“The Roar of the Crowd” Parashat Ki Tisa 5777

The nation is in an uproar. Moshe promised that he would return in 40 days and the fortieth day has come and gone. With Moshe gone, the people want a new kind of leader, something more permanent than mere flesh and blood. They approach Aharon and tell him [Shemot 31:1] “Come on! Make us gods[1] that will go before us, because this man Moshe, who brought us up from the land of Egypt, well, we don’t know what has become of him”. Aharon’s response is questionable. One would have expected him to say “Stop! You’re making a terrible mistake!”[2] Yet Aharon does the exact opposite: He tells the people [Shemot 31:2] “Remove the golden earrings from the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me”. Why does Aharon play along? Rashi answers that “Aharon said to himself, ‘The women and children are fond of their jewellery. Perhaps the matter will be delayed and in the meantime Moshe will arrive.’ But they did not wait [for their wives and children to give them their earrings], and they took off their own [earrings]”. Aharon was using stalling tactics, hoping against hope that Moshe would return to the camp before it was too late.

I’d like to suggest another possible reason for Aharon’s bizarre response. Aharon asks the people to donate the “earrings” on their “ears”. Where else would they put their earrings – on their noses? The answer here is “possibly”. Let me explain. While the English language recognizes “earrings” that adorn the ear and “nose-rings” that adorn (?) the nose, Biblical Hebrew has given these pieces of jewellery two completely different names: an “earring” is called an “agil” and a nose-ring is called a “nezem[3]. The Tanach is very consistent in its differentiation between these two words. For instance, the prophet Yechezkel writes [16:12] “I put a nezem on your nose and agilim on your ears”. King Solomon writes in Proverbs [11:22] “[As] a nezem in a pig’s snout, so is a beautiful woman from whom sense has departed”. Now let’s take a closer look at what Aharon asked of Am Yisrael: “Remove the golden nezamim that are on the ears of your wives… and bring them to me”. Aharon seems to be asking them to give him the nose-rings off their ears. If so, this is the only location in the entire Tanach where nezem does not refer to a nose-ring. Does Aharon lack a basic understanding of female jewellery?

Let’s backtrack: Who was responsible for the Golden Calf (egel) Incident? The Torah tells of some “am” – “nation” – who first realized that Moshe was late in returning down the mountain and then demanded that Aharon make them “gods”. Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch writes that whenever the Torah uses the word “ha’am”, it is referring to the “erev rav”, a “mixed multitude” of Egyptians who left Israel together with Am Yisrael. According to Rav Hirsch, the erev rav were responsible for most of the misdeeds that occurred in the desert, including the egel, as well as all of the complaining about the lack of food, water, and meat. But maybe “am” means something else.

When Moshe recaps 40 years of wandering in the desert in the first part of the Book of Devarim, here is how he describes the riots that led to him send out spies that led to Am Yisrael spending 40 years wandering in the desert [Devarim 1:22]: “All of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead of us…’”. Rashi comments that “You approached me – ‘all of you’, in a state of disorder, the young pushing aside their elders, the elders pushing aside their heads.” In the words of the Stone Chumash, a “crowd psychology” had taken over. People ceased acting as individuals and began acting as one amorphous mass. Psychologists refer to this as “Deindividuation Theory”. According to Wikipedia, “Deindividuation Theory argues that in typical crowd situations, factors such as anonymity, group unity, and arousal can weaken personal controls (e.g. guilt, shame, self-evaluating behaviour) by distancing people from their personal identities and reducing their concern for social evaluation. This lack of restraint increases individual sensitivity to the environment and lessens rational forethought, which can lead to antisocial and aggressive behaviour.” An example of deindividuation is found in Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, in which a bunch of good school kids are transformed into savages and commit horrific acts that none of them as individuals would ever consider. This very same “crowd psychology” also takes control in the story of the egel.

Recall that when Moshe goes up the mountain he leaves two men, Aharon and Chur, in charge[4]. In the story of the egel, however, Chur is conspicuously absent. In fact, his name does not turn up anywhere in the rest of the Torah. One does not require Arthur Conan Doyle’s sense of sleuthing to deduce that Chur was forced out of the picture. Indeed, this is precisely what the Midrash states: When Aharon saw how an until-recently sedate nation had lynched Moshe’s representative in cold blood, he knew that the situation had spun out of control. The only way to reverse the tide was to somehow break up the crowd and to get Am Yisrael to once again act like individuals. The way Aharon implements his strategy is by trying to get them to think about their ears.

Immediately after the revelation at Sinai, the Torah lays out the laws of slavery. A slave is hired for a maximum of six years, after which he must be set free. If, for some reason, the slave does not want to go free, then he is taken to a doorway and a hole is bored into his ear. Why is he wounded specifically in his ear? The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [22b] explains that “the ear that heard at Sinai [Vayikra 25:55] “For the children of Israel are slaves to Me” and [then] went and acquired a master for himself, [this ear] shall be bored”. While the revelation at Sinai caused a complete sensory overload, it was primarily an aural experience. The Torah describes the revelation with the words [Devarim 4:12] “Hashem spoke to you from the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words but saw no image, just a voice.” In addition, the Ten Commandments are all given in the singular: We are commanded in the singular “lo tir’zach, lo tin’af” – “do not kill, do not commit adultery”, and not in the plural “lo tir’zechu, lo tin’afu” – “do not [any of you] kill, do not [any of you] commit adultery”. While the entire nation experienced the revelation together, it was a highly intimate experience. Each individual experienced a one-on-one rendezvous with the Divine.

Aharon had a keen understanding of the human psyche. He was a person who knew how to relate to people and to encourage other people to relate to each other. So when Aharon asks Am Yisrael for the nezamim from their ears, he is trying to get them to recall a time not so long ago when each individual heard with his own ears the shrill blast of the shofar that grew louder and louder until it was replaced by a “kol d’mama daka” – a “still, small voice” of the infinite, that had contracted itself into the confines of our physical universe, telling him “I am Hashem your G-d”. Yes, I rule the universe, from the smallest quarks to the greatest nebulae. But I also maintain a close personal relationship with each and every human being, each with his own dreams and each with his own foibles. Close your eyes, open your ears, and reach out to Me. Know that I will reach out to you. When Aharon tells the people to rip out the nezamim from their ears, he is, of course, trying to buy time. But he is also trying to elicit some kind of subconscious dissonance. He wants the people to think “Hey, doesn’t Aharon even know the difference between earrings and nose-rings? Even my 2-year-old daughter knows that!” He wants their train of thought to travel from their earrings through a slave’s ears a to the concept of slavery and from there to return to Sinai. This path, he  believed, could reduce a crowd into its irreducible individual parts.

The lack of success of Aharon’s strategy at the egel does not detract from its usefulness. The next time we feel overwhelmed by the roar of the crowd, it might be a good idea to give our ears a pinch and to imagine ourselves back at Sinai, face to face with the Almighty. It can give us comfort, it can give us strength, and it can return to us, at least for a few moments, our individuality.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] The use of the plural “gods” is taken from the English translation of the Torah on the Chabad website. I have always translated the verse in the singular, but I this translation piqued my curiosity.

[2] Even an unenthusiastic “Stop. Don’t. Come back.” à la Willie Wonka would have been a better idea.

[3] Modern Hebrew has adopted these very same words.

[4] See Shemot [24:14].

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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