Today is June 14, 2024 -

Congregation Sha'arey Israel

A Conservative Jewish Congregation serving the spiritual needs of the Middle Georgia Jewish community since 1904

611 First Street, Macon, GA 31201
Phone: (478) 745-4571

Thinking about Tangibles before Shabbat of Ki Tessa

I write these words shortly before the Shabbat of Ki Tissa, the portion which describes the drama of the Golden Calf and Moses smashing the Tablets he had just brought down from Mount Sinai. What might we take home from this powerful and challenging story? When I revisit this text each year, this story also becomes an opportunity for me to think about the evolution of my own relationship to the text. “You shall have no other gods before Me” — Many commentators condemn the Israelites’ descent into idolatry. How could Aaron have acquiesced and facilitated this crisis?

During the more recent cycling back to this spot, I find myself less judgmental and more sympathetic towards the demoralized, confused Israelites. “Moses delayed in his coming down the mountain…” (note to Moses and all rabbis after him: If you’re late, people lose it quickly and all hell breaks loose!). And, as the text makes clear, the Israelites become a seething mob. Aaron is unable to maintain calm or any sense of order. When Moses sees the Golden Calf, his rage overwhelms him. He orders his fellow Levites to kill those who were worshipping the idol; three thousand Israelites are cut down that day.

It is too easy to simply condemn the stiff-necked people. The harsh judgment fails to come to grips with why the Israelites lost their sense of direction. Moses was everything to his people. They were entirely unable to function in his absence. Their anxiety overwhelmed them. But there’s more to the story. Generations of slavery had the Israelites steeped in Egyptian idolatry. Rashi (perhaps the most prominent among the medieval commentators) portrayed the Israelites as immune to the influences of the surrounding culture — ‘they didn’t change their language, their names, their dress.’ I’m skeptical about that notion. My own read is that the slavery experience deeply shaped our ancestors, and this collective experience included far more than the cruelty of the lash. The worldview of ancient Egypt shaped everyone who lived in that culture — master as well as slave. We’ll run into a similar claim of cultural purity in the Book of Numbers when the prophet Bil’am eloquently
praises the Israelites as a nation that ‘dwells apart.’ The ink of those words hadn’t even dried when the Israelite men were seduced by the Midianite women into idol worship.

There are little cultural bubbles here and there of small groups of people who see themselves as islands unto themselves. For most of us it’s a far more complicated journey. Swimming in the ocean of a dominant culture, we see ourselves thinking about which ideas and behaviors we want to adopt and which beliefs and practices we should reject — it’s a relentless set of challenges: Who are we, what are we about, where are we going? Each generation of Jews (plenty of other minority groups could see themselves in these terms) wrestles with the questions of who we are and who we aren’t.

Commenting on the Golden Calf story, Rashi makes the radical claim that the received Torah text is out of sequence — that the entire Tabernacle project was essentially a response, a set of lessons learned from the crisis of the Golden Calf. I think Rashi makes a persuasive argument.

What’s the take-home? Our ancestors were paralyzed by Moses coming down late from the mountain top. They simply had no tools to cope with his (temporary) absence. True, it had been a bit over four months since the slaves left Egypt. But plenty of Egypt’s cultural residue lived within the Israelites — long over the liberation.

We’re not all that different from those wanderers. We also need something to touch, some physical symbolic language. For our ancestors it included the sensory spectacle of sacrificial worship. It’s not that the omnipresent invisible God remains out of reach — it’s that we need candles and spices and challah and a whole matrix of symbols that includes music and food and dance and prayer and a structure of commitments, mitzvot.

Symbols and rituals are guideposts and lifelines. They help us make some sense of our world, of who we are and how to live. There are those who claim that none of this stuff is necessary. I beg to differ. Even the pieces of the broken tablets, the broken laws — they’re sacred. We keep them in the box. They mean something. Like faded photos, life pictures your kids drew, like a note on a cabinet, like a text, like a voicemail. Something to hold on to.