Resisting Fear: Ki Tissa and Torah From America

Commentators have long been disturbed and perplexed by the question, how is it that the Children of Israel, having just experienced God’s Redemption and witnessed God’s Power, could so quickly turn to avodah zarah (idolatry) in this week’s Torah portion (Ki Tissa)?  How could they possibly believe that the golden calf was a god? In addition the Hebrew word “litzakheik” (Exodus 32:6), translated in the new JPS translation as to dance, is generally seen in the Torah as referring to sexual immorality. (See Rashi to 32:6)  It seems that we were violating two of the three commandments that our tradition says must not be violated, even at the cost of our lives. (The third is murder.)

One answer is that B’nei Yisrael saw the calf as a replacement for Moses, not God.  Others have suggested that the calf was seen as the platform upon which God stands, not God.  Still others, citing the principle “Eyn mukdam v’ein m’ukhar b’Torah” (There is no chronological order in the Torah) maintain that, despite the fact that two and a half Torah portions preceding the golden calf deal with building the portable tabernacle and other details of the sacrificial cult, the golden calf came first.  Having just left Egypt, with all of its pageant filled religion, we couldn’t make the abrupt change to worshiping a God that be seen or touched simply through meditation or prayer, “ha’avodah sh’b’lev.” (Maimonides, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and others, based on classic midrash.)

However, the plain meaning of the text is that we were afraid, “We don’t know what has happened to Moses, who brought us out of Egypt.” (Ex. 32:1).  When people are afraid, they can do evil, or look the other way when others do evil.

Our prime minister, a master at employing fear, warned of Arabs flocking to the polls when it appeared he was going to lose the most recent elections. He has successfully convinced many Israelis that there is no partner for peace among the Palestinians threatening at the gate. While many are breathing a sigh of relief at the defeat of the radical right in Holland, and attributing it to the Dutch tradition of tolerance, others believe that Turkish President Erdogan saved the election for Prime Minister Rutte by allowing him to show that he was sufficiently tough against the Turkish foreigners.

In our country, this means that many turn a blind eye to what they know to be wrong: Passing a law legalizing the theft of Palestinian land, destroying the non-Jewish village of Umm Al Hiran to put Jewish Hiran in its place (and threatening the entire community of Negev Bedouin citizens with dispossession), allowing settlers and security forces to use unjustified violence, spending money on settlements at the expense of the Israeli poor(not to mention the fact that were we to achieve peace we could eventually spend less on the military)….

This is not to say that there are no reasons to fear.  As Joseph Heller wrote (Before Kurt Cobain), “Just because you are paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”  I love to sing Rabbi Nachman “All the world is a narrow bridge, and what is important is not to be afraid at all.”  However, sometimes fear is healthy.  As I tell people when I take them into the Occupied Territories, “With armed settlers, soldiers and Palestinians running around, it would be stupid not to be a little afraid.”  And yes, there are places where I take off my kippah, because it would be dangerous to wear it. The issue is not whether or not to be afraid, but what we do with our fear.  The fact that we have different opinions of how to safeguard against a nuclear Iran doesn’t mean that we don’t have a shared fear. We must face fear with faith and principle.

There are only three mitzvot that we are forbidden to violate, even if it costs us our life.  However there are many other sins that we must not justify by convincing ourselves that there is a matter of life and death, when there is not.

Ki Tissa also tells us that there is hope, and teaches us what some of the elements of hope can be: 1. The Divine “wisdom of the heart” that inspires Betzalel , Ohaliab and others(Exodus 31:1-6), 2. A leader who is uncompromising in his demand that his people live up to God’s expectations, and fearless in arguing with God on their behalf.  3. A system of law representing a new covenant, 4. A second chance, represented by the second set of tablets.

And here I must admit that I recently returned from the U.S. incredibly moved and inspired, with the heretical thought that “Torah is coming forth from America.”  The American people recently elected a president who encourages fear and legitimizes hate.  When I travelled to the U.S. just after the elections, the fear was palpable.  With the caveat that then and now, there is much that is unknown as to what President Trump actually wishes to do, or will succeed in doing, immigrants, minorities the LGBT community and many others were having a difficult time sleeping at night. However, rather than giving in to this fear or allowing it to paralyze them, people are organizing and resisting.  Some of it is knee jerk, “Let’s demonstrate against Trump.”  Much of it is smart, principled and moral.

While “We refuse to be enemies” is a slogan here practiced by some, it is being implemented across America.  Muslims are speaking out against anti-Semitism and funding the restoration of the vandalized Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.  Jews are opening up the doors to their synagogues after mosques have burned.  Mainstream leaders are speaking out across the divides.  Judges are refusing to cooperate. There will not be the complacency and cooperation with the compromising of freedoms and rights that took place after 9/11.

That is why, although many are likely to suffer in the process, I believe that the U.S. will get the second chance it deserves.  History may look back at this time as a watershed, when people who might have remained complacent had Hillary Clinton become president, woke up and became active.  May we in Israel learn this Torah, and merit as well.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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