Torah reading: Ki Tissa

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple.

In Chapter 33 of Sh’mot, God says to Moshe, “My Presence shall go with you” (verse 14). The Hebrew for “My Presence” is “panai”, which is literally “My face”.

The Greek Septuagint says, “I Myself shall go”. The Aramaic Targum Onkelos says, “My Sh’chinah shall go”. Some of the rabbis in the Talmud, however, read the Hebrew differently; they understood it as saying. “My anger shall go with you” (Ber. 7b). Ibn Ezra rejects the “anger” suggestion, which he says seems impossible in the light of the following verse.

A very useful rendering comes in the translation of the Jewish Publication Society, which suggests that God tells Moses that He *will go in the lead*. What this implies is a Divine promise that He will never forsake Israel. If the people follow His lead they will never be destroyed.

With all the problems of Jewish experience, all the times when we have questioned the direction in which God was taking us, His promise has remained our beacon. At one or other given moment things seemed impossible, but in the long run there can be no question but that our people have survived whilst so many others – bigger, noisier, more physically powerful than us – have fallen by the wayside.

IT’S GOING TO COST

You and I probably have plenty of complaints against the banks. Unfortunately, most of us are the sort of customers who are little people. We don’t move millions of dollars around every day of our lives; we probably mean very little to the authorities who run the banking system. Our gripes are, however, typical of a modern phenomenon that affects everyone, even the “big boys”. We no longer get to spend our money for free. Every transaction costs us something and we’re absurdly grateful when the bank allows us an occasional free transaction.

Everything costs something. Historically, this is a very old principle. We could even have picked it up from reading the Torah portion for this Shabbat. The opening verses of the sidra inform us that God commanded Moses to take a census of the people. Every Israelite who was counted was not just a number: it cost him something.

The Torah says that “each shall pay a ransom for himself” (Ex. 30:11-16). In Hebrew the word is “kofer”, linked with “kippur”, atonement. Whoever is added to the list of the people is liable for military service. He might need to take a life in time of war. The reason for the war might be beyond debate, and taking lives is an inevitable consequence, but taking life is still a grievous act. A potential soldier has to know that even if legally justified, an act of killing remains morally questionable.

Joining the people comes at a cost; joining the army has its price. If anyone retorts that it’s not fair, the answer is that we’re dealing with an interim ethic. The moral dilemmas caused by conflict will vanish in time to come when war will disappear and swords will be become ploughshares and spears will be pruning hooks.

GOD & GOLD

The story of the Golden Calf is full of lessons for a later generation.

Let us look into the comment of Reb Yitzchak of Slonim. Bothered by the question of where the Israelites got the gold to make the calf, the commentators all remind us that the people had left Egypt laden with gold and jewellery from the Egyptians, modest compensation for their generations of enslavement in Egypt.

Reb Yitzchak found it all very fascinating and very strange. “The generation of the desert,” he remarked, “was prepared to give up its silver and gold to make a god. How different is our generation. In our age people are anxious to give up God in order to make silver and gold.”

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Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple. Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia's highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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G-D IN THE LEAD