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Ki Tisa 5781: The Injustice of Judgement

Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! This past week I began to contemplate how important it is to maintain an objective perspective and be cognizant of the reality that much of what we perceive is predicated on who we are and our prior life experiences. Perhaps even more importantly, we must be mindful that there are other valid perspectives as well.

Of course, this can be very difficult to put into practice, which reminds me of the following story.

A young couple moved into a new neighborhood and began to settle in their home. The next morning while they were enjoying their coffee, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging her freshly laundered wash outside to dry.

“That laundry is not very clean. Perhaps her washing machine is malfunctioning. Another possibility is that she doesn’t know how to wash correctly or maybe she needs better laundry detergent.” Her husband looked on, remaining silent.

For the next few days, every time her neighbor hung her wash out to dry the young woman made similar comments. A week later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband, “Wow, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this?”

The husband smiled and replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”

What we perceive when watching others depends on the clarity of the lens through which we are looking. Often our view is clouded by jealousy, anger, disappointment, and similar frustrations. We often pass judgement on others and events without having a complete grasp of all the relevant facts.

Additionally, let’s face it, nobody likes the feeling of being judged. I will go out on a limb here and state that many (if not most) of people’s insecurities stem from their perception that people are constantly judging them. Therefore, it is no wonder that some of the most insecure people are those who are constantly “living in a fish bowl” such as those in the entertainment industry.

It’s one of life’s great paradoxes; how people yearn so dearly for specific achievements (e.g. fame) but yet are so miserable when they get exactly what they wanted and worked so hard to accomplish.

This is true in many areas of our lives. Imagine yourself driving down the highway and spotting a state trooper suddenly pulling in behind you. Immediately, your heart leaps into your throat. Your eyes dart to your dashboard as you frantically check your speed. You temporarily become a model driver – dutifully using your turn signal to get into another lane while silently praying that the patrol officer is more interested in locating the nearest donut shop than pulling you over. It takes at least a few minutes after the trooper gets off at the next exit before you begin to feel comfortable speeding again.

When it comes to interpersonal relationships this is much more difficult to navigate. Many people are in relationships that force them to walk on eggshells all of the time. Often it is a parent or spouse who is constantly critical and judging of every area of their lives. Consequently, this makes it very difficult to be around them because, after all, there is no easy or close “exit ramp.” In such a situation daily living becomes very stressful, even painful.

This week’s Torah reading gives us a remarkable insight into the way the Almighty views our acts, and in particular, our transgressions. This is very significant because Hashem is the final and “ultimate judge” of all of mankind.

This week’s Torah portion contains the passage that relates the unfortunate incident of the sin of the “Golden Calf” and the Jewish nation’s fall from grace as a result of that betrayal. Moses attempts to “mend fences” as it were, and as a result the Almighty instructs Moses in the specific path of achieving repentance.

Part of the “forgiveness formula” that the Almighty relates to Moses is the method by which they are to ask forgiveness for their transgression – this is known as the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy.” Even to this day the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy” comprise a key element of the liturgy on Yom Kippur – the “Day of Repentance.”

Quite remarkably, according to our sages the Almighty modeled this process for Moses; wrapping Himself in a Tallit – “prayer shawl” – and proceeded to show Moses how it’s done:

And the Almighty passed by before him, and proclaimed, “Hashem, Hashem...” (Exodus 34:6)

The famous medieval commentator Rashi (ad loc) explains that the name “Hashem” refers to the Almighty’s attribute of mercy. Rashi goes on to quote the Talmudic passage (Rosh Hashanah 17b) which explains why the Torah mentions the name “Hashem” twice in the verse: “The first name ‘Hashem’ refers to the attribute of mercy before a person sins, and the second one refers to the attribute of mercy after one sins.”

The great sage of the 13th century known as Rabbeinu Asher (more commonly referred to by his acronym – “Rosh”) – whose place is cemented in Jewish scholarship as one of the great pillars of Jewish law, wonders: “Why does one need the attribute of mercy before one sins? Rosh answers that it is most definitely necessary “because Hashem knows that a person is going to sin.”

The 18th century scholar, Chaim ibn Attar, in his epic work of the Bible known as Ohr HaChaim – asks, “I do not understand this answer, for if Hashem would punish someone before that person sins (knowing that a sin is going to be committed), then what is the point of someone being born? Hashem, with His omniscience, can hold every soul accountable to their future actions and judge them right away.”

In other words, since Hashem knows what a person is going to do, He can hold him responsible prior to him actually sinning. Consequently, Hashem, in His benevolence, initiates the attribute of mercy and withholds punishment. But as the Ohr HaChaim points out, this approach presents a philosophical dilemma; what is the point of living if Hashem has already begun judging you before you actually act?

A careful reading of Rosh’s actual words can, perhaps, give us a different understanding of what he really means. The exact language of Rosh is, “Even though He knows that a person will eventually come to sin, He treats each person with the attribute of mercy.”

Rosh never says anything about Hashem’s right to punish which, in turn, is being restrained by the attribute of mercy. Perhaps Rosh means to say something entirely different. Very often when a person knows that he is being carefully evaluated or analyzed, such as on a first date or when his mother-in-law comes to visit, he is very uncomfortable and feels as though he is navigating landmines; every step has to be carefully considered before being made.

Unfortunately, many people also feel this way about their parents or spouse: “They are just waiting for me to make a mistake so that they can criticize me.” This leads to a terrible family dynamic because there is an inherent discomfort of being around that person. No one likes to feel like they are being judged every second of every day.

Thus, Rosh is teaching us a fundamental lesson in Hashem’s benevolence. Of course Hashem judges us and there is accountability; that is a basic tenet of life. But He does so in order to help us make decisions that are good for us and the world around us. The point of creation is for Hashem to bestow good upon us; therefore, even when mistakes are made He initiates His attribute of mercy to lessen or eliminate the punishment.

Just as one would feel more comfortable driving next to a state trooper with a “get out of jail free” card in one’s pocket, so too Hashem provides a cushion by letting us know that there is an attribute of mercy even before we sin. Hashem displays His mercy first to demonstrate that He isn't looking to pounce on us for mistakes. Hashem isn’t looking for our faults or what we may do that is a mistake. The attribute of mercy before we sin is so that we understand His benevolence is to support us, not knock us down.

Similarly, Hashem is also demonstrating the delicate balance that we must strive to achieve with our families. Of course there must be accountability in a family, but we must always convey that it is coming from a place of love. We must always support each other, even when one makes a mistake. Because what we truly want from our loved ones is personal growth. At the end of the day, we care much more about what is done right than what is done wrong.

Torah Portion of the Week

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11 - 34:35

The Torah portion includes: instructions for taking a census (by each person donating a half shekel); instructions to make the Washstand, Anointing Oil, and The Incense for the Mishkan, the Portable Sanctuary; appointing Betzalel and Oholiab to head up the architects and craftsmen for the Mishkan; a special commandment forbidding the building of the Mishkan on Shabbat (people might have thought that they would be allowed to violate the Shabbat to do a mitzvah...). “The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations.”

The Torah portion continues with the infamous story of the Golden Calf. The people wrongly calculated that Moses was late in coming down from Mt. Sinai and the people were already seeking a replacement for him by making the Golden Calf (there is a big lesson in patience for us here). Moses sees them dancing around the calf and in anger breaks the Two Tablets; he then punishes the 3,000 wrongdoers (less than .1% of the 3 million people), pleads to God not to wipe out the people, requests to see the Divine Glory, and receives the second set of Tablets of the Ten Commandments.

Candle Lighting Times

When you judge others, you do not define them, you define yourself.

Dedicated in Loving Memory

Rabbi Menachem Manis (Emanuel) ben Shalom Aryeh Holzer


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