Parshat Ki Tisa: In a word — or less

Parshat Ki Tisa: In a word — or less

Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson, Conservative

Mission statements and mottos have apparently exceeded the attention span of the American public. The new “messaging” is now ideally one word. In the last run for the presidency, the Obama campaign managed to boil its entire message down to this: “Forward.”

The campaign to crystallize and capture a central message predates presidential politics by millennia. Rabbi Shammai famously bucked this trend when a visitor proposed: “Convert me to Judaism, on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai chased that irreverent seeker out of his school with a two-by-four in hand. Rabbi Hillel, however, took the dare, rather than the bait. He answered the same upstart in three sentences: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. All the rest is commentary. Go learn.” (Shabbat 31a)

Throughout the generations, rabbis have debated what exactly was heard by the entire people at Sinai. Did the Israelites hear all ten commandments or just the first two? Perhaps they heard only the first: “I am Adonai Your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves.” That first commandment alone would have provided a direct experience of God, a message about divine priorities, and a perspective on God’s relationship with the Jewish people. We are still unpacking all the meaning that is packed into half a verse.

A midrash attributed to Menachem Mendel of Rymanov shrinks the possibilities down even further. Perhaps people didn’t hear ten commandments, or the first two, or even one, but just the first word: “anochi” — I am. Of the two biblical ways to say “I,” this one points to the essence and timeless identity of the speaker. If you know the “I am/anochi” of God, you know everything.

Then again, maybe only the first letter of that first word of the first commandment was heard. That, too, could have been enough – the barest essential. The first letter of anochi is alef — a silent letter. The way we hear and understand God’s voice is in silence — and in paradox.

If you could hear God’s voice communicate a silent letter, would you be satisfied? You might even be enlightened.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, raises more questions than answers about the timeline for receiving the ten commandments. And we have no definitive answers within (or beyond) Torah about what exactly the people heard directly from God. But we do gain some information in Ki Tisa that shrinks down an overarching message to single-letter proportions.

After the Israelites build a Golden Calf, Moses smashes the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. God instructs him: “Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first.”

In Hebrew, “like the” is rendered by a single letter — kaf — attached as a prefix to a word which means “first.” This brevity opens up whole worlds of discussion. Is the second pair of tablets the same as — or similar to — the first? The prefix “ka” can have either meaning. Are these new tablets “just like” or “kinda, sorta like” the old?

Most Jews assume that the contents of the tablets remained the same. But there is reason to believe otherwise. God formed and inscribed the first set, while Moses created the second. Would this difference cause no change in meaning or transmission? Might some of the commandments we received — “have no other gods before me,” for example — have been a response to the incident of the Golden Calf?

The trajectory of Jewish development might have been different, had there been no Golden Calf. Rav Adda, son of Rabbi Hanina, taught: “If the children of Israel had not sinned [with the Golden Calf], nothing would have been given to them except the Torah and the Book of Joshua” (Nedarim 22b). There would have been no need for prophets, prophetic rebuke, or exile. The tribes of Israel would simply have entered, conquered, and shared the Promised Land. We would have suffered less, according to Rav Adda, but also gained less wisdom.

All this is inferred from a single letter — the kaf.

If Torah can be communicated by a silent alef, it can also be communicated in an ambiguous kaf, which both likens and differentiates two sets of tablets.

A kaf again links old and new in Lamentations 5:21. We sing the words when we return the Torah to the ark: “Return us to you, Adonai, and we shall return. Renew our days as of old/ke-kedem.” Some worshipers imagine what today would look like if it were just like the best of days gone by. We find comfort, stability, and proven values in a “same as” scenario. Others (or the same folks on a different day) interpret the kaf to signify a limited resemblance to the past. We focus on the new to achieve renewal, and validate transformation as the path to growth.

The kaf unites and distinguishes in the realm of relationships, as well. “Love your neighbor as yourself/ka-mocha.” (Leviticus 19:18) Commentators divide this phrase into two thoughts: Love your neighbor. He is just like you — “ka-mocha.” At the same time, your neighbor is clearly contrasted with you, as someone to whom you must extend yourself.

Which leads us back to Hillel’s wisdom. State the principle in the positive (love your neighbor) and in the negative (don’t do what is hateful). Notice the similarities (as yourself!) and the differences (s/he’s across the fence, over a great divide). Summarize and create sound bites, because we all need reminders and short cuts. Create simple slogans that speak to our hearts as well as our heads. But go beyond sound bites, too. “Go learn” and go deeper. Compare and contrast, discern and discover, question and articulate.

At some point, deeper knowledge becomes so deep that it is ineffable. Then, we again look for ways to distill a message, so that we can remind ourselves and reach other people. We simplify and find some words. After meditating on kaf, we will choose prepositions with care: like, as, with, to. Each sets up boundaries and relationships. Each has the power of connection.

Alternatively, when we (re)discover the ineffable, we might fall silent as an alef. Listening deeply, we might hear echoes of the alef of anochi, vibrating with being and meaning.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein has created and curated resources that will enhance your seder. Visit for ideas and downloads.

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