If there is one parsha that seems to contain a jumble of random topics, Parshas Ki Sisa is it. While most of the sidrah deals with the Golden Calf, we also find instructions on how to blend the shemen ha’mishcha, the oil used to anoint the keilim for the Mishkan. Following that, the parsha discusses the ketores (incense), the appointment of Betzalel as the chief engineer of the Mishkan and a warning to keep Shabbos.
The strangest part, though, is that not a single one of these topics belongs in this parsha! Chronologically, the incident of the Golden Calf took place before the commandment to build the Mishkan, and therefore should have been read two weeks ago. Additionally, the record of Betzalel’s appointment ostensibly should have preceded the instructions regarding the Mishkan’s construction. To make matters worse, the ketores, a service done in the Mishkan, belongs in Sefer Vayikra – with all the other daily services of the Mishkan; it need not be written alongside the construction of the Mishkan. Lastly, the commandment to keep Shabbos is altogether unnecessary, since it was already stated in Parshas Yisro. So why were these topics singled out and placed together in one parsha?
Let’s analyze these subjects individually and try to understand each one. Maybe then we can answer our question.
Let’s start with the anointing oil. This oil is used to inaugurate any Kohen or utensil in the Mishkan service. If the utensil is not first anointed with this oil, it may not be used. What is the meaning of this mitzvah? Why is there any need to inaugurate a vessel? Another interesting aspect of this oil is that nobody is ever allowed to recreate it! There is an extremely precise recipe and only one batch was ever made – by Moshe Rabbeinu. That batch miraculously lasted through the Temple periods and is presently hidden away until the 3rd Temple is built, when it will be used to inaugurate the new keilim. Why doesn’t Hashem allow anybody to create this oil? How difficult can it really be to make the right blend? Were the great tzaddikim of yesteryear, Shlomo HaMelech among them, not sufficiently trustworthy or wise enough to handle this job?
Let’s move on to discuss the ketores. This incense, like the oil, has an extremely precise recipe. Each ingredient has an exact measurement and there is no room for error. This is manifested in the fact that if the blender of the ketores leaves out one ingredient, his punishment is death! Why does this mitzvah have such a harsh punishment? Another strange aspect of the ketores is that one of the eleven ingredients is the malodorous chelbana. Logically, if one wants to honor Hashem and His Temple, one would leave out this smelly spice. So why does the Torah include it?
Lastly, let’s discuss Betzalel’s appointment and the warning to keep Shabbos. Why was a mere 13-year-old chosen to oversee the creation of an abode where the Shechinah could rest? Shouldn’t the job have been entrusted to someone a little older? Granted, Hashem miraculously gave Betzalel unimaginable wisdom, but shouldn’t life-experience count for something? Couldn’t Hashem have granted wisdom to an adult who could also utilize his maturity to make the proper decisions in the construction? And why was it necessary to repeat the commandment to keep Shabbos? Rashi famously explains that it is to teach that one may not desecrate Shabbos during the building of the Mishkan. But why would you have thought that it is permissible? Of course you can’t desecrate Shabbos!
I think we can answer all these questions by understanding the precise sin of the Golden Calf. Although a superficial reading of the verses seems to imply that the nation of Israel fell to idolatry, a more careful look shows this to be false. The idea that the Calf could be worshipped as a god was not in the original plan; it was only a new leader that was needed because “the man Moshe who brought us out from Egypt – we do not know what has become of him.” It was the Eirev Rav (mixed multitudes of Egyptian converts) who suggested deifying the Calf, as implied in the words “These are your gods, Israel who took you out of Egypt.” And even then, only 3,000 Jews earned the death penalty by worshipping the Calf as a god (that’s half of 1% of the adult male population). The commentators differ as to what precisely the intention was in the creation of a Golden Calf, but what was the great sin? Where did the good intentions go awry?
The Beis Halevi explains as follows: The Children of Israel were never taught to serve Hashem in this fashion. They had never received any instruction that a Golden Calf was an appropriate method of avodas Hashem. So they might have had the best of intentions. Their calculations and explanations as to why this Calf would be the perfect intermediary between them and their Creator may have been flawless. But this is not how they were taught, and therefore, it was wrong.
I think we can now answer our original questions. The anointing oil is a very significant prerequisite to the Avodah because through it, something can be used in the service of Hashem. However, something cannot be incorporated into avodas Haahem by just anybody. Only Moshe, who learned from Hashem, was able to know exactly how we should live our lives as Jews. He knew the precise recipe which detailed how much of each aspect of avodah should be included. If he inaugurated something into Torah life, we can live by it. But if something wasn’t included by him, you can be Shlomo HaMelech or Moshiach himself and still have no right to add to or change it.
This is the message of the ketores as well. If you decide that a certain ingredient of Torah life should be changed because to you it smells, you are rebelling against the King and deserving of the death penalty. Perhaps Hashem chose a mere boy of 13 to be in charge of the Mishkan to reinforce the message that no matter how many times you’ve been around the block, it’s the knowledge of Hashem’s will that’s important.
There is something called mesorah. This means that I am connected to a chain which stretches from me to my rebbe to his rebbe, all the way back to Moshe Rabbeinu. Often, the desire to serve Hashem can be hijacked by the desire to change or add to improve our avodas Hashem. But you can’t desecrate Shabbos to build a place of avodas Hashem because you can’t fulfill the Torah by breaking it. If you are serving Hashem through a mesorah, you can be confident that your actions are proper. If not, you might have the best of intentions and the most brilliant explanations for your way of life, but you just may be worshipping a Golden Calf. May we merit internalizing and living by this message.