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Parashat Ki Tissa
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
If the purpose of a religious text is to cement its dogma in the hearts of its adherents and to strengthen their commitment with a straightforward depiction of the acceptable, versus the unacceptable, this week’s Torah portion so powerfully transmits its message of organized religion that it risks leaving us incapable of seeing its inherent dangers.
At the core of the portion is the sin of the Golden Calf. If the book of Genesis is a list of genealogies strung together by a narrative, the book of Exodus is concerned with the consequences of the Revelation at Sinai and the process of giving over the law. For all their drama, stories are generally not the point of the Torah. They serve to illustrate underlying concepts, and also emphasize the unpredictability of God’s supreme creation, the human being. But stories also appear to signal that God has not communicated clearly, or that we have not heard well.
If the book of Exodus were only about God conveying the law, it would be very short indeed, ending the moment when God gives Moses “stone tablets, inscribed by the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18.) But just as Genesis is about the family of Abraham coming to terms with the consequences of God’s covenant with their ancestor, the book of Exodus is awash in the disarray of a fledgling nation struggling to come to terms with a new form of covenant, one which embraces both the individual and the communal, the particular and the universal.
While Moses is on the mountaintop with God, the Israelites below are seized by panic. Like infants who shriek when their mother walks out of the room, the people assume that Moses will never come back. Desperate for a leadership figurehead, they create an idol, and the rest of the portion (chs. 32–34) is taken up with the Golden Calf and its aftermath.
But again, this portion is not “about” the Golden Calf; it is still part of the main narrative about the significant event of Moses receiving the Written Torah and learning its interpretation from the mouth of the Creator: what is known as the Oral Torah. Like Eve and Adam with the fruit, the episode of the Golden Calf is not what the Torah is about; it is what humans are about. It is about what happens when we are not keeping our eye on the core principles by which we say we live.
“Hurry up!” the Israelites cry. “Let’s make gods to lead us, because this man Moses who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him!” (32:1). A group used to being told what to do, they panicked when there was no longer anyone to tell them. Yet, recall the sage advice Jethro gave to Moses and ask, Where were the leaders? Where were the Elders, and where were the designated Heads of Tens and Heads of Hundreds? Without the support of the hierarchy, the best Aaron can do is to give in to the demands of the mob. Under pressure, and without Moses at their head, the entire structure crumbles in an instant.
A word to those who exercise leadership, or who would: the power of the leader can quickly become absolute. People willingly abdicate their own responsibility and judgment when there is a strong leader – or even a weak one. The leader must be aware of his or her own capacity, either to cause the group to do good or to bring about tremendous harm through not being aware of the ramifications of leadership or by believing that things can somehow run themselves. Leaders do not get vacations. They walk away, even briefly, at the peril of the enterprise.
The immediate and dizzying descent into idol worship and chaos is not an exaggerated parable. People really do behave this way the moment the strictures are off. Societies need structure, and the reaction to a leadership void is a terrifying blend of anarchy and the search of an autocrat. Napoleon understood this fully in 1795 when he saved the Revolution, putting down the royalist revolt. Within four years, he had undermined that same Revolution. He became the ruler of France and, by 1804, the revolutionaries who did away with the king overwhelmingly elected him emperor. And so it goes…
The replacement of God by a golden god is nothing new. It’s tempting to blame the chaos on the institution of religion itself, but we should remind ourselves that the three greatest human disasters of the twentieth century were under the anti-religious movements of Lenin and Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. Wars are never purely about religion, though religion is a handmaid to mass violence.
Organized religion serves an important unifying role in society, and it can work to the good under wise leadership. Left to their own devices, people search out ways to express the instinct to tribalism. In our panic to align with people most like ourselves, we seek the lowest common denominator, and we viciously shut out anyone who fails to conform on the most simplistic bottom line. The more unsophisticated the basis for unity, the more likely that challenges to this identity will be met with anger and violence. When we fail to examine the basis for our own identity, the natural response to outsiders is primal rage.
A nation is a pyramid of social units, and for all its defects, the institution of organized religion broadens the scope of those admitted to society. Membership in each social unit enables membership in the next unit up, and the next, until the pyramid rests on a foundation – admittedly of a lowest common denominator, both a strength and a weakness. These units include family, ethnicity, community, language, culture, and religion, all woven into a shared history. The greater the degree of organization in any one of the units, the more predictable it will be to its members, creating a solid home base and making it safer to venture forth – to embrace the next level up in the pyramid of society. Moreover, the more numerous the units, the more diverse the membership can be; one can belong to only some of the units and still be counted a full member of society.
Yet the dangers inherent in organized religion remain palpable. When the Tabernacle is finally constructed, we will see the Torah’s guidance for wise religious leadership – and for wise followers.
Did Moses go up the mountain too soon in the history of Israel’s wanderings? Was that his fault? Was it God’s fault? Should Moses have waited, perhaps ascended the mountain a month later? Or a year? No matter when Moses went up the mountain, and for no matter how brief an absence, the sense of a vacuum would remain. Someone would become anxious. Someone would attempt to step in and take over. Perhaps, then, it was best that the Israelites got this out of their system early. If the scene had taken place a year later, with more of a group identity and more of a leadership structure in place, perhaps there would have been not mass religious hysteria, but a bloody coup that would have left a people with a political identity, but without a Torah.
If leadership requires constant attention to the community, it also calls for tireless advocacy on the latter’s behalf, and Moses comes back in stunning form when God makes Moses the ultimate offer: “I will wipe them out and I will make you into a great nation” (32:7–10). Moses will continue to lead, and his own descendants will be God’s chosen.
Here ensues a striking bit of language in a heated exchange between God and Moses. Moses acknowledges the magnitude of the sin of the Golden Calf when he uses the Hebrew term “to lift up,” which in the context of the following oddly structured verse can mean forgiveness: “And now, if You would only forgive their sin; and if not, then erase me from the book You have written!” (32:32). But “lift up” is also the term God uses earlier to tell Moses to take a census: “When you lift up the heads of the Israelites…” (30:12). Using the same term in the same sense in the later verse, the text invites a stronger translation: “But now,” says Moses, “if all You’re going to do is to count up their sins, then erase me from Your book.”
Moses tells God that we humans are imperfect. That by our nature, we will make mistakes – even the gravest of errors. Moses presses the point home. If God is so willing to throw away the Israelite people, then why did God make such a fuss at the burning bush? When Moses said it wouldn’t work, why didn’t God reply, “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Bad idea”? Because God made a promise to Abraham, and the Israelite nation is the fulfillment of that promise, regardless of how many obstacles they themselves throw in the way. God sought a partner in this world and found Abraham. Now, God is stuck with the promise, the covenant God made. Be careful what you wish for, someone might have told God.
Partners in a committed relationship are often on different wavelengths. Couples who do not communicate openly about their feelings experience these as periods of stress. If not addressed, these pressures can wreck a relationship. It is frightening to open up to another person, frightening to acknowledge that I may feel less connected to you right now than you need me to be. Each partner in a relationship must be willing to hear the other’s distress, the other’s sense of alienation, without reacting with anger or resentment. This is a tremendous challenge. But it is liberating, and immensely strengthening to a relationship, to be allowed to discuss these emotional discontinuities without fear that it will destroy what the partners have built. What they continue to work toward.
Relationships are both past-based and forward-looking. In the moment, every emotion feels eternal, and the brain is structurally incapable of differentiating between emotion and objective fact. Thus, it is scary to face those moments when we feel out of sync with our partners. At such moments, we feel our relationship will die. We fear that Moses will never return from the mountain.
And so Moses says to God, This is what You asked for. This is the basis on which I agreed to this task. Says Moses, We’re in this together. It is the ultimate expression of Moses’ leadership. At a time when the Israelites have lost faith in themselves, when even God has lost faith in them, Moses believes in them.
Believe in yourself, and remember that your every act has consequences. We are obligated to work to build the good, to remedy the bad. The time is short, and the task is great, and it falls to each of us to do our part.
Yours for a better world.