Parshat Ki Tissa
This Shabbat we have read about the lowest moment in the history of our people in the wilderness. The people, anxious that Moses has been on the mountaintop so long, begin to fear that he has died and there is no one to lead them to the Promised Land. They have no leader and without Moses, who will bring to them the world of God? Our people were frightened and feeling alone.
So they start to demand a God that they can see. After all, Moses was their only link to the invisible God and now Moses is gone. Every other nation had a god or multiple gods that could be seen and worshipped directly. Can we really blame them for wanting a golden calf? Some scholars claim that the calf was really not a god at all; the calf was merely the pedestal upon which God would stand. God was invisible, riding on the back of the calf but the calf gave the Israelites a place to direct their prayers.
Others blame God for the golden calf. After all, God has left Israel in Egypt for hundreds of years. All their experience with religion had been in Egypt where there was a god for everything and the gods were larger than life. Some Sages claim it is like a parent that sets his son up in the hair styling business and puts the shop in a part of town where all the vain and shallow people congregate. Then the parent is shocked that his son has become vain and shallow. “Don’t blame your son,” the friends of the father say, “after all, you set him up in a bad part of town.” So too, it is God’s fault that Israel strayed, after all, God sent them to live among the Egyptians! Do you ever notice how when children get in trouble, they always find a way to blame the parent!
The details of the story focus on the sin of the people for demanding a god they could see. I look at these passages and understand that the people have a serious concern and there are no really good answers to their problems. Moses seems to have vanished. The people are lost and afraid. A god they can see would be their “security blanket”, to help them feel the closeness of God. The golden calf was an object they could point to, admire and direct their anxiety toward. I guess there is a bit of Aaron, Moses’ brother in me. I can’t help feeling sorry for the people. After all, could we honestly say that if we were in the same circumstances, we would have done better?
It is true that we don’t fashion gods out of gold anymore. But we do put our trust in lots of things that clearly are not God. We put our trust in our possessions, that they will protect us from hard times. We trust that our investments will be there to pay for our retirement and then are horrified to find out that when the economy takes a dive, that our investments are unreliable. And apparently we could not trust those who were supposed to prevent the misuse of our retirement funds, they too were fallible and could not prevent either Bernie Madoff or the financial crisis. Do we rely on our Doctors and Lawyers and Politicians to save us from tragedy? Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. People used to rely on Insurance to protect them from tragedy, but today we know that sometimes it is very hard to get an insurance company to pay what they owe us.
We also all have our superstitions that we rely upon to protect us. The lucky charm that we take with us when we leave our homes. The mezuzah that we think will protect us at home and the Jewish jewelry that somehow brings us under God’s protecting wings. Dare we ask ourselves what we are really expecting to happen when we stand up and add our friends’ and loved ones’ names to the Mishebayrach for the sick? Is kissing the Torah s sign of respect or do we expect good luck? What about if we kiss the Rabbi? (No, that would be a bad idea. Way too many germs out there.) We may know that there is a God that we cannot see, but we rely all too often on things we can see to save us from the dark forces that surround us.
So then, what SHOULD we do to face the future with confidence and certainty? If Judaism, if God, knows that we are insecure human beings, what does our religion and our faith have to teach us about where we should look if we seek to find God?
The first place we should look if we seek the image of God is in the face of the people around us. Not just those who sit around us in synagogue, but those among whom we live, work, eat and play. Each human being is unique from each other, but all of us are created in the image of God. It is not in our differences that God can be found, rather, God is found in the core parts of each and every one of us, deep inside where we are all the same. I am not talking about raising up one person to the level of God; I am talking about finding that spark of the divine that exists in every person, old and young, male and female, religious and secular, Democrat or Republican, black, white, red or yellow, rich or poor.
I think Moses, when all was said and done, understood the fear and anxiety in the people. When he returns to the mountain, he too is unsure and insecure. Did he do the right thing in punishing the people? How could he blame them for their sin if they really did not understand the full meaning of a God that sees but cannot be seen? He needs God to forgive the people but this is the God who destroyed the world with a flood, and overthrew the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins. What would prevent God from destroying the Israelites for this grave and serious breach of the new Jewish law? Moses does not know what to say to God about the people and he is unsure himself about the nature of this God, who saved Israel from Egyptian slavery, but demands complete and perfect loyalty. Moses returns to the mountain and returns to God with one request, to see the “presence of God”. What Moses actually sees is the subject of Jewish mystical literature. I am only concerned with what Moses hears.
He hears that famous passage :
וַיַּעֲבֹר ‘ה עַל-פָּנָיו וַיִּקְרָא ‘ה ‘ה אֵל רַחוּם וְחַנּוּן אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת. נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים נֹשֵׂא עָוֹן וָפֶשַׁע וְחַטָּאָה וְנַקֵּה
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin:”
When Moses hears this he understands that God has forgiven the people, because the essence of God is forgiveness. If we are to understand that human beings are created in the image of God, then we must also understand that these qualities of God are the qualities that we too must cultivate if we are to discover the nature of God’s essence.
When we are gracious and full of compassion, we can see the point of view of others easily and can work to ease their discomfort and to calm their souls. When we do, we can “see” the image of God at work. When we are slow to anger and when we fill our hearts with abundant kindness, we are bringing the presence of God into the world. When kindness leads us to forgiveness of even the most dark sins, we can easily experience the divine in ourselves and in others. When we bring these qualities of God down to earth, we are creating the foundation so that together we can move forward. Life is no longer stuck in the present or in the past. When we bring God into the world, we also make possible the future.
A Hasidic Rabbi once offered this prayer to his students, “if you can treat every person next to you as if he were the messiah, waiting for just one more act of kindness so that his presence can be revealed and the world redeemed, if you can treat that person to every act of kindness, then even if that person is NOT the messiah, it will not matter.”
We bring God into the world when we reach out our hands to those who are in need, both Jews and non-Jew, no matter if they are in Delray Beach, the United States, Chile, Taiwan or Haiti. When we hear of earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis or fire and we open our hearts, our hands, our homes and our wallets to those who are alone, afraid and suffering, we are bringing God into the world, and making the presence of God into a reality. When we visit someone who is sick, comfort someone who is bereaved, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, stand up for the oppressed and clothe the naked, we have created the image in which we can focus our prayers and our eyes.
The golden calf should never be worshipped; we should instead worship the golden heart. We should not berate others for not being pious enough, rather we should aspire to live the kind of life that we would like to see in others, and then shower all those around us with the kindness and concern that will make others sure that if they too seek God’s presence, they only need to emulate your actions and open their hearts to others. We need to be less judgmental, and more forgiving. We need to be less impatient and slower to anger. We need to be less strict with the law and more merciful in our dealings with others. And above all we must be kind.
When we feel alone in the wilderness, when we feel anxious about life and insecure about what the future holds for us, when we find ourselves looking for a Moses to lead us out of the wilderness and into the promised land, we need look no further than our own hands and our own hearts to unlock the secret of God’s presence in our lives and in the world. God is not on the mountain top where we must climb to find God. And God is not across the sea that we must sail far and wide to find God. And God is not deep within the earth requiring our strength and stamina to find God. God is in every meaningful relationship. God is found whenever we open our hearts and God is close at hand whenever we turn to our neighbor in compassion and kindness.
May we all find God today and every day, in our actions and in our hearts as we say…
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM