February 22nd: Ki Tisa
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
In a world plagued by scandals, it is perhaps appropriate that this week’s Torah portion presents the greatest scandal in Jewish history, the Golden Calf incident. Fresh from the Exodus with all of its miracles and the incredible revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites quickly forget about God and Moses and feel the need to craft another god to lead them on their way. “The people gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the Land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’” (Exodus 32.1) Aaron complies, solicits jewelry to melt down, and crafts the Golden Calf which the Israelites begin to worship.
Suffice it to say that Moses and God are not happy. God considers destroying the whole nation, while Moses throws the Tablets of the Covenant down, shattering them into oblivion. Moses also destroys the Golden Calf, grinds it into dust, and makes the Israelites drink waters made bitter with the powder. Some people are killed by angry Levites, and others die from a plague, but the majority of the Israelites survive. Among these survivors, surprisingly, is Aaron.
While some Israelites may be more guilty and others less so, Aaron is right in the middle of the sin. “All the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf.” (Exodus 32.3-4) How, then, does he get exonerated?! As one can imagine, the Sages spend quite a bit of time trying to figure how this works, and a number of their answers have interesting implications for our times.
One explanation for why Aaron is forgiven by God—or perhaps not even blamed—is his intention. The people think that they will worship the idol: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” But notice Aaron’s words: “Tomorrow shall be a festival of the Lord!” The Rabbis see this as Aaron attempting to divert the people’s worship back to the One God, and it is counted to Aaron’s merit.
Another explanation involves Aaron’s motivation. As the Midrash observes, Aaron realizes that, after this terrible sin, the people will need expiation, and he is the only one authorized to officiate at the atonement rituals. If he resists the peoples’ demands and is killed, then there will be no priest, and the people will never have the chance to repent and be cleansed. He goes along with the crowd so he will be around to help them repent. Building the calf is wrong, but God takes into account his purer motivation and holds him blameless—or less at fault.
In both cases, God seems to separate between the wrongness of the deed and the mindset of the sinner—which brings us to the case of Governor Dr. Ralph Northam and his racially insensitive youthful indiscretions.
The history of humanization has been long and rocky and plagued with misunderstanding. What seems obvious to the general public now was not even considered in past times. Or, perhaps we should put it this way. While some people are aware of injustice or disrespect at one point in history, it generally takes a while before such sentiments become widely accepted. Think of the very slow development of the equality of women. The principle was discussed a long time ago—for example by Jane Austen in the early 1800s, but the concrete steps toward egalitarianism were not actualized until many, many decades later. Or consider the slowly developing equality of people of color, or of LGBTQA individuals, or, for that matter of various religious minorities. Humanity has come from some very dark places in our gradual realization that true human-ness exists in many forms and variations. This is what is called progress.
One of my favorite examples is the Reform Jewish embrace of feminism. While the full equality of women has been part of Reform Jewish ideology since the 1800s, the particular issue of gender non-specific language was simply not on the radar for our movement’s leadership in the early 1970s. As a result, our prayer book, Gates of Prayer, was composed and edited with what were soon glaring problems: God is referred to as King and He, and the Amidah includes only the Patriarchs—ignoring the Matriarchs except in implication. Despite the fact that ours is a movement that jumps on every social justice bandwagon quickly and with institutional vigor, our 1975 prayer book is full of gender insensitivities! We invested great emotional, organizational, and financial energy but did so just before the issue of gender non-specific language came to the fore. As a result, our movement’s prayer book was, from an egalitarian perspective, obsolete very early in its career.
The march of progress is agonizingly slow for those feeling the brunt of oppression, but, unfortunately, social and attitudinal inertia is hard to overcome, and awareness is generally slow to dawn. This is not an excuse; it is simply an observation on the nature of culture and progress.
Indeed, the road to progress is often paved with weird and ironic incidents. Do you remember the 1993 episode at the Friars Club when Ted Danson and then girlfriend Whoopi Goldberg thought it would be funny for Danson to appear in blackface? That it was not received as funny surprised them both. Do you remember when Mickey Rooney appeared as a Japanese neighbor in the 1961 movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s? I cannot say that Japanese people appreciated the performance, but the producers of a very cutting edge and deep film somehow thought that this comic relief was appropriate. A more obscure film reference comes from the 2005 movie Prime, starring Uma Thurman and Meryl Streep. Produced by a very liberal and politically correct Hollywood and set in the very liberal and politically correct Upper West Side of Manhattan, its young white men use the n-word as an expression of affection for each other. Is this a matter of cultural insensitivity or cultural appropriation, or does it represent a different or time-bound opinion about what is appropriate?
My point is that motivation, intention, and historical context should be considered when we judge another person’s actions. This is certainly the Midrash’s understanding of the judgment of Aaron. Moreover, if the indiscretion or insensitivity occurred long ago, should not the sinner’s behavior in the intervening years be considered? The point of progress is not to destroy one’s opponents, but rather to convert them. And, if that conversion has been operative for many, many years, should the discovery of a very old sin affect the sinner’s current moral standing? Hate the sin; love the sinner! Hate the sin; love the repentant sinner!