March 10, 2023
There is a strange revelation that takes place in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa. In fact, it’s so subtle that in a quick read of the text, it’s likely one would skip right over the observation without even realizing the red flags waving and alarm bells ringing.
It is in this week’s Torah portion that we read of the sinful creation of the golden calf by a group of Israelites waiting at the foot of Mount Sinai for Moses to return, which draws our focus on the molten calf as the central evil of this sinful story. However, under greater scrutiny, the text shares with us a broader insight and one which had greater consequences for generations to come.
“Come, make us a god who shall go before us,” the people tell Aaron in Moses’s absence, “for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1) Upon close reading, it is important to realize that the people are not seeking to identify a new human leader to replace Moses. Rather, they desire to create a god who will now lead them on their journey.
Ironically, it is Gd who tells Moses, while the above scene is taking place at the Israelite’s camp, that Moses should, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted dishonorably.” (32:7) In rebuttal, Moses replies to Gd, “Let not Your anger blaze forth against Your people, whom You delivered from the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand.” (32:11) This unusual back-and-forth is reminiscent of Abraham and Gd’s argument on the proposed destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:23-33). However, whereas Abraham was arguing for the righteous people who might have been in those sinful cities, this time around, Moses is defending the actual sinners.
In fact, Moses takes the people’s sin and their need to have the opportunity to repent so personally that Moses leverages his relationship with Gd on their behalf. First, Moses differentiates between three identifiable groups: those who led the mutiny, those who followed along, and those who stood idly by. Those who led the idolatrous uprising were immediately put to death. Like Abraham, Moses knew there was no way to save them from their heavenly punishment. Next, was the influenced majority. It was not for Moses to pass judgment on them, that would need to come from Gd who later punished them with a plague (32:35). We do not know how many died from this punishment, but we believe that those who truly repented were saved, and those who did not, were not. Finally, there were the bystanders. This group, too, was not free of sin. Their consequence was to literally “consume” their sin. As punishment to this group, Moses had the golden calf ground into a powder that was sprinkled onto the water, and then consumed by the people (32:20). For Moses to advocate on this group’s behalf, he needed them to understand that they owned their sin by doing nothing.
It is this third group that I draw our attention to this week. We are living during very challenging times, and as these difficult local, national, and world events unfold around us, many of us believe that as long as we do not engage in negative behaviors, we are somehow free of the associated guilt and consequence. Unfortunately, history has taught us that inaction, indifference, and neutrality, are never really neutral. Standing by creates an environment for those who would do harm to pursue their evil ways. We each have the option to choose good from bad, right from wrong, and action from inaction. Not deciding is a decision.
Like Abraham before him, Moses shows us that we are to even argue with Gd for the right reasons. In fact, when Moses returns to Gd after reprimanding the people for their sin, Moses challenges Gd with his place in history to either forgive the people or “erase [him/Moses] from the record which [Gd] has written.” (32:32)
As a side note, it is the events from this week’s Torah portion that provide us insight into the Passover Haggadah and why in the entire traditional text of the Haggadah, Moses is only mentioned once! Think about that, we sit through the Seder, retelling our people’s Master Story, the whole journey of our Exodus from Egypt, and we do so only mentioning Moses by name one time.
Our legacy is not the things we leave behind; rather, it is the name we leave behind. How will our loved ones, our community, and history, remember us? Moses was not perfect, and the people he advocated for were not either. In the words of our Holocaust Memorial Museum, “Now that you know, what will you do?”
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