There’s a scene in the Golden Calf story which speaks to our political moment – the rise of Donald Trump, and to some extent Bernie Sanders – protest candidates. Moses descends from Sinai to confront the Israelites. Joshua, who’s been waiting for him at the base of the mountain, warns Moses “There’s a sound (Hebrew: kol) of war in the camp.” Joshua’s not aware of the rebellion, but he hears something ominous and guesses – maybe a battle? Moses responds with exquisite ambiguity: “It’s not the sound of cries of heroism, and not the sound of the cries of weakness; it’s the sound of cries I hear.”
Joshua suspects war, but for Moses the voice is still inchoate, unformed, unspecific. It’s just a cry. The Hebrew word is anot which implies an answer, a moaning response to a traumatic injury. Like babies responding to the absence of a parent, the Israelites cry out because Moses is gone. But Moses isn’t yet sure what the cry means. Doom? Violence? Or reconciliation, redemption, the possibility of a renewed covenant? The whole scene reminds me of a few lines from the 1960’s Stephen Stills song. There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear. What’s that sound?
There’s a sound, a kol, at Donald Trump rallies. It’s a cry of disaffection, of alienation. His campaigns relies on, plays on, an undeniable anger flowing from a deepening alienation between Americans and our most crucial institutions. One of the most important books I read in the past few years was The Unwinding by George Packer which describes how since the 2008 crash so many Americans have lost faith in our most important institutions: banks, the government, the police, home loans, health care, the military, churches and synagogues. These “establishment” organizations didn’t just supply the crucial ingredients for the American middle class, our day to day security, our ability to afford a decent life, and to commune together in peaceful and meaningful ways. They provided a kind of mythic, symbolic psychological structure, a sense that our privileged American way was blessed by God, eternally indestructible. In retrospect, it was inevitable that the collapse of even some of these institutions would lead to noisy, panicked political movements, and candidates who scapegoat, who encourage cries of alienation, of anger.
There’s a similar alienation in the story. Moses is on the mountain with God. The people are stuck down below. Moses delays; he’s late. Rashi suggests that he’s only six hours late, that the delay in fact is a misunderstanding. But Avivah Zornberg points out that when a mythic parent-figure disappears, it doesn’t matter for how long. Once the child loses confidence that that parent is returning, the psyche collapses. For the Israelites, Moses was the establishment – the mythic symbol – that ensured their well-being, provided them with the confidence that they’d live safe and meaningful lives. When they lost faith in Moses, all hell broke loose. The Midrash describes Satan “bringing pitch darkness, confusion to the world” during that crucial delay. It’s a brilliant metaphor for what happens to the mind when the mother doesn’t return, or when the great leader fails. Or when we imagine we can no longer trust our government, our police, our medical system, our banks.
The Golden Calf rebellion turns violent and deadly. The sound Moses couldn’t at first identify becomes a nihilistic war cry, a cry of murder, of bloodletting. The Midrash imagines that the rebels murdered Moses’ cousin Hur and that they threatened to burn Aaron in a furnace. The aftermath explodes into greater, more tragic violence. Tens of thousands of Israelites lose their lives.
I’m not for a moment suggesting that the Trump phenomena will lead to anything as drastic or as traumatic as our Golden Calf episode. But it’s important to understand what we’re experiencing in our culture, our politics. What we’re hearing. Are the sometimes ugly voices we encounter at Trump rallies – the bigotry, the crude insults, the triumphalism – the sound of war? For that matter, are the cries of anger at Sanders rallies, a righteous anger, the seeds of a new better society? Or are they simply anger, victimization, bitterness, scapegoating? Not all angry, alienated social movements turn violent. Some lead to a better world.
But some, like the Golden Calf incident – and many others that we could all name – lead to pure disaster. So during this odd unpredictable moment in our politics, it’s our responsibility as citizens to listen closely. And ask Joshua’s question. Is it war? Peace? What’s that sound?