Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Ki Tisa
“Your people!” “No, your people!” The great Torah debate happens this week. Moses is atop Sinai while God is carving out the “10 Commandments.” God finishes the work and as the exchange takes place (according to tradition), Aaron and the people down below build the Golden Calf. Moses was gone for 40 days and 40 nights. The text does not make it clear that the people knew that it would take this long for Moses and God to do whatever needed to be done. All they knew was that he left them in the desert. They lost faith. They panicked, and Aaron sought to redirect their energy and focus. Yes, they experienced the Exodus. Yes, they experienced the waters open allowing them to escape Pharaoh’s chariots and weapons. They never actually got to see God, though. They had no idea what God might look like. They were afraid; Aaron understood. They could wait longer for Moses to return. They needed something upon which to hold and rest securely.
Whether what they did at the bottom of the mountain was acceptable / understandable or not, the debate on top of the mountain always troubles me. Who wants ownership of / a relationship with these people? God is angry at Israel for making the calf. “Moses, your people who you led out of Egypt …” God is going to destroy the people of Israel and start over with Moses. Moses responds, imploring into the face of God, “They’re your people who you led out of Egypt …” Sages will argue that Moses was trying to affirm God’s relationship, lest God forget. Others argue that God affirming Moses’ leadership. Since he was gone, they turned into a rabble. The people, however, only acted out because of their longing for God and/or Moses to return. Before their fear took over, they were normal law abiding people living in a new freedom, though not quite sure what to do with it. Without their “rock,” they could only fear dying out there, alone. Rational people moved to the irrational because of fear. All they want is stability. God and Moses, the entities who can provide it, only look down at them, annoyed that they are acting up.
I understand that this point of view flies in the face of normal Biblical commentary, but as I look around the world, I find myself unable to read the text in any other light. People entrust world leaders with our well being. We elect them to office expecting them to look after our best interests: our security, our economy, and our dignity. What have atop so many governmental systems are people in it for their own agenda, their own wealth, and their own power. When we get stuck living under their agendas, people suffer disenfranchisement, wars happen, the privileged class grows more powerful and the disenfranchised grow afraid of losing what they do have and they grow angry when the powerful ignore their needs. In cries of desperation, people reach out first for help and then, if ignored, for their own piece of the power pie. Rather than understand the need to help, the ruling class circles its wagons even more tightly. Rather than reaching out to help, they criticize and chastise, even punish, those who are in need. The anger grows. Revolutions do not happen because people experience care and compassion. They happen when the ignored, oppressed, or disenfranchised feel that they have no other source for redress.
Every day, we read the news and the people vying for control at the top remain unanswerable to the rest of their constituency. What I garner from Torah, this week, is a truth we teach from so many other stories across the religious spectrum: we are our brother’s keeper; we are responsible for and to each other; we are mutually dependent upon each other’s sense of decency and ethics. Where we take our cues from people in power who care nothing for these values, society rips apart.