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Ki Tisa: The Golden Calf

Vayikahel ha’am al Aharon vayomru eilav: “Kum aseh lanu elohim asher yelchu lefaneinu, ki zeh Moshe, ha’ish asher he’elunun me’eretz Mitzrayim, lo yadanu meh hayah lo!”

The people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Do something! Make us a god who shall lead us, for that Moses, the man who brought us up out of the Egypt – we don’t know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1)

This is the tragic week of the Golden Calf. Moses has been up on the mountain for many days, and an insurrection is brewing at the mountain’s base. The people insist that they want a God that they can see. What are they doing out here in the wilderness following a voice, and a cloud, and “that Moses”, who disappears up a mountain for weeks at a time? They demand that Aaron make for them a god, and they hand Aaron their golden earrings, which he smelts and fashions into a golden calf. The Torah recounts that the people exclaimed, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” and they worshipped, and feasted, and reveled.

The Children of Israel’s fickleness seems boundless. They are camped at the foot of Mount Sinai where only weeks before they had stood in awe as they listened to the voice of YHVH. They had enthusiastically agreed to enter a covenant with YHVH, beginning with the command to not make or worship any sculptured image. All they have to do to remind themselves of their new relationship with God is to lift up their eyes and look at that same mountain! Are these people really worth redeeming?

Moses thinks that they are, and we should too. For they are us. The Torah is an account of the human spiritual journey. The goal of the human spiritual journey is to perceive the infinite wonder and energy that informs every moment and every place in creation, and to respond with awe, love, and gratitude. Every day is filled with literally countless moments in which to remember or to forget this awareness. I spent the last 36 hours journeying back from New Zealand, halfway around the world. In theory I could have remained awestruck and grateful the entire time: that I am blessed with such privilege that I can even imagine taking such a trip; that I can hurtle around the globe in a flying projectile 6 miles up in the sky; that I am simply alive to experience these wonders. But let’s face it: when our connecting flight from Los Angeles to Newark was canceled and I was stuck for extra hours in the perpetual construction zone of LAX airport, my expanded awareness wavered, shall we say! Where’s that man Moses? I want a god that I can see! Now!!

In potential, we know that literally every moment of our lives is a moment of being in God’s ineffable presence. At every moment if we lift up our eyes – our awareness – we can remember that we are camped at the base of the Holy Mountain. But of course we forget. Remembering and forgetting is our human nature. Constantly remembering and then forgetting: instead of living with gratitude and awe, we turn our attention to our complaints, and ask for quick fixes, for gods that we can see.

We might say that Moses is that portion of ourselves that leads us on this spiritual journey, as we stumble along on the path of liberation. Moses is that portion of ourselves that never gives up on us, nor on our journey, no matter how mired we might become in our suffering, no matter how frequently we might forget to notice the great light peeking through the cracks of not only the everyday complaints of our lives, but also the insoluble and existential questions that accompany our days on this earth.

Our Torah portion is not pretty. Moses smashes the tablets, puts down a rebellion, metes out punishment, and restores order. But then Moses ascends the mountain once again and demands that God forgive the people and let them continue toward the Promised Land. Judaism, accepting our flawed nature, insists that despite our damning fickleness and forgetfulness we are always capable of teshuvah, of righting ourselves. Even our most egregious and pathetic betrayals, the golden calves that we worship in our lives, are not the end of the journey. These failures do make us stumble and often leave us with amends that must be made. But Moses urges the Children of Israel forward, we slowly learn from our mistakes, and the path towards the Promised Land of greater love and awareness always beckons.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan