A year ago our rabbi gave me the privilege of delivering the Shabbat morning sermon to our congregation.
After I realized that he wasn’t kidding, I went to tell my wife the news. Overhearing the conversation was our then 8-year-old daughter, Leah. Upon learning that her father would be delivering the d’var Torah, Leah made her confused-slash-curious face and said: “But you’re not the rabbi. Isn’t it his job to teach Torah?”
Leah’s question got me to thinking: Whose Torah is it?
To find the answer, I turned to the best source I could get my hands on — my personal copy of the Torah. I humbly submit that this week’s parasha — Ki Tisa — provides us with a powerful answer. The Torah belongs to each of us, but only if we grasp it with all our might and truly make it a part of us.
Ki Tisa includes the infamous episode of the golden calf. We all know the story — we’ve seen the movie — Moses is up on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights and the Israelites are getting antsy. The Israelites channel their anxious energy and persuade Aaron to help fashion a Golden Calf — they feared that Moshe would never return and so they clamored for a visible object that they could worship. God was not amused.
Moshe descended Mount Sinai, threw the tablets to the ground, and destroyed the golden calf. I submit that Moses smashed the first set of tablets because our people were not yet ready to truly accept the Torah as their own. Instead, they relied upon on Moses to carry the burden, to interface with God, and do the hard work of a life driven by Torah.
Eventually Moses goes back up the mountain and returns to the Israelites with the Ten Commandments — the rest is history. But what is the Golden Calf episode really teaching us about our personal obligation to make the Torah our own?
I believe that in Ki Tisa, God is telling us that Judaism is meant to be participatory. It is not a spectator sport. Yes, our rabbis set the tone from the top and help make Hashem’s teachings more comprehensible. But each of us must be ready to accept the Torah into our lives, to welcome it into our homes, and to fight hard when our enemies attack the Jewish people.
And if we juxtapose Ki Tisa with last week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, we can see how this lesson becomes clear. Tetzaveh is symbolic of Judaism’s evolution. Initially we were a religion centered on the priests and temple worship, but after the destruction of the Temple, Judaism evolved into a rabbinic-led religion. I believe that Ki Tisa teaches us that the next stage of Judaism’s evolution is for each Jew to make the Torah his or her own such that it becomes part of our very being.
So what do I mean by making the Torah our own?
I mean it in the broadest sense possible — from studying Torah to feeling a collective responsibility for every Jew. It all counts, and it’s very personal. To some, making the Torah their own means hearing the parasha read each week in synagogue; to others, it is volunteering to support Jewish institutions.
This is not to suggest that making the Torah our own will obviate the need for our rabbis. We need structure, and our rabbis play an essential role as halachic authorities. Instead, making the Torah our own is based on the concept that our people will draw closest to God if each of us takes personal responsibility for the Torah’s instructions. It is not a model of Judaism that casts aside our rabbis. Instead, it envisions the next stage in our tribal evolution, whereby we the people, the everyday Israelites, take responsibility for turning the Torah’s teachings into action.
It also is important to take a moment to recognize what making the Torah your own is not:
• We should not claim that because of our personal commitment to Torah any of us are somehow a better Jew than any of our brothers or sisters.
• We should not wrap ourselves in Torah to claim moral high ground for our personal political beliefs .
• We should not deny others the right to their own piece of Torah because of gender, race, or sexual orientation.
The Torah is meant to bring us together, not drive us apart. We must lift each other up, learn from each other. We must shake off the albatross of division and cast it deep into the sea.
Not coincidentally, when we return the Torah to the ark each week, we sing about the importance of making Torah our own. Etz Chaim hi lamachzikim bach — the Torah is a tree of life for all who grasp it. “Lamachazikim” is from the root word chazak, which means strong. It is the same word we utter when we finish reading one of the five books of the Torah — chazak chazak v’nitzchazek, a proclamation of going from strength to strength. Etz Chaim teaches us that making the Torah your own is not passive — it is action-oriented, done with all our might and all our soul.
Ki Tisa also focuses on the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle the Israelites built to house the Ten Commandments and symbolize God’s dwelling among us. The Torah portion recounts the requirement that each person contribute half a shekel of silver toward the effort. The rabbis ask, why did each person donate only half a shekel, rather than a whole shekel? Maimonides posits that this emphasizes that no individual is complete when alone. A Jew truly succeeds when he or she works together with fellow Jews. By design, we pray together as a minyan, we mourn together during shiva, and we dance together at b’nei mitzvah and weddings.
The half shekel requirement also embodies an egalitarian principle that each Jew is to be counted the same, whether rich or poor. This should be the same approach when making the Torah our own — some of us grew up in day schools, Camp Ramah, or other more classically trained environments. Others less so. This week’s parasha teaches that it just doesn’t matter. Each of us can — indeed each of us must — contribute to the betterment of the world by making the Torah an integral part of our lives.
More than ever, we owe it to the memories of the Six Million to double down on our Jewish people and institutions. Our six million brothers’ and sisters’ ability to make the Torah their own was stolen. Let’s take a minute to consider the repercussions. There were roughly 16 million Jews in the world before World War II. Today, there are close the same number of Jews. But for the Holocaust, we likely would have somewhere close to double that number today. In other words, we are missing half our team, functioning at half capacity. Think of all the Torah and mitzvot that are not being sent out to the world as a result. Think of all the synagogues, day schools, and Jewish summer camps that never were built. We must consider this reality as a reminder to do all that we can to pick up the slack.
It has been a difficult couple of years, but we still must ask ourselves how history will judge our response to this challenging moment. Will we build our own golden calf out of frustration? Will we fail to make the Torah our own? Ki Tisa warns us of these dangers. Our rabbis’ genius is not that they dictate the Torah to us from up on the bimah or pretend to have a monopoly on Torah knowledge. Instead, they invite us to own our personal piece of Torah. For that we should all be grateful.
I don’t pretend to have any clue what it will take for the mashiach to arrive. I’m just an ordinary guy sharing his thoughts about this week’s Torah portion. But I cannot think of any better way to welcome the messiah than for each of us to make the Torah our own. It would be the ultimate Mount Sinai moment.
I submit that that is the lesson of parashat Ki Tisa. And it is revealed through the lens of a simple question uttered by a beautiful child, who asked whose Torah is it?
Ari Berman is a partner at the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. He lives in West Caldwell and is a member of that town’s Congregation Agudath Israel.