Ki Tissa – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

This week it is Shabbat Parah, the story of the Red Heifer; that mysterious recital of a ritual that defies explanation. How can purity be achieved in the face of impurity? We also come to Sedra Ki Tissa, the story of the golden calf.


Within both the Sedra and the story of the “Parah Adumah” (the Red Heifer), purity and washing are addressed. The burning of the heifer, the altar of the burnt offering and the oil of anointment and incense are described in detail. The process of seeking purity is explicitly described.

What happened with the Golden Calf can be described as an impurity of the spirit.  The people may have been disheartened but it was Aaron who actually constructs the idol and builds an altar. Aaron was no Moses. Even when confronted with what he had done he makes excuses:

I said to them, 'Who has gold?' So they took it [the gold] off and gave it to me; I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.

Purification began with the slaying of three thousand men and a plague. It would take Moses, pleading with God, to spare us. The covenant that Moses brought back with the second tablets of stone would now include the injunction:

Beware lest you form a covenant with the inhabitant[s] of the land into which you are coming…. you shall demolish their altars, shatter their monuments, and cut down their sacred trees.

Impurity in how we live our daily lives is a more subtle matter.

During the pandemic, one of the key pieces of instruction is to wash our hands. Government guidelines point out the need for hand washing. We are told how to carry it out and reminded of the need for regularity.

God gave Moses the following instruction for the people:

Keep the Sabbath, for it is a sacred thing for you…. for whoever performs work on it, that soul will be cut off from the midst of its people.

The question of what constitutes work has been and still is a matter of debate. The regularity of Shabbat permeating our lives is a constant. Every week we are given the opportunity to rebuild our spirit and also to repurify our lives.

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