There’s this wonderful aspect of Hebrew that never fails to keep me enthralled. Each word has a three letter root. If words have the same root letters, if they have the same “shoresh”, they’re connected, and it’s our profound challenge and joy to look for a connection.
This week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, is really, really complex. There’s a lot going on. We have broken tablets of the Ten Commandments. We have the Golden Calf, and the restoration of the Covenant. We have God’s anger blazing forth, Moses pacifying God, and by the end of the parasha, we read that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6-7) These are the words we say every year on Yom Kippur, the long day of atonement. With these words, we remind ourselves of God’s love and care. We count on it for another year of life. We offer “Kippur” so we can be forgiven.
Kippur – the root is K-P-R. It’s a shoresh we see a lot, in Leviticus, Exodus, all sorts of places. Atonement, expiation, This is the same shoresh we find in the beginning of the parasha. We read that when the people take a census of the community, each shall pay a kofer (K-F-R), so that “no plague may come upon them “ (Ex 3-“11), and “when giving God’s offering as expiation for your persons. You shall take the expiation money…” (Ex 30:15-16), l’chaper and hakipurim. The census “dues” are an offering of expiation. There’s another place we find this shoresh, way back in Genesis.
We are in the story of Noah, “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make the ark with rooms, and cover it with tar inside and out.” (Gen 6:14) The word for “cover it”? Kafarta – K-P-R (remember, in Hebrew P and F are the same letter, just depends on the vocalization).
Now the fun begins. What could be the possible connection between the word “expiation” and “cover”?
Perhaps we go back to Exodus and Ki Tisa. The money that is given for “expiation” is to keep the people safe, to keep them from any plague. Their “dues” gives them membership in a group that will care for them. Their offerings, in this case, is money, but in other places where the word is used, the offerings may be an animal or some flour and oil. Those offerings are made to keep the people in the graces of God, keep in God’s protection. That’s just what the covering of the ark was for Noah. It carried the future of the world, and the covering protected the ark from danger and harm. In the ark were the humans and animals that would populate the world after the devastating flood. The K-F-R in Ki Tisa will keep the people in the wilderness safe from a plague.
When the K-F-R is translated as “atonement” or “expiation”, we think of the individual doing atonement having done something wrong and now needs to be forgiven. To think of it in the sense of protection, we can see that the act of forgiveness keeps that individual not just alive ,but in a state of holiness. The whole journey of Exodus is to bring the people who began as slaves to become an “am kadosh”, a holy people, one that is under the care and protection of God.
We can be comforted in knowing that we are protected not only while we’re floating on the flood’s waters, but as we’re wandering in the wilderness, all in the quest to live as a holy people