Shabbat Ki Tisa: False Gods and Fear

Jews are still waiting; we don’t live in a world already redeemed by the advent of the Messiah. We live not in a world of Messianic ethics, where questions are resolved and the path forward is clear; we live in a world of “messy ethics.” – Dr. Byron Sherwin ז״ל

Everything that seemed so promising so recently now seems doomed. The Israelites are in the wilderness, unsure of everything, aware only that Moshe is our leader, to whom we look for answers. But for weeks now he has been absent. Everything is endangered; ill omens abound. Fear grips the people. Now, they demand: now, we want an answer.

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֙נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” (Exodus 32.1)

Make us a god. Make us something we can believe in, that we can trust in, that will save us. We can hear them sounding a lot like us as they demand it: give us clarity, give us a solution, once and for all, to the problems that plague us and our society. 

We may derive insight – but also a warning – into our own moment in time, from this story and its outcome. Let’s look at the continuation of this story, which recounts the creation of the Golden Calf:

וַיִּתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כׇּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאׇזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹֽן

And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.

וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם

This he took from them and cast, and made it into a molten bull. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

וַיַּ֣רְא אַהֲרֹ֔ן וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ לְפָנָ֑יו וַיִּקְרָ֤א אַֽהֲרֹן֙ וַיֹּאמַ֔ר חַ֥ג לה’ מָחָֽר

When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron announced: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of ‘ה”  (Exodus 32.4-6)

So far it doesn’t look so bad; who doesn’t love a street festival to celebrate our community? But the close readers of our rabbinic tradition ask: what did Aaron see, in verse 6? According to a chilling midrash, he saw that the people had killed his sister Miriam’s partner, Hur when he stepped forward to reason with what by now was an unreasoning mob. Out of justified fear for his own life, then, Aaron went along with the energy of the moment, and facilitated the creation of a false god.

In our own time and place, many of us feel that the leadership that should attend to our needs and our safety is absent. Like the Israelites, we cast about looking for strong leadership and for certain security.

Make us a god. Make us something we can believe in, that we can trust in, that will save us. 

How much frustration does it take to lose our ability to reason, to become a sort of mob ourselves, or to feel forced to go along with what the majority is demanding, no matter how unethical it is? What happens to our ability to reason, and to care about others, when we do?

In our Portland community, there is for some people a growing sense that “something must be done” about a number of social plagues. One of them is houselessness.

No one can fail to see the growing number of tents throughout our community. The starkness of the failure of our society to prevent this horror can bring out the yetzer hara’ in us, encouraging us to believe that it could never happen to us, these people are all either mentally ill or drug addicted. This is outright idol worship, because it sets up a false certainty that we then rely upon in order to determine our treatment of other human beings. It gives the lie to the teaching we use when we ourselves seek to be treated justly and with compassion in our non-Jewish and sometimes antisemitic environment: all human beings are created in the Image of G*d. 

Either they are or they are not. If we truly believe in the Jewish ethical tradition that offers us its guidance, we have to find a way to deal with the messiness. We can’t react out of fear, and we can’t believe in one answer to a complex problem.

So what are some of the complex, messy, humane answers? To learn more about compassionate, i.e. Jewish responses to houselessness, learn from Street Roots; the Portland Street Response; from Home Together’s Road Map, featured in the January 24 2022 Oregonian (read it here) and backed by leaders as diverse as Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, Michael Liu of Fubonn Shopping Center on behalf of the Portland Business Alliance, and Brandi Tuck of Portland Homeless Family Solutions. The Road Map is endorsed by Shir Tikvah, among 190 other community leaders.

“We don’t solve complex problems by sowing fear and frustration. We can only solve them by bringing people together, listening to the experts who work on the front lines, and taking action on proven solutions to meet our needs both now and in the years to come.”

The nice thing abut a god is that we can relax, because finally, something greater than us is in charge. But according to the teaching of this parashat hashavua, a false god is created by fear, and it brings not security and hope but disillusion and death. 

In the Torah it is written:

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ        

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive on the land where HaShem has given you to rest. (Devarim 16.20)

Our rabbinic tradition derives the teaching that we must pursue justice justly. It’s a higher standard, yes. Not everyone can manage it. But that’s the mitzvah – the sacred obligation. 

With gratitude for Torah study, where we create and hold space for frustration and fear, inquiry and doubt, hope and companionship.

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