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Parashat Ki Tisa 5776 — 02/27/2016

Parashat Ki Tisa 5776 — 02/27/2016

Shemot 30:11-34:35

The commentators are all at pains to point out that the sin of the Golden Calf was not really idolatry, at least on the part of the great mass of the people. They specifically asked for a replacement not for Gd, but for Moshe, who had “delayed coming down from the mountain.” And certainly Aharon would not have countenanced idolatry, nor would his role be so downplayed had he in fact made an idol, and he certainly would not have been the High Priest if he had been guilty of idolatry! So what was going on?

R. Steinsaltz explains that worshiping an abstract Gd is extremely difficult, because we are concrete beings:

Our need for tangibility is innate, as it is very difficult to focus on Gd in the abstract. To be devoted exclusively to Gd on the most abstract level is very difficult, and not everyone is capable of this task; it may not even be possible for anyone to do completely.

In fact, Gd recognizes this need for tangibility, and commands that we build a Mishkan to provide a focus for worship. The difference of course is that the one was commanded by Gd, and the other was dreamt up by the people themselves. It’s clear which one is more likely to produce holiness in the world. As we saw, the Mishkan is a structure that is precisely engineered to connect heaven and earth. The calf on the other hand was a panicked reaction of a frightened people, who thought they were lost in the desert without their miracle-working leader.

R. Steinsaltz continues:

Since it is so difficult to turn our thoughts heavenward for more than a moment, we need some kind of focus, a point that we can grasp. However, once this focus is achieved, it is very easy for it to deteriorate. Instead of using this tangible point simply as a means of looking heavenward, one is liable to begin ascribing religious significance to the thing itself. We tend, increasingly, to forget the goal and remember only the means. …

This is the essence of idolatry – taking a heavenly form and corrupting it, bringing it down to the physical realm. But idolatry takes this notion one step further. Not only is a divine construct brought low, the converse occurs as well: An earthly entity is elevated to a lofty position. Man himself, in various ways, becomes an exalted figure, an object of worship. … A person deifies himself when he rejects bounds and limits and begins to consider himself, to a certain degree, the king of the world.

I think R. Steinsaltz’ insight gives us a picture of why the Golden Calf incident specifically came directly after the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. The Revelation at Mt. Sinai certainly had its tangible components – a dark cloud and the sound of the Shofar blowing, but it was actually a completely abstract experience. The Midrash tells us that the entire world was completely silent at the time of the Revelation – not a bird chirped nor did a dog bark. And the Torah reminds us that our ancestors saw no form at all, only a voice, which, according to the tradition, spoke to each member of the Jewish people on his or her own level of understanding and ability to comprehend.

This experience of silence and abstraction can actually be rather frightening, especially if it seems thrust upon us from “outside.” If we analyze our usual experience, it has three components: the subject (us, the experiencer), the object (that which we are experiencing) and the process of experience. The object, whether it is physical or mental, is a boundary – it is not us. We, too, are bounded. We identify with the boundaries of our bodies, our minds, our egos. If we start to perceive the object of perception on its more abstract levels, its boundaries begin to get fuzzier and fuzzier, more transparent as it were. The eventual result of this process is that even the faintest boundaries, the faintest whiff of the concrete, is transcended and we are left with only our own self, which is infinite and unbounded. That is, the object of experience drops off, yet we are not unconscious – we are awake inside ourselves, we experience our unbounded nature.

This experience is very different from our normal experience. We are left alone with ourself; there are no boundaries to distinguish one thing from another, or our self from anything else. Since we are generally identified with our individuality, our thoughts, our body, this can be very frightening, at least at first. The question is generally asked, how could the Israelites have made a golden calf only 40 days after the awesome Revelation. In fact, I’d like to suggest that it is precisely because Gd had revealed Himself to the Israelites – and removed them from their normal existence into a realm where they were not yet prepared to remain. The Midrash tells us that they were so overcome by the experience that their souls left them and a band of angels had to come and revive each one. After that experience, it didn’t take much of a trigger for them to begin to cast about desperately for something concrete to focus their awareness on.

After so many generations of slavery and being sunk in the mire of Egyptian materialism, the Israelites had almost forgotten their spiritual roots in silence and solitude. It took a jolt to wake them up out of their stupor – this jolt was provided by the experience of the Exodus, the splitting of the Sea, and finally, by the Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Certainly, the experience of the transcendent has made a lasting impression on us as a people, but it was apparently not enough to stabilize the experience to the extent that we have really become free of our attachment to the material world, the world of concrete experience.

What is apparently needed is regular repetition of the experience of the transcendent, alternating with our usual experience and activity in the outside world. This gives us “practice” as it were, maintaining unbounded awareness as a sort of background to all our activity and perception. When we have accomplished this, we’ll have truly internalized the experience of Sinai.

Haftarah: I Kings 18:1-39

(Sephardim begin at verse 20.  I don’t know why the Sephardim generally have shorter Haftarah readings.)

Our Haftarah is the famous confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al, the idol of choice in the Northern Kingdom during the time of Ahav and Izevel (Jezebel – the “bel” at the end of her name is from “Ba’al” and is the same kind of usage as the “El” at the end of names like Yechezkel (Ezekiel) or “Yah” at the end of Adoniyah). Elijah arranges a “contest” between himself, speaking for Gd, and 450 “prophets” of Ba’al. The test is to arrange burnt-offerings, but not to put fire on them, only call on the relevant deity, and the one that would answer would be acknowledged as the real Deity. After the Ba’al fails to respond to his acolytes’ calls, and some trash-talking by Elijah, Gd sends down fire from Heaven and consumes the wood and the offering, and the people cry out “Hashem – He is Gd! Hashem – He is Gd!” and proceed to kill the 450 prophets of Ba’al. We call out the same cry at the end of our Yom Kippur service. The Haftarah ends on this positive note.

The story however continues. Izevel sends a message to Elijah telling him that his victory will be short-lived, and in fact that is what happens. Instead of continuing with exclusive worship of Gd, the people relapse quickly into Ba’al-idolatry, and Ahav and Izevel reassert their authority over the country. Perhaps the connection between the parashah and the haftarah lies more in what was omitted than in what was included. True spiritual transformation may be catalyzed by a profound, “peak” experience, but it takes time and repeated, regular experience for the growth to become stabilized. It may take a lifetime, but that’s what Gd gave us life for!