Drash on Parashat Ki Tisa (March 6, 2021) 5781

by Malka Rappaport

Eilat Hills

To begin, I want to express my immense gratitude that God gave me not one, but two in-house Torah scholars (my incomparable parents) for me to turn to when I need some help distilling my ideas for d’rashot (as I very much did this week). So, ima and aba, thank you so much for giving me a solid foundation in Torah and preparing me to carry on the family business–as it were.

Of all the events in this week’s parasha ki tisa, there is one in particular with which I
know you’re familiar and one that is particularly uncomfortable. That is, of course, the episode of the Golden Calf. This is a story we have told and retold, so much so that its mark upon us is indelible. Oddly enough though, there are some details about this story that I think often get overlooked. As I scoured the words of this parasha in preparation for today, I really began to wonder about that. So that’s what I want to explore today.

As you may recall, the Golden Calf is serious because of what it represents. The whole
debacle surrounding its construction and subsequent worship is our deep dive back into the very idolatry that had nearly consumed us in Egypt. And after all, if we’re not on board with the whole one-God-only idea, the rest of the Jewish project is a bit of a no-go, right? That being the case, you might expect Torah to use particular language in the description of this event. For instance, the word עברה (aveira). Though often translated generally as ‘sin,’ the root of עברה (ע.ב.ר) actually means to cross over something –like a boundary. Thus, עברה is better translated as ‘transgression.’ Likewise, the word עוון (avon) will sometimes be casually translated as sin, but the root of this word (ע.ו.נ) actually means ‘crime’ or ‘offense.’

Thus, it would make sense that Torah would use at least one of these words to describe the actions of b’nei Yisrael with regard to the Calf. Does it? No. Torah uses the word חטא (het) -het, tet, alef –and עברה (aveira) and עוון (avon) are nowhere to be found. Now, the word חטא (het) definitely falls under the general category of ‘sin,’ but as you may know, חטא means, to miss something –like missing the mark. So how does that square with the gravity of this whole episode? After all, we know that God was so angered by this whole thing as to say to Moshe, ‘Never mind, I’ve had it with these people! I’m going to start over with your descendants.’

There’s an interesting gap that often occurs in the retelling of this story. That is, there
tends to be a gap between the initial Calf Incident and the reconciliation which the building of the mishkan represents. We obviously know how the narrative ends, and because of that our impulse in talking about this puzzling –perhaps even painful –incident is to skip straight to the nechemta (the consolation). The thought that God might actually have destroyed our ancestors is altogether too uncomfortable to really consider. But Torah presents us with no such gap, and we do ourselves a disservice if we simply skip ahead to the happy ending in our retelling. Yes, it is part of human nature to be averse to discomfort; the truth is though, that we learn the most about ourselves and life when we have the courage to be present with that discomfort.

The fact is that the resolution between us and God doesn’t come right away. In fact, there were some pretty harsh consequences for our actions –consequences we read about just a few minutes ago. For one, God sends a plague upon the Israelites. Torah doesn’t elaborate as to how many people died from it, or when it stopped (or how it stopped, for that matter), only states that it happened. Not only that, in a bizarre act of civil-war-esque violence, the Levites rally behind Moshe and go from gate to gate in the Israelite camp, killing some three-thousand people that had been involved in the Calf Incident. Finally, God tells Moshe to relay this message to us: רֶ֧גַע אֶחָ֛ד אֶֽעֱלֶ֥ה בְקִרְבְּךָ֖ וְכִלִּיתִ֑יךָ “if I were to go among you for even a moment, I would destroy you.”

Here we are, on our way to Israel –the land that God promised to Avraham, Yiztchak, Yaakov and their descendants –and God is telling us that we can no longer have a close relationship. This, to me, is the worst consequence of the Golden Calf; it represents a rift in our relationship with God that, after the ecstatic events of the initial Revelation at Sinai, must have seemed like utter desolation. In fact, Torah tells us that our ancestors were devastated and that they actually went into mourning.

This dissonance can resonate strongly –maybe sometimes too strongly. Haven’t we all
encountered a situation where we find ourselves hopelessly wondering how we will ever pick up the pieces? How will things ever be right or good again? While part of us likely maintains that better days lie must ahead, the way to get there is obscured by the fog of our dismay. Where do we go from here?

Well, you may recall that a few parashiot ago in בוא (Bo) Torah tells us וְגַם־עֵ֥רֶב רַ֖ב עָלָ֣ה
אִתָּ֑ם, that there was also a mixed multitude of people that came with us out of Egypt. Who were these people? And why did they come with us? More likely than not, they were non-Israelites, which means that they brought with them customs and beliefs that were incompatible, to say the least, with ours. Was it they that died in the mysterious plague? Or maybe the Levites slaughtered them? To modern sensibilities, the thought that there was a literal slaughter is basically untenable.

So, let me give you a metaphor: If our slavery in Egypt stands for spiritual confusion and lostness, then the “mixed multitude” becomes a metaphor for all the beliefs that no longer served us. We didn’t know we’d brought them with us because until the catalyst of the Golden Calf we were unconscious of them. Sooner or later these beliefs needed to be dealt with, because they were totally incompatible with the spiritual work God required of us. How often is it in our own lives that we realize what kind of toxic beliefs we’re holding onto only in the wake of painful mistakes?

Which brings us back to the word חטא (het). The Golden Calf was a mistake and though I argue in defense of our ancestors that it was done with total innocence, there was still the fallout to be dealt with. The mixed multitude of toxic beliefs had to be cleared from our midst before we could progress forward. After all, where is the room for God in our lives if so much space is being taken up by that which no longer serves us?

My friends, I truly hope that we are at the end of this long, heartbreaking, separation
from each other. And I believe that we have a tremendous opportunity here to take stock of the things that were part of lives before this pandemic that really no longer serve us going forward. True, sometimes changes come into our lives that we do not desire, and for which did not ask. And yet –even despite that –there is always room us to create something positive in due time from whatever fallout the change brings.

In a few weeks we, ourselves, are going to be leaving Egypt, and we have the incredible gift of knowing ahead of time that we’re leaving. Unlike our ancestors, this isn’t something that will be sprung upon us in the dead of night. Learning to be close to God isn’t easy work. But it is, possibly, the only work that is worth doing in life, and there are many, many avenues we can use to accomplish this.

Though the resolution to these intensely uncomfortable times in our lives may not yet be fully realized, now we can –indeed we must –ask ourselves, what kind of things we’re bringing into the future with us. While we, ourselves, are not making amends for some communal sin here in 2021 we do have the opportunity to construct a kind of mishkan that maybe we wouldn’t have considered before all of this. The point is that now is the time for us to draw close to God in our own lives. Closer and closer, because that closeness is what will ultimately propel us into our next phase of existence together –into a future that we may not have foreseen and that is entirely possible now. Shabbat shalom.

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