“Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant,
since he had spoken with God.” (Exodus 34:27)
Parashat Ki Tisa finds Moses descending Mt. Sinai carrying the original luchot habrit (tablets of the covenant) only to find the Israelites worshiping the golden calf with a wanton orgy. Moses smashes the luchot in disgust and anger, but then pleads the Israelites’ case to God. God’s mercy allows Moses to ascend Mt. Sinai again to receive a second set of luchot. Ibn Ezra (1089- ~1164; a great medieval Spanish scholar) sees this episode as the source of the two versions of the Ten Commandments that appear in the Torah.
While God inscribes the laws on the first set of luchot, now God tells Moses, “…Write down these commandments, for in accordance with (al pi) these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel.” (Ex. 34:27). The Hebrew al pi means literally, “by the mouth of,” and is understood as oral transmission (Babylonian Talmud Gitin 60b). Thus, halacha, or Jewish law, comprises the Torah itself (the written law) as well as the interpretation of the Torah (the oral law). Interpretation is necessary to reconcile apparent conflicts within the Torah and to allow Jewish law to respond to changing social, economic, and cultural conditions.
Today, the Jewish people are divided. Some want to guarantee the Jewish future by adhering as strictly as possible to the letter of the law. Others want to guarantee the Jewish future by adapting the law through contemporary interpretive lenses. Ki Tisa reminds us interpretation has been part of Jewish life since the giving of the Torah itself. Without the oral law, Judaism never would have made the transition from a Temple-and-sacrifice-based religion to a time-and-prayer-based religion.
Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom