I have always thought of the molten calf episode in the middle of Parashat Ki Tissa as a kind of intruder in the middle of the description of the mishkan. We have, at the end of the book of Shemot / Exodus, a total of13 chapters, spread over five parashiyyot, of descriptions of the mishkan and all of its implements and principles and construction and initiation ceremony, all recounted in stunning, and some would say monotonous, detail.
And then, right in the middle of that, there is this curious story about how the Israelites were anxious because Moshe had not yet come down from Mt. Sinai, and so they compel his brother Aharon, who will soon officially be the Kohen Gadol, the Big Kahuna, the High Priest, to fashion an idol of gold, a calf. And they bow down in a flagrant display of idolatry, and dance about and commit lewd acts.
And God and Moshe, meanwhile, when they discover all of this, are not happy indeed.
The people’s notion, as captured in their request to Aharon is, (Shemot / Exodus 32:1)
ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ
“Come, make us gods who shall go before us…”
They wanted not the one true God, of course, but gods, with a lower-case “g.” They want the thing that the Torah is primarily aligned against: idols. Empty gods. Falsehood.
And then, to demonstrate the fact that they have not yet received the message about idolatry, when the calf and the altar is complete, not only do the people worship the offending idol, but they then eat and drink in celebration, and arise “letzaheq” (v. 6), a word translated by JPS as “to dance,” although Rashi tells us that this word implies the three biggest transgressions of the Torah: idolatry of course (they have already checked that box), murder, and sexual immorality.
How could this be the right god? How could the Israelites have wanted these gods to go before them?
It is clear that this passage is inserted into the seemingly-endless mishkan construction detail not only because the brief story refreshes the narrative after it had been bogged down in mundane descriptions of materials and planks and clasps, but also because it serves to reinforce the essential message of the mishkan, which is this: We are finished with all of that idolatry business, and the nasty stuff that comes along with it.
So what did the Israelites want? Was it murder and orgies and bowing down to idols? Or was it something else? Did they merely latch onto the wrong thing, i.e. idolatry, because it’s all they knew from Egypt? Did they command Aharon to make them an idol because they were trying to fill a spiritual void? They clearly lacked the maturity as a people to connect the dots between the laws already given (i.e. the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,… you shall have no other gods before me.”) and their new paradigm.
I spent the earlier part of this week “at” the convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international professional organization of Conservative rabbis. Of course it was online, as most things seem to be these days, and as I am sure you can imagine, this has its advantages and disadvantages. I find that it is easier to learn new material and pick up tips from my fellow rabbis when I am away from the everyday bustle of work and home. One advantage to a Zoom convention, of course, is that you do not have to pick yourself up off the couch to attend a session.
One of the items in which I participated was a so-called “Professional Learning Community,” a discussion with fellow rabbis that took place over three days for a total of six hours, on the subject of racial justice. In particular, our goal was to share wisdom and suggestions as to how we as individual rabbis could address this program in our own communities, but also to create some guidelines for the Rabbinical Assembly regarding how we might move forward as an organization with respect to these issues.
Why must the Rabbinical Assembly and Conservative synagogues address issues of race? I’m so glad you asked!
In this season in particular, in which we are preparing for Pesah, also known as Hag haHerut, the celebration of our freedom, we are obligated to remember that nobody is truly free when some are enslaved.
That is precisely why we say in Aramaic, as an introduction to telling the Exodus story at the seder, “Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul / Kol ditzrikh yeitei veyifsah.” Let all who are hungry, come and eat / Let all who are in need come and celebrate Pesah, this festival of freedom. We know that, as much as we have strived in America to create a system that treats all citizens equitably, the reality is that outcomes here with respect to education, health care, housing, and so forth are clearly uneven. We remind ourselves at the seder that it is our obligation to welcome our neighbor in: the one who is hungry, the one who is in need of freedom, the one who is disenfranchised.
One of the points of concern that our rabbinic task force faced is the question that some of our congregants ask, and that you may be thinking right now. “OK, Rabbi, I understand the need to help those who have been hurt by racial prejudice, but what about anti-Semitism? Shouldn’t you be talking about that instead? Shouldn’t we be focused on the challenge presented by those who are prejudiced against Jews?”
Many of us are concerned about anti-Semitic activity right now, and here in Pittsburgh we understand that too painfully. And when we see splashed across our screens a “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirt and detestable symbols of anti-Jewish hatred that have proliferated in recent years across the American landscape, we should absolutely be concerned about that. Perhaps you might think that a focus on racism means that we are neglecting the struggle against anti-Semitism.
But this is not our God’s broad path of justice. This is the narrow path of idolatry. We cannot be only concerned for ourselves (see, for example, Pirqei Avot 1:14); if we are, we run the risk of being at the end of the litany famously delivered by Pastor Martin Niemoller, a quote that is engraved in our consciousness as a cautionary tale about the Shoah: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out, for I was not a socialist.” Etc.
Our God is not so narrowly focused. Rather, God’s commitment to justice is broad.
It is essential for us to understand that holding aloft the anti-Semitism banner, without also addressing the other victims of hatred in our midst, that is something like idolatry. It obscures the fact that God wants us to treat all people equitably. Likewise, to address only issues of racism and implicit bias in our society without including the anti-Semitism in our midst, is also akin to idolatry.
Our God, the God of justice, is the one true God that leads us to work for the equitable treatment of all. Not just the Jews, mind you, nor only the people of any other particular group. Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat; the word “kol” / all is clear. All.
The Talmud reminds us that the first Beit HaMiqdash / Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to idolatry, murder, and sexual immorality, the same things that the Israelites indulged in during Parashat Ki Tissa, when they built a calf of gold and bowed down to it. The Talmud goes on to tell us that the second Beit HaMiqdash was destroyed due to sin’at hinnam, baseless hatred, of which all the types of hatred of the other are included. That sugya (Talmudic passage) wants us all to know that sin’at hinnam is on a par with the other three major prohibitions of Jewish life. Just as we cannot tolerate idolatry in our midst, so too must we not tolerate hate of any kind. Sin’at hinnam has no boundaries.
To that end, I wanted to make you all aware of the fact that we at Beth Shalom have been working quietly on these issues in our community for some time. Yes, many of our members are already involved in racial justice work as individuals, but you should also know that we have a racial justice task force, which came together over the summer, a small but dedicated group which has been gathering material to share with the entire congregation.
Among our goals is to begin the conversation about racial issues within our congregation, so that we might be better prepared to act when our neighbors need our help in closing the gap of racial injustice. We need to be ready, because just as they came to our side in our time of need, so too should we be there for them. That is what allies in the struggle against sin’at hinnam do. We need to be a part of that conversation.
We must continue to defend ourselves against the scourge of anti-Semitism, but we must also understand that this ancient hatred is one piece of a much larger continuum of hatred. In so doing, we will all be united in the broad struggle for justice and freedom that our God, the one true God, has commanded us to pursue.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/6/2021.)