Parshat Ki Tissa/ Shabbat Parah
This week’s Torah Portion, Ki Tissa contains several of the most dramatic moments in the Torah. This is the week when the Children of Israel demand that Aaron build them a molten calf. Hence this week’s special name–Shabbat Parah–the Sabbath of the Calf. Not only do they demand that Aaron make a God for them because of the extended absence of their leader (and Aaron’s brother) Moses. But they worship beneath it with revelry and dancing and celebration. Aaron proclaims, “This is your God Israel who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Ex. 32:8). It is this celebration that jars God and Moses from their 40 day dialogue at the top of Mt. Sinai.
God hears and sees the people’s lack of faith and disloyalty. They had just accepted the covenant. Moses went up the mountain to receive the details of the law in writing. But the people feared that he would not return. Their fear ate away at the faith they had developed through the series of miracles they had witnessed: the plagues in Egypt; the parting of the sea;providing manna and water in the desert; protecting them in battle against stronger enemies and hearing the voice of God at Mt. Sinai. But none of this was enough to sustain their faith. The Children of Israel wanted familiarity and comfort in the time of angst. They wanted an idol like the one they knew in Egypt. It became their focal point especially if Moses was no longer on the scene. Their fears drove them to return to old habits.
But t the most dramatic moment is yet to come as Moses himself is ordered to return to the encampment by God. Moses has tried to talk God down (to quote Rachel Maddow). God is so angry according to the Biblical text that God wants to destroy the people….. “I see this is a stiff-necked people” (Ex. 32 9).
But Moses engages with God, talks to God, reasons with God and tries to diffuse God’s rage and anger. But Moses’ own anger upon seeing the prancing and dancing and worship of this Calf Idol blazes forth. Moses had talked God down with compassion and reason-but his own anger and rage he can’t contain. And so just as the people broke their own vow of loyalty to God-of agreeing to the covenant which said make no image of God, you shall have no other god’s before me, Moses breaks the word of God by smashing the tablets he received.
The image of Moses hurling the Ten Commandments against the mountain side must have been a sight to see. Imagine the people caught up in their revelry and everything stopping; everything going completely quiet. But no one is there to talk Moses down from his rage and anger and disappointment in the people and in his brother Aaron. In his anger and rage Moses’ orders the death of those who will not recommit to God. His anger controls him.
This great sin of the Golden Calf goes to the core of a very ancient yet very contemporary question. And that is the question of faith. If you believed and had faith that God’s continued care and Moses’ continued presence would support and direct you then there would have been no need for the Golden Calf. But if you let your fear rise to levels of control then the making of the Golden Calf seems like a way to ease the fear. When we act out of fear and anger we revert to old destructive habits. When we breathe deeply and bring in the Spirit of the Holy One we can calm ourselves and act from a different place of strength and love even if the future is uncertain.
Our faith is not supposed to be on based on fear. It is supposed to be based on love. God’s love of us and our love of God. God loved us and remembered our covenant that is why we were liberated from oppression. God loved us and gave us a gift of Torah. God loved us by rescuing us from the Egyptians at the shores of the sea. God loved us that is why we were given the manna and water to quench our thirst.
And God’s love forgives the people and God’s love gives us the second set of the Ten Commandments.
So as we struggle to overcome our fears, let us put love into the equation. Let us learn to love more. Love people more and love God more. Let us learn to develop a strong faith based upon the reality of the survival of our People against all odds through centuries of oppression. Let that be proof of our covenantal promise that is being fulfilled. And let us fulfill our end of the covenantal promise as we strengthen our own commitments to the spiritual disciplines of Judaism. Let us breathe deeply of the Divine Holy Spirit and embody love as our model of living.