Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah-Ki Tisa

This week’s Torah portion includes one of the most dramatic episodes in all of scripture. Standing atop Mt. Sinai, Moses and God have a heated debate. The people built a Golden Calf. Moses spent over a month on the mountain with God. Israel began to lose faith. Angry, God threatened to destroy the entire nation and start over again with Moses. In response, Moses not only rebuked God for God’s anger but made God capitulate from the Divine wrath that was to burn against the people. Ultimately, Moses makes it clear that if God breaks the promise to uphold and support Abraham’s descendants, all would be lost. Moses demanded to be blotted out of this book if God did not repent. Moses’ commitment to the people won the day, and God demonstrated appreciation for Moses’ righteous leadership. God passed before Moses giving him a glimpse of the divine being. God then announces 13 attributes of divine mercy.

“Adonai, Adonai, benevolent God, Who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness and truth, preserving loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and rebellion and transgression.”
These 13 Attributes of God’s mercy are central to the Yom Kippur liturgy. On that day we seek to wipe the slate clean and start over. We atone and forgive, and commit to making every day a Yom Kippur. We commit to renewing our relationships every day. Ultimately, the message is that mercy is the path to God. Leadership must base itself in mercy and compassion if it roots in faith. If there was only strict justice without mercy, the Rabbis teach, no one would survive.

We define one’s leadership effectiveness more on the atmosphere one creates than one’s skill set in any given endeavor. To be effective, a leader must act in ways that bring people together. God’s 13 “Attributes of Mercy” provide the framework around which one can fulfill this goal. So, I read once that this concept of righteous leadership helps define the difference between a movement and a mob. Torah gives us a glimpse of both this week and the glimpse may be unsettling. Mobs act with slave-like mentality; compassion is a word unheard in the conversation of a mob. Four 400 years, slavery was all that Israel knew. Even after Israel marches into freedom physically, intellectually and emotionally each individual only understood servitude. When they did not get their way, all hell broke loose. Even while Moses showed incredible deference to the people (to the point of taking God on face to face in their defense), it took forty years of wandering before a new generation took control; a generation that never knew bondage.

Over the course of this time, Moses crafted a movement. His compassionate leadership fostered the sharing of control and the welcome and training of new leaders. He empowered judges and elders; and priests. In fact, all of Israel becomes a “Mamlechet Kohanim – a Kingdom of priests.” Like Aaron, we accept the command to seek peace and pursue it. They enacted laws protecting property rights and redressing injury. Women successfully asserted their claims to equality (the daughters of Zelophechad). People settled on land, grew communities and gave life to a tradition as diverse as the original tribal personalities. Movements hold together and flourish because of relationships, not dogma. Our tradition’s success roots in the stereotypical joke that if there are three Jews, one hears twelve opinions (all of them with equal validity). Mobs tend to be monolithic: one is in or out by order of the demagogue in power; that’s it.

We know what it takes to build a community. We know what it takes to help a community flourish. We know that mobs exist dogmatically destroying the sanctity of our world. We know that demagogues foster the passion for destruction. We must stand up for each other and never tolerate the return of our ancestral mob mentality. When confronted with mobs who threaten the sanctity of our relationships, we have to remember that each of us is the priest ordered to be compassionate in leadership and peace seeking. It is time for us to lead people back into the family. Shabbat Shalom.