The longest conversation I had about the situation in the Ukraine this week was with Rod Stewart. It was not with me alone, there were 6,999 concertgoers there with me, and it was really more Rod Stewart talking and us listening.
During his Monday concert, he shared his worries for the Ukraine and hopes that the world’s armies that are devoted to good and are currently nearby would act to prevent war. After a half hour of cheering for Rod, the audience was so silent at Rod’s reflection that he actually pointed it out and was concerned that we cared at all.
That tendency to go quiet when asked to contemplate overwhelming, daunting realities is something that Hebrew University Professor Dr. Renana Keydar has researched. She has studied the testimony of victims of mass atrocities. During the prosecuting of mass crimes, there is the need to use computers to analyze the testimonies of hundreds of victims. That is because overwhelming information like that of war or genocide can turn into a deafening cacophony. She names the reality that makes it difficult to listen to voices trying to talk to us if there is a difficult situation of an enormous scale.
In Ki Tisa, I imagine this reality affected Aaron. Moses is up on Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments and Aaron is left in charge of the people. They are so soon after slavery, still not used to the independence of life and living and Moses’ absence creates deep fear in them. And so they want a concrete replacement.
Exodus 32:1-6 reads:
- When the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Get up! Make us a G-d(s) who shall go before us, for this one – Moshe the man, who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has become of him.”
- Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”
- And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.
- He took them from them their hands, shaped them with a carving tool and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your G-d /These are yours G-ds, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt!”
I imagine Aaron in that same state of mind that Keydar refers to. A few Israelites urge him to create an idol in the wake of Moses’ absence and ultimately these asks gain a momentum that becomes intolerable and he caves in. Aaron more than anyone should know that his brother Moses’ absence has nothing to do with G-d’s presence, but I think he just becomes numb in the moment and gives in.
The Talmud has a discussion about whether or not controversial sections of Torah that speak of difficult painful moments should even be translated into the vernacular when they are read, acknowledging the painful nature of the incident. Talmud decides that the golden calf incident needs to be read aloud and not forgotten. Reuven Bulka notes, “Though the [calf] is a part of our history we would rather forget, the biblical inventory of mitzvah obligations runs contrary to that desire. It is in fact a mitzvah, an obligation, to remember how we angered G-d: Remember, do not forget, how you provoked the Lord your G-d in the desert (Deut. 9:7).”It is fair to say that nothing angered G-d more than the capitulation to the Golden Calf, anger to the point of wanting to destroy Israel and start again with only Moses. This we are obliged to remember.”
This is the very same goal of Keydar’s research. As she says, she wants us to listen to the voices of the victims of the past and the events that surrounded their victimhood in order to prevent the same things from happening in the future. A better future is achieved by idolizing not a golden calf, but instead idolizing our potential to be engaged in the pathway to a better world.
Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton