Ki Tisa: Self-Worship and the Memory of my Mother
First off, I expect to be bringing this podcasting effort to a close at the end of Shemot. There’s another project I want to dedicate some time too and I don’t have bandwidth for it at this time. Hopefully, I’ll have the resources in place to start that other work in a few weeks.
That said, I’m going to do something a little different this week. Two years ago, for this Parsha, I was in an extremely strange situation. My brother and I were travelling for business and were in Kansas City for Shabbat. I was there as a visiting scholar, for which I want to thank the community and the White family.
This is roughly the speech I delivered that Shabbat. I’ve updated it with some of the things I’ve learned since. But just a bit. The speech was delivered in an old Church converted to a shul. I’m using it again because it captures what I want to say about this Parsha. But it also serves another purpose. Here goes.
I have never been to Kansas City. At least, I’ve never stopped my car here. But in a way, this is down home week for my brother and I. Our father is from Wichita, which I hear is nearby. And like this building, my father was born a Baptist and became a Jew.
Shortly after my parents were married, they moved to North Central Idaho – ten hours from the nearest town.
For years, they lived without water or plumbing or easy access to food; they canned and ate bears and – once – a mountain lion.
They also built their own hydro-electric plant, plumbing system and proper, house – literally carrying the supplies for everything to the site.
And there, they raised three children, the oldest of whom passed away at seven years of age.
The youngest of those three children, my brother Isaiah, is here today.
My parents went into Idaho non-observant.
But they came out as Shomer Shabbat, Shomer Kashrut, Jews.
They were guided on their path by two books: the Shulchan Aruch and the Chumash.
They were guided by two books, but they had no community.
I was born after Idaho. But growing up, it was not community that drove me to Judaism; it was my father’s passionate connection to Hashem.
And growing up it was not community that guided me to understanding; it was mother’s almost unparalleled intellectual firepower.
Growing up in Oregon, our father taught us passion – and our mother taught us how to think.
I mention this history because I spent the early part of this week bringing my mother back to her home in the mountains of Oregon.
I brought her home for hospice.
I debated not speaking today.
But I realized that I had to.
You see, my mother’s gift is her teaching.
There is nothing she desires more than the opportunity to teach.
In a way, she is standing here. And I know she’d love the opportunity you have given me.
It is my hope, through the merit of what she has taught so many others, and though the merit of what I will share with you, that Hashem will grant her Menucha in her terrible hour of need.
The immediate question any five-year-old asks about the sin of the calf is this:
How could the people have been so stupid?
The second question they ask, when they get a little older is: How can this possibly apply to us?
I think, as we dig into the text, we might just see that the people weren’t so stupid.
And, despite the fact that they lived thousands of years ago, we must just see that they are not so distant.
The process of creating the calf starts when the people ask Aaron: Asa Lanu Elokim.
It can be understood two ways.
It can be read as: “Make us a god.”
Or it could be read as “Make us a god”
There is uncertainty in their statement, although it leans towards the “Make us a god” side of things. There is ambivalence in it.
Perhaps this is why Hashem does not act against them when they first ask Aaron for help.
In response to their request, Aaron asks for the gold earrings of the people.
As we’ll get into in the shiur this afternoon, gold has an association with the divine.
At this stage, we can know that Aaron is planning to form a representation of a god.
The question is: what god?
The key is the earrings themselves.
We connect to Hashem through hearing.
We Shema – we hear Him.
So, the Egel could be a representation of Hashem Himself – or of his presence in our reality.
He is a G-d of hearing.
But we also connect with each other through hearing.
We form community through hearing.
So, the Egel could be a representation of us.
It could be a god of hearing.
There is ambiguity, and so Hashem does not act.
When Aaron fashions the earrings, he forms an egel Maseicha.
An Egel, of course, is a calf.
A bull, in Egypt, Rome and Greece – represented a nation.
In Chumash, a bull represents a nation’s will.
A cow represents a nation’s actualization.
And an egel represents a young nation.
A god which is an Egel is tipping towards the “make us into a god” side of the scale.
But there is still ambiguity, so Hashem does not act.
Then the people proclaim that “these are the god” who brought you out of Egypt.
The plural and the singular do not match.
Elokim – which the Kuzari explains is the unification of natural powers – is plural and singular.
But a people are also plural and singular.
A masaicha is an ‘amalgamation’ – plural and yet singular.
But we do not yet know, for certain, which singular plurality it represents.
There is still ambiguity, so Hashem does not act.
And again, when the people begin to offer sacrifices and to eat and to drink, Hashem does not act.
But then the people worship by playing.
And when you play, you entertain yourself.
It is at this point, that the reality is clear.
There is no more ambiguity.
This is not a representation of Hashem.
This is a representation of the people as their own god.
Even afterwards, the evidence continues to pile up.
We do not read the trope this way, but consider this pasuk.
וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת גְּבוּרָה, וְאֵין קוֹל עֲנוֹת חֲלוּשָׁה; קוֹל עַנּוֹת אָנֹכִי שֹׁמֵעַ.
We can read this as:
“And he said, not a voice proclaiming victory, and not a voice proclaiming defeat, a voice proclaiming ‘I’ hear.”
Moshe could be hearing the voice of self-declaration.
He could be hearing what is so common in our world today: a social feedback loop.
And before Moshe calls the Leviim to him, we read:
וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא: כִּי-פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן, לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם
The word Pharaoh is used as a verb.
The people are Pharaohed.
Perhaps they imagined themselves, like Pharaoh, to be a god.
We see this in the punishments themselves. Moshe burns and then grinds the Egel into dust – breaking it up and feeding it back into the people. He de-amalgamates them.
And when he asks each man to kill his brother – his genetic relation – his friend and those close to him… physically he is breaking apart the community.
He is undermining exactly that which the people worshipped.
In Parshat Lech Lecha, Hashem promises Avram that his seed will be as numerous as the stars in heaven.
And Avram believes in Hashem and it counts to him as righteousness.
But then Hashem says:
וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵלָיו: אֲנִי יְקוָק, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים–לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
“I bought you out of Ur Kasdim – literally ‘the destroyers of light’ – to inherit the land.”
And Avram gives a very strange answer.
בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה.
“How can I know I will inherit it?”
Avraham seems suddenly uncertain?
The question is: why?
There are three obvious answers, or perhaps not so obvious.
The first is that the idea of displacing the local people – with whom he had covenants – disturbed his own belief in goodness.
It clashed with his self-understood definition of the goodness of Hashem. We struggle with an analogous situation today.
This is why Avram must learn fear of Hashem through the Akeidah – something that makes no sense. Something that was not good.
It is only through the Akeidah, which he cannot fully accept, that Avram can fully appreciate that Hashem’s perspective is beyond his own.
The second answer is that Avram was disturbed by this implication of Hashem’s statement. Avram did not leave Ur Kasdim, his father Terach did. All we know of what happened there was that Terach’s son Haran died in front of him. Perhaps, just as my parents fled Idaho when my brother died in front of them, Terach fled Ur Kasdim when Haran died. Perhaps G-d drove Avram out of Ur Kasdim – just as he drove my family out of Idaho.
If so, then again, Avram struggles with a good he can not understand.
Again, it is only through the Akeidah, which he cannot fully accept, that Avram can fully appreciate that Hashem goodness is beyond our ability to accept.
The third answer is that perhaps Avram believed he brought himself out of Ur Kasdim.
After all, Hashem said Lech Lecha and Avram went – taking Lot, the son of his dead brother – with him.
In this telling, Avram did not fully appreciate that his decision to go was not the same thing as his opportunity to do so.
Whichever answer we choose, It seemed to be a challenge for Avram to embrace the totality of the role of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
He failed to see that Hashem alone made his own Exodus possible.
He failed to see Hashem, without the filter of his own beliefs and will.
This is the context of the brit bein Habitarim.
In a brit full of symbolism, the brit bein habitarim, Hashem responds to Avraham’s momentary lack of trust, by promising that Avram’s descendants will be riven apart from their fellows, driven into slavery and only then returned to their land.
Hashem promises Avraham that his descendants will be slaves so that when they are rescued, they will know Hashem was responsible.
The plan is sensible. And yet it does not work.
Even with exile and slavery and redemption, the people still see their own hand as the primary hand in their salvation.
They worship themselves as having brought themselves out of Egypt.
This is why Hashem threatens to destroy them.
After all, how can this people – who don’t even recognize Hashem rescued them from Egypt – testify to Hashem’s presence in the world?
How can we serve our purpose?
It is Moshe who forces a solution.
If Hashem destroys the people, then His reputation will be undermined.
And so a new reality is created.
Instead of the people testifying to the presence of Hashem – our blessings and curses will testify on our behalf.
Before this reading, there is only one threat of national curse, for mistreating the widow and orphan. Afterwards, such curses abound.
If we obey Hashem – if we recognize Him – then we will be blessed. And the world will know His presence.
And if we resist Hashem or deny Him – then we will be cursed. And the world will know of His presence.
Either way, we will serve our purpose.
Our fate will bear testimony to the presence of Hashem in this world.
In the brit bein Habitarim, Egypt is never mentioned.
I believe this is because it is a promise of a recurring reality.
Again and again, we will be brought low and made powerless.
Again and again, we will be redeemed.
And again and again, we will be given the chance to realize that it is Hashem who brought us out from the destroyers of light.
Near the end of the brit bain habitarim there is a vision of a smoking furnace and a darkness so complete the word for it is never again used in Chumash.
It doesn’t take much imagination to picture this as a reference to Germany and the Shoah.
It doesn’t take much imagination to see that we were powerless, and then we were redeemed.
And it doesn’t take much imagination to fear that we are once again denying the hand of G-d in our redemption.
Today, far too many of us look back 70 years and imagine that we rescued ourselves.
We imagine that we – our army, our planners, our community – overcame our enemies.
We come to the State of Israel and we praise the unique Jewish people – the StartUp Nation.
We – increasingly – fail to see Hashem as the actor in our modern redemption.
Even today, we seem to be repeating the sin of the calf.
And even today, we risk the consequences of our self-worship.
At the very end of Moshe’s negotiation with Hashem, he makes one final request.
He asks that we be made Hashem’s nachal.
A nachal is a stream or valley.
It cuts a path through hills and mountains. It leaves its mark on the land.
As I understand it, Moshe asks that we become the spiritual waters of Hashem and that we be given the opportunity to carve His paths into our world.
Moshe asks that we be given the chance to fulfill the greatest of missions a people could ever have.
And Hashem accepts.
Now, it is once again our chance to finally become the spiritual waters of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
And it all starts with the simplest of things:
When you celebrate the miracle of modern Israel, do not celebrate our people.
Instead, celebrate our G-d.
Because if we recognize His salvation… then He will bless us with health, with strength, with plenty, and with peace.
If we recognize His salvation, then we can be His nachal and celebrate with Him in the bountiful cycle of Melacha Kedusha and Beracha.
My mother passed away the next Shabbat after I gave this speech. I was with her.
Her Yarzeit is the 25th of Adar.
Thank you for listening. Have a great week and Shabbat Shalom.
Brilliant as always, Joseph. What a beautiful way to weave together your mother’s story with our relationship with Hashem. Thank you.