With very little fanfare, we are at the brink of receiving the Torah in this week’s portion of Ki Tissa. It occurs almost as an afterthought. Paradoxically Moses receives the Two Tablets, after the instructions for Shabbat, delivered in the context of precluding work on the Tabernacle on this day. The familiar v’Shomru is then stated (or sung) and in place of a l’chaim on a single malt, and perhaps a shtickle herring, Moshe receives a double Tablet.
The verse is exquisite 31:18;
וַיִּתֵּ֣ן אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כְּכַלֹּתוֹ֙ לְדַבֵּ֤ר אִתּוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י שְׁנֵ֖י לֻחֹ֣ת הָעֵדֻ֑ת לֻחֹ֣ת אֶ֔בֶן כְּתֻבִ֖ים בְּאֶצְבַּ֥ע אֱלֹהִֽים׃
Upon finishing speaking with him on Mount Sinai, God gave Moses the two tablets of the Pact, stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God.
The bringing of the world into being and Shabbat, the “Vayechulu hashamayim”, the completion of heaven and earth…is evoked through the expression k’chaloto (the same root) when He finished speaking,- another profound moment of creation.
But then all goes down hill figuratively and literally. Fearing that Moses may not be returning, the people panic and cast a golden calf.Seeing this, God is furious and in a bewildering reaction, manages down, putting the responsibility on Moses, 32:7;
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה לֶךְ־רֵ֕ד כִּ֚י שִׁחֵ֣ת עַמְּךָ֔ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱלֵ֖יתָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
God spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.
Your people who you brought of Egypt? There then follows an even angrier tirade where God threatens to end this here and now. Once again the word Lechalot makes an appearance, this time to “finish” or destroy the people. Beyond being harsh the response appears almost as though anger has taken over control. It is Moses who then has to manage the situation. He who claims early in his career that he is not a man of words, is now stunningly eloquent as he pleads to God for forgiveness through both diplomacy and then making it really personal. It is profoundly emotional and has been aptly adopted as one of the iconic supplications recited to appease God when we have sinned. The text is appropriately read on fast days. 32:13;
זְכֹ֡ר לְאַבְרָהָם֩ לְיִצְחָ֨ק וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל עֲבָדֶ֗יךָ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֣עְתָּ לָהֶם֮ בָּךְ֒ וַתְּדַבֵּ֣ר אֲלֵהֶ֔ם אַרְבֶּה֙ אֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֔ם כְּכוֹכְבֵ֖י הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם וְכל־הָאָ֨רֶץ הַזֹּ֜את אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֗רְתִּי אֶתֵּן֙ לְזַרְעֲכֶ֔ם וְנָחֲל֖וּ לְעֹלָֽם׃
Remember Your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You swore to them by Your Self and said to them: I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.”
Moses quotes from the Torah! The Book of Genesis to be precise. He reminds God of His promises, and then almost miraculously the storm abates and God renounces His intention to destroy the people.
How are we to understand this puzzling, frightening and counterintuitive episode? I believe the repeated use of the etymology of “lechalot” alludes to a much broader debate. Is the iconic “vayechulu”to be a celebration of the completion of creation, or the “end of” the people. It evokes the Midrashic interpretation arising out of the famous “Na’aseh Adam”…, God including others in this pronouncement; Bereishit 1:26 – “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness… where God and the angels were debating the very core idea of creating humanity. The angels try desperately to dissuade God and God refuses to relent.
Here the roles are reversed, it is God who now wishes that His people were never created, and the philosophical and theological dilemma is resolved where “humanity” has the upper hand and wins the argument. Moses reacts and pleads guilty as charged; If these are My people that I took out of Egypt, I will not allow their destruction – not on my watch! It is an astonishing show of leadership, compassion and responsibility.
In a sense Moses brings the debate back to Shabbat, that tellingly frames this episode. God’s dramatic declaration 31:13;
אַ֥ךְ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ כִּי֩ א֨וֹת הִ֜וא בֵּינִ֤י וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם לָדַ֕עַת כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם
Ach– but / nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you for generations to come, that you may know that I God have consecrated you.
Allow the Children of Israel to honor You through the Shabbat, enable the Vayechulu to only (Ach) be used in this reference, -the completion and celebration of creation not (God forbid!) the destruction of your creation. Fittingly both Veshamru and Vayechulu are the very scripts of Kiddush every shabbat, celebrating creation and freedom and the on-going sign and bond between the children of Israel and God. L’chaim!