Ki Tisa - Two forms of paganism
One of the central purposes of the Torah, and indeed of the Jewish tradition at large, is to remove any form of idolatry from among the children of Israel. In the Middle Ages, for example, Maimonides declared (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 2:4) that if anyone rejects pagan worship, it is the same as if he accepted all the precepts of the Torah.
There are multiple forms of idolatry and this parashah deals with two of them.
Exodus chapter 31 describes the great artistic talents that God gave to Bezalel son of Uri so that he should fashion beautiful furnishings, utensils, and décor for the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting. The text goes on to list commands for the proper observance of Shabbat. Beyond the classical interpretation that work on Shabbat is forbidden (including the work of setting up the Tent), it could also be understood that that Shabbat must honor the immaterial and the time that is set apart in which spiritual life can develop. It is not in the deification of places or objects that the essence of life is to be found.
The story of the golden calf in the following chapter is another of the anti-idolatry messages of this parashah. The episode should not be understood only as condemning the worship of an image; it includes the rejection of the worship of a leader. The ominous story begins with the impatience of the people because Moses has delayed in returning from Mount Sinai. The people needed another focus for their idolatrous tendencies because the one they had trusted – Moses – apparently had been taken from them.
In order to clear the path that allows human beings to find their Creator, there can be no deification of places, objects nor individuals. That would be pagan idolatry. This is the key lesson that this parashah teaches us.