, “Are you a thermometer or a thermostat?” A thermometer takes the temperature; a thermostat controls the temperature. 

Are we waiting for life to happen to us, or do we have a vision and a plan for its implementation? 

Thomas Friedman said, “When you press the pause button on a machine, it stops. But when you press the pause button on human beings, they start. … You start to reflect, you start to rethink your assumptions, to reimagine what is possible, and reconnect with your most deeply held beliefs.”

Shabbos is a weekly day of pause and dreams. Shabbos is a 24-hour oasis in time and spirit that helps us not only rest but return, not only rejuvenate but recalibrate. Shabbat is the day each week we check our ladder to make sure it’s leaning on the right wall.

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith Hospice Chaplain

When immersed in creativity, I don’t want to stop. I lose all sense of time, forgetting when, where — even why — I am! Our verse balances us. 

Firstly, Ki Tisa outlines that tokens gathered in a census shall become endowment for God’s Tabernacle. Then artisans Bezalel and Oholiav are awarded the contract to build this Tabernacle, and then, curiously, comes our verse. 

Suddenly, during God’s survey for the Mishkan, we’re on “Shabbat alert.” Why? Rashi asks this and I paraphrase his brilliant, logical observation: “While I (God) have commanded an immense task of manufacturing, don’t think that Shabbat can abruptly be taken lightly.” 

I grasp Rashi’s point. Imagine Bezalel and Oholiav are — lacking a better term — totally psyched about their commission! The whole Israelite camp is teeming, elated in a rush of creative enthusiasm. And then, wham. Shabbat. Keep Shabbat. Is God saying, “Recharge your batteries every week”? Definitely! Is God emphasizing that sacred contracts must have proper leisure time baked right in? Certainly! Rashi sweetens it with God’s other realization: Humans get carried away with work. “You want me to put down my iPad just when I’m cooking up something great? I’ll draw just a little more after sundown this week, and next Friday I’ll stop on time. I promise, just this once …”

For Rashi, this is God’s point: “With exciting holy things at your fingertips, it’s easy to get immersed, so safeguard Shabbat.” 

Must holy passions compete with Shabbat? No. Just imagine: As compelling is the project, so too is Shabbat.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro
Open Temple

Our pasuk begins with a curious conjunction; a short word, “ach,” meaning “above all,” “verily,” or most curiously, “nevertheless” — a seeming contradiction to its allied meanings. The preceding verses conclude a pericope spanning three Torah portions with detailed descriptions for the creation of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. As we come to the coda of God’s magnum opus, we meet this reversal: “Only/Above all/Verily/Nevertheless, keep my Sabbaths.” The invitation into Shabbat is unclear: Are we to continue the work of creation on Shabbat or not?

A choir of rabbinic voices rises up to tame the suggested contradiction. Torah is pliable enough that we can all agree, disagree or do both with their interpretations; as well as rigid enough to create a spectrum of incontrovertible convictions. 

So what are we, seemingly “The Generations” mentioned in the verse, to do? Do we guard the Sabbath like sentries of an ancient palace? Or do we simply persist through the aisles of Target on a Saturday morning, wondering what davening would be like at that shul down on La Cienega? 

Verily, there are those of us who might merely meditate on the letter vov at dawn as a part of a visual shiviti meditation. Whatever expression of hallowing its presence we choose, one thing is clear: A Temple has been built, its name is Shabbat, and it is, above all — from alef to taf with a vov in the middle — the sign upon which all of this hinges. Shabbat is ours to know and make our own.

Jacob Artson
Student at West L.A. College

This chapter begins with God designating Bezalel to supervise the building of the Tabernacle and its beautiful implements. Then, in our verse, we are instructed to keep Shabbat. We just read the Ten Commandments in the Torah portion a few weeks ago, so why do we need to be reminded again to observe Shabbat?

The Tabernacle represents the holiness of space, while Shabbat represents the holiness of time. We need both for enduring relationships, including our relationship with God.

Recently, my family moved into a new house. I’m not strongly attached to physical spaces, so it wasn’t traumatic for me to leave my childhood home. I just needed to know where my space was in the new house. It’s the space where I can feel safe and present. That’s what I imagine the Tabernacle was for the Israelites. While wandering in the desert, it was a space they could turn to in order to feel safe and remember God’s love.

For me, the same is true for Shabbat. Even if we have a space to relate to God or our loved ones or our friends, we still have to make the time to go to the space and connect. Keeping up a relationship requires spending time together. So Shabbat comes every week to give us time to spend with God, reflecting where we are at that moment, getting inspiration for the coming week and recommitting to what brought us together in the first place: creating a world of peace, justice and dignity for all. 

During Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month in February, Table for Five includes young voices from Vista Del Mar’s Moses-Aaron Cooperative Program.