Friday, February 26, 2016

Parashat Ki Tisa and Partial Truths

Shabbat Shalom! Do you remember when you were a kid and you asked an adult something, and they said, "Just a minute"? So you waited patiently and counted, "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi..." to 60, a full minute, but they still were too busy to answer your simple question! How frustrating was that?! The WORST. Now imagine, you were waiting for 40 days. That is FOREVER. Then the fortieth day comes, and you're like, "Finally! Imma get that answer!" But the day wears on and your adult is nowhere to be found and you get impatient and you decide to just figure it out for yourself, and just as you're feeling pretty proud of yourself for being so independent and smart and mature and figuring it out without that adult (where they heck are they anyway?!), they come home. And they are NOT PLEASED with your independent decision. "I said I'd be GONE for 40 days," your adult admonishes loudly, "not that I'd be back IN 40 days!" To you, they were already gone for so long you couldn't believe they'd be a minute later than you were expecting, but to them, they are back right on time, and gosh darn it they've been busy this whole time! Couldn't you just have been patient?!
This is essentially what happens in this week’s parasha, Ki Tisa, the story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites are a freshly free people. Their pain was ignored by God for generations, and in matters of autonomy and theology, they are basically children. Also, some of them literally are children. We're talking about an entire community here. So when Moses goes for 40 days, and he's not back exactly when expected on the 40th day, they (pretty understandably) freak out. They think they've been abandoned again.
All this would be reasonable enough as it is to help understand the motives behind this obviously terrible decision in seemingly idol worship, but a Midrash from Exodus Rabbah helps paint the Israelites in an even more sympathetic light. It says, "God said to Moses: You see [the Israelites] now, but I see how they are going to see me. I will be going forth in my carriage to give them the Torah... and they will detach one of my team and anger me with it, as it is written [in Ezekiel]: 'An ox's face on the left.'" There are many midrashim about what the Israelites saw while crossing the Sea of Reeds, that it was a revelatory moment in miniature, a preparation for the big revelation to come at Sinai. The people saw God in a direct way that humans generally don't, and can't. In this Midrash, they saw God driving the Divine chariot, herding them through the Sea. According to Ezekiel, the chariot has four faces: a lion, an eagle, a human, and a bull. The people, apparently walking to God's left, only see the bull. To them, this is what the God who led them to freedom looks like. So when they build a Golden Calf, it's not an arbitrary idol to worship, it's a testament to the God they think they know.
Each of us can only hold to the truths we've seen and personally understood. None of us are able to see whole truths or understand the Divine in a complete and holistic way. The universe is too complex for that, humanity too nuanced. Rather than always trying to assert our own truths, sometimes it is better to try to see the angles from with others look at the same chariot and figure out where our differences and similarities really lie. Perhaps the Egyptians saw the lion and the fish in the parted sea saw the human and the birds flying overhead saw the eagle, but were they not all looking at the same God and Divine chariot? We have only one earth to share. We can't get along with everyone, but whenever we do have an opportunity to appreciate nuance, to look upon a different face of God, to truly connect with someone new and different, it would be healthy to try to do so. And I hope and pray others do the same. And anyway, in the grand scheme of things, what’s 40 days? So, in the meantime, may we all be a little more patient. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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