Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

(When You Lift/Count)
Ki Tisa begins with the law of the half-shekel that all must contribute, and continues to describe the implements for the Mishkan. It goes on to tell the story of the Golden Calf.


THE MISHKAN IS THE SANCTUARY INSIDE US, the holy place wherein the Divine Presence dwells. And the Mishkan is also built between us. God dwells in our midst whenever we make a profound connection with each other. In loving relationship and community, the Divine Mystery reveals itself. With the offering of the half-shekel, we are called to build this aspect of Mishkan together.

Ki Tisa tells us that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, is commanded to make an equal contribution. Those half-shekels that are collected are used for the casting of the sockets of the sanctuary, the pieces that hold it all together. What a blessing to know that my half-shekel is necessary and valued. And what a blessing it is to look around me and acknowledge that everyone has something to contribute that will hold the “Structures of the Sacred” in place. (I am not alone in my contributions, nor may I withhold my presence from this sacred task.)

THE HALF-SHEKEL is called “a ransom for your soul,” for your soul is truly in danger if you do not consciously contribute to this Mishkan of community and acknowledge the equal value of each and every one of us. We can only build this holy place together. And we cannot sustain a spiritual practice that is blind to our interdependency with all of life.

The half-shekel we contribute is a reminder of the truth of our interdependency. Giving it consciously, we are saying, “Count me in!” Just by being alive and present I become an integral part of this glorious community. My half-shekel redeems me from the illusion of separation. The blessing of the half-shekel is that it saves me from inflation and selfimportance… after all it’s only a half-shekel, only a miniscule part of the whole. And the blessing of the half-shekel saves me from invisibility or demeaning of my self-worth… after all my contribution is of equal value to everyone else’s, and the Mishkan could not be held together without it.

Ki Tisa goes on to bless us with the attention to the details of the instruments of the Mishkan — the laver, the anointing oil, and the holy incense. For the task of constructing and crafting our spiritual practice and the structures of our religious life, God turns from Moses, the prophet, and from Aaron, the priest, and instead appoints Betzalel who is the artist. The true artist within us and among us is filled with the spirit of God and is blessed with wisdom, understanding and intimate knowledge. She also has acquired the skills to express her inspiration. The name Betzalel can mean, “In the shadow of God” (Be-tzel-El) or it can mean “the Divine Egg” (Betza-L-El). Our artistic, creative life is sheltered under the wings of the Shekhina and incubates the Divine potential.


THE INSTRUCTIONS AND DESCRIPTIONS of the building of the Mishkan constitute the climax of our journey to freedom. When you have built a place in your life for the Divine Presence to dwell, then your ongoing and growing relationship to the Eternal frees you from the enslavement of the conditioned mind.

Ki Tisa inserts into the middle of the Mishkan texts the most serious spiritual challenge to our freedom. That challenge is represented by the story of the Golden Calf, which our tradition points to as exemplifying the quintessential sin.

I’ve wondered sometimes… what was so bad? After forty days of waiting, the people grew restless and afraid. Moses was, after all, the exclusive mediator between God and Israel. His absence left an unbearable void and so the people cried out to fill that emptiness with an image that would comfort them.

The only way to understand the Golden Calf is to compare it to the Mishkan, for the building of the Mishkan is the context for this story. The Mishkan exists for the space within it. It is a structure that is built to send us to that holy inner-ness. All of its beauty, color and design are dedicated as a nexus point between the Human and Divine, between Heaven and Earth. The important part is not the outer form, but what is inside, for that is where God speaks to us. The further within you get, the more holy is the space.

In contrast, the Golden Calf is solid, existing of and for itself. We supply the gold, but then the Calf seems to take on a life of its own. Aaron describes the process saying, “I cast the gold into the fire and out came this Calf!” The Calf has no interior space. It glorifies itself. It is “full of itself.” It represents the most dangerous hindrance in the life of spiritual practice: that of worshiping and staying attached to the forms, rather than allowing those forms to send us inward to the essence, as is their purpose.

This is the spiritual challenge of Ki Tisa. How can I dedicate my life to spiritual practice without turning the forms of my practice into an idol? The difference between building a Mishkan or a Golden Calf is sometimes very subtle.

SOMETIMES WHEN I THINK I’M BUILDING a Mishkan, I’m really making a Golden Calf. I remember once performing some music for a very appreciative audience. During the first verse of the song, I felt the holiness that the song was creating. I, along with everyone in the room, felt invited into that holy space. By the second verse, I was thinking, “Wow this is great. Everyone loves it. The sound system is terrific; my voice is really ‘on’ tonight. And this is really a great song.” By the end of the second verse I realized that instead of building a Mishkan, I was making a Golden Calf; the song had become a monument to itself and to me. By the third verse, I made a resolve to build a Mishkan again, to get out of the way, and to dedicate my voice and the song to the Great Mystery. I’m certain that no one in the audience perceived the invisible struggle that went on within me.

As a rabbi, I sometimes fall into the role of advocate for Judaism or Jewish practice because I have tasted its treasures and they have opened the “doors of perception” which have brought me to the precipice of the Great Void that is God. The danger is that we can come to love Judaism more than we love God — who is beyond any religion or practice. The Torah, the tribe, the prayers, the language can become a Golden Calf, glorifying itself, binding us to its power and beauty.

THERE IS A STORY that when Moses went up the mountain and stayed for forty days, God personally inscribed the Torah onto the tablets that Moses carried. They were made holy by the signature of the Divine. When Moses descended the mountain carrying these holy tablets, he saw below him the people worshipping and celebrating the Golden Calf. Moses cried out to God, “Look at what our people are doing! If I bring them this Torah inscribed with the Divine hand, they will make this into an idol too. They will worship it instead of You!”

God heard the cry of Moses and sent a strong wind, which blew the stone tablets out of his hand. They smashed at his feet into a million particles of dust, each particle inscribed with the signature of God. Then God sent all the winds: north, east, south, and west. They lifted up those holy particles, each inscribed by the hand of God, and scattered them
across the wide world until a fine dust covered our planet.

“If the people wish to know Me,” said God, “they can ponder and appreciate My Creation. When their eyes are opened, they will see My handwriting everywhere.”


As we engage in the sometimes tedious work of building the Mishkan of our spiritual practice, there are moments when yearning overtakes us and like Moses, we cry out to God, “Let me know Your ways! Let me behold Your Presence!”

Sometimes God answers us by revealing Her qualities: Compassion, Graciousness, Patience, Forbearance, the Great Love, or Honesty. We can only perceive these Divine qualities when we begin to cultivate them in ourselves.

Cultivating Divine Attributes

THE SPIRITUAL PRACTICE FOR THIS WEEK of Ki Tisa is to look for the seed of a Divine attribute in your own life.

ASK IN PRAYER, “What quality is needed right now in my life?” For that is how God wants to reveal Himself to you.

WHEN YOU DECIDE ON A QUALITY, try to discern its obstacle. For example, if you are cultivating patience, every time you feel impatient, explore the root of that impatience. Is it rooted in fear? If so, what are you afraid of? If you are cultivating honesty, look carefully and with the utmost compassion at the impulse to deceive yourself or others. When was this impulse born in you?

DURING THIS WEEK OF KI TISA pay careful attention to the seed of this Divine quality growing in your life.

LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES to demonstrate it, to water that seed with your attention.

WHEN OBSTACLES ARISE (and they will), observe and explore them carefully, holding yourself with tenderness and compassion.

Radiance Practice

Another practice for this week of Ki Tisa is the practice of Radiance. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai his face shone with the light of his Divine encounter. It is an important practice to learn — to shine forth the Inner Light that has been kindled by our practice.

EVERY PERIOD OF RETREAT, prayer, or meditation can be understood in five stages. When those stages are recognized and honored, our practice can become a more powerful blessing for the world.

  1. THE FIRST STAGE IS AN INWARD TURNING: We become self-aware and open the doors to our inner life. A certain stillness becomes necessary in order to discern the subtleties of the heart.
  2. THE SECOND STAGE IS ASCENDING: We are lifted out of normal discursive mind, out of our narrow perspectives into an expansive and sometimes ecstatic panorama.
  3. THE THIRD STAGE I CALL UNITY: The place beyond words or concept, the pure experience of Being.
  4. THE FOURTH STAGE IS CALLED DESCENDING: It is about embodying the Holy, bringing that holiness into form and idea.
  5. AND THE FINAL STAGE IS RADIANCE: When we learn to open the inner source of Light and allow it to shine through us into the world. The body becomes almost transparent and each breath becomes an instrument of light, inhaling into the center of our source point within the heart and exhaling with the intention of shining that light into the world.

Torah Journeys: The Inner Path to the Promised Land
©2006 Shefa Gold. All rights reserved.