This week I am wondering why it is so hard for us to get ‘it’. By ‘us’ I mean not only the Israelites in this week’s Torah portion, but ‘us human beings’, as well …
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we encounter our ancestors’ dramatic plunge into spiritual philandering. One Redeemer, who is not seen for forty days. One Golden Calf, which is constructed. (In a frenzied panic the Israelites feel abandoned by ‘that man, Moses’ and cajole Aaron in to building an idol and facilitating all of the debauchery required by the worshipping of such an idol) That One Golden Calf is destroyed by that One Redeemer. (Moses has none of it, smashes the hot-off-of-the-divine-press tablets of the law into the aforementioned calf, grinds the remainder of the calf to dust and forces the Israelites to drink a Golden Calf cocktail – guaranteed to cause internal and intestinal distress.)
Clearly, the bad guys, the antagonists, the fools in this week’s installment are the Israelites. (Alright, Aaron should get his fair due, as well …) This group of spiritually stunted slaves are just a few minutes (figuratively, not literally) removed from their redemption from centuries of slavery through a series of miraculous natural events: darkness that fills the Egyptians homes, but not their own; death that comes to the first born of their overlords, but to their children; a body of water that splits in time for them to cross to safety and then conveniently un-splits to wipe out the greatest military force known in that corner of the world. Then following their exodus from Egypt, the entire group of them settle in at Sinai for an unprecedented, yet intimate encounter with God. After these events are still in their rear view mirror, despite their current reality (freedom), the evidence (there seems to be some powerful entity who has their collective backs) and the consequences (how about this little ditty from Sinai: I remember the iniquity of those who turn against me until the THOUSANDTH generation) … they still look to Aaron and say: “Hey, you … we’ve got this idea about a calf.”
These people just plain don’t get it! They are dense. They are clueless. They are … us. Yes, I said that they are us. It is very easy to pile on the Israelites at this point. The narrative of the story encourages us to do so … from God and Moses’ anger, to their imbibing of the remains of their sin, to the eventual killing of those who Moses feels do not learn from this incident. I think that we are missing a larger picture if we simply look down our noses at ‘those poor, misguided and ignorant Israelites’ without at least acknowledging a larger truth that is a spiritual reality for you and I. Despite everything our ancestors knew about God and Moses, despite their own experience and despite their understanding of the facts on the ground – it was still exceedingly difficult for them to overcome their upbringing, their slave mentality or the immediate impact that building and worshipping the calf would bring them.
Do you know anyone like that? Someone who knows from their own experience the significance of a certain course of action. Someone, who sees the concrete evidence that suggests avoiding this course of action would be advisable. Someone, who understands the negative consequences that will follow such a course of action. And yet, there are powerful forces – internal and external – that push that individual to decide to act in contrast to all of this experience, evidence and potential harm.
I do – and I do not have to look farther than the face staring back at me in the mirror. I do – and I do not have to look further than stories entrusted to me of families who struggle with addiction or abuse. I do – and I do not have to look further than than politicians and ideologues who cling rigidly to destructive economic or social policies. This reality – as revealed in this week’s story – is one we confront every day in both mundane and monumental moments. Mundane moments when (like in my case) they are deciding whether or not to enjoy that maple frosted donut, again). Monumental moments when they are struggling to not take that drink or trying to express their fear, anxieties or even love in a manner that is not hurtful or destructive. Whether the moments are mundane or monumental, we can each fill in the blanks.
I do not believe that we should make excuses for our ancestors or for ourselves. We should not be investing our bodies, minds and souls in pursuits – like Golden Calves – that block our way from the Sacred. However, we should not underestimate – when judging ourselves or others – the profoundly powerful forces we confront when reaching for the Divine in our lives. Our ancestors found these forces – on their journey to their Promised Land – to be genuine, real and formidable. We, too, are on a journey and to reach our ultimate destination must honestly acknowledge these forces and unwaveringly commit ourselves to facing them, overcoming them and instead of building calves – to welcome the Sacred and the Divine into our lives.