Torah Weekly

For the week ending 15 February 2014 / 15 Adar I 5774

Parshat Ki Tisa

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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Moshe conducts a census by counting each silver half-shekel donated by all men age twenty and over. Moshe is commanded to make a copper laver for the Mishkan. The women donate the necessary metal. The formula of the anointing oil is specified, and G-d instructs Moshe to use this oil only for dedicating the Mishkan, its vessels, Aharon and his sons. G-d selects Bezalel and Oholiav as master craftsmen for the Mishkan and its vessels. The Jewish People are commanded to keep the Sabbath as an eternal sign that G-d made the world. Moshe receives the two Tablets of Testimony on which are written the Ten Commandments. The mixed multitude who left Egypt with the Jewish People panic when Moshe's descent seems delayed, and force Aharon to make a golden calf for them to worship. Aharon stalls, trying to delay them. G-d tells Moshe to return to the people immediately, threatening to destroy everyone and build a new nation from Moshe. When Moshe sees the camp of idol-worship he smashes the tablets and destroys the golden calf. The sons of Levi volunteer to punish the transgressors, executing 3,000 men. Moshe ascends the mountain to pray for forgiveness for the people, and G-d accepts his prayer. Moshe sets up the Mishkan and G-d's cloud of glory returns. Moshe asks G-d to show him the rules by which he conducts the world, but is granted only a small portion of this request. G-d tells Moshe to hew new tablets and reveals to him the text of the prayer that will invoke Divine mercy. Idol worship, intermarriage and the combination of milk and meat are prohibited. The laws of Pesach, the first-born, the first-fruits, Shabbat, Shavuot and Succot are taught. When Moshe descends with the second set of tablets, his face is luminous as a result of contact with the Divine.


The Danger of Photography

"…these are your ‘gods’, Yisrael" (32:4)

It's difficult to imagine a world without photography.

Everywhere we are bombarded with images: social media, billboards, in magazines and newspapers, on television. On average more than 250 million photos per day were uploaded to Facebook in the three months ended December 31, 2011. That's equivalent to 7.5 billion photos a month or 10.4 million photos an hour; roughly 174,000 per minute, or almost 3,000 photos per second.

How does this mega-overload of images affect our view of the world?

Photography used to be expensive. A little more than a century ago, the first generation of photographers was likely to be comprised of the rich who could indulge their inquisitiveness in this newborn wonder. Fast forward to the 1960s when I started to photograph: 35 mm film, chemicals, and paper were much cheaper — but far from free; and anyway, almost every photographer who wanted to be taken seriously used film that was at least 2 1/4 inches square or 5 x 4 inches, or even 10 x 8 inches — and that meant serious money.

Apart from purely financial considerations, the cost of film and related materials provoked aesthetic ones as well. Before you trip the shutter to expose a piece of film that may cost you five dollars or more, you ask yourself, "Do I really want to photograph this? Is it worth it?"

Nowadays you can take a phone (who needs a camera anymore?) and make a photograph that costs virtually nothing. Nowadays, the last thing that enters you mind when you take a photograph is the cost.

We are awash in a gigantic ocean of photographic artifacts, almost beyond number. And each one declares itself to be a discrete existence; a stand-alone frozen moment of reality.

To create a verisimilitude of life in the days before the photograph required tremendous artistic skill. Before the photographic era the number of lifelike images and statues could be numbered in the thousands, maybe the tens of thousands, but no more. We live in an era littered with almost limitless artifacts of moments of reality.

How does this affect the way we see the world?

The Three Powers of Man

Man's powers may be divided into three: thought, speech and action. The power of thought is the highest, the most ephemeral and the most removed from physicality. A thought exists only for as long as the thinker thinks it. It has no independent existence. It lives just as long as the thinker thinks the thought.

Speech has a less evanescent lifespan. While the speaker speaks, the words have life. Unlike a thought, speech is not grasped instantaneously at a flash and all in one, but rather incrementally like the unfurling of a scroll. You only understand the full meaning of the speaker when he reaches the end of his words. Thus, speech does have a certain expansion in time — unlike thought. However, it has no definitive concrete existence and no independence from the speaker. When the speaker ceases to speak, the words cease to exist.

The power of action, which relates to the world of “things”, is the most concrete of the powers of Man. When you create a thing it proclaims an independent existence of its own. A “thing” seems to say, "I am real, I am solid, I am immutable, I have a life of my own." For only things can exist without the constant input of their creator. When you create a thing — a photograph for example — the photograph exists independently of its creator and may well outlast him.

Three Worlds

In the mystical sources, these three powers of Man: thought, speech and action parallel three “worlds”. They are in descending order: the world of briah - “creation”, yetzira - “formation”, and this lowest of worlds in which we exist, asiya - “action".

In the highest of these three worlds, the world of briah, it is impossible to think that anything has any independent existence. The angels ('spiritual messengers' would be a better term) in the world of briah are called Seraphim, from the Hebrew word meaning 'to burn' (l'srof). Anyone looking at a fire knows that the flame he is seeing now is not the flame that he saw a moment ago. That flame is already gone. What you are looking at now is a new reality, and then it is gone, and so on and so on. A thought is like a flame; its existence is for a second and then it is replaced with another, and another and another.

In the World of bria, the world of thought, every second is a separate unsustainable split-second of reality passing through the 'Mind' of the Creator.

But here in this world of asiya, the world of objects, it's all too easy to think that things have an independent existence. All objects, all things, are no more than the continuous creations of the Creator, and if the Creator withdrew His Will for that existence for the smallest fraction of a second, it would cease to exist.

In the Holy Tongue, the word for a thing, davar, has the same three letter root as dibbur, meaning 'a word.' “Things” are no more than the continual “speech” of The Creator constantly giving them existence.

When Yaakov came before his blind father Yitzchak to take the blessings of the firstborn, Yitzchak said, "The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esau". Two worlds: the world of the voice (the world of Speech) and the world of the hands (the world of action). The Midrash (Midrash Rabba Shemot 21:1) explains how the power of speech - the kol - is given to Yaakov. The power to bridge the worlds of thought and action is the province of the Jewish People.

We live in Esav's world. A world of things. A world that proclaims the independence of physical objects. The root of all idol worship is the belief that anything can have an existence independent of the Creator.

When the Jewish People made a golden calf to worship they were divesting themselves of their chosen role in existence: to proclaim the evanescence of all physical creations.

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