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03/07/2024 04:14:23 PM


Senior Rabbi Benjamin Sharff

This week we will be reading from parashat Ki Tisa. In it we find the famous story of the ‘incident’ with the egel Zahav, the golden calf. With that in mind, in preparation for tonight I rewatched the depiction of this scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s Biblical Epic, The 10 Commandments. 
It begins with some Israelites bringing forth the golden calf on a pedestal. While this happens, they are surrounded by dancing with reckless abandon and music overlaying the scene. 

Then you hear the interjection of the narrator, “And the people sinned a great sin. For they had made them a god of gold. And they brought them upon their shoulders and they rejoiced, saying this be our god O’ Israel… They were as children who had lost their faith. They were perverse and crooked and rebellious against god. They did eat the bread of wickedness and the wine of violence. And they did evil in the eyes of the Lord. And the people cried, the graven image has brought us joy. And they worshipped the golden calf and sacrificed unto it.” Whereupon a young woman is placed on the pedestal, with the implication that she is about to be sacrificed to the golden calf.

This scene is powerful and haunting and cinematic … and almost nothing like what the Torah describes. Instead, in Exodus 32 it says, “Vayar Ha’am, ki voshesh Mosesh la’redet min ha’har, when the people saw that Moses was long in coming down from the Mountain, the people gathered against (or possibly before) 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.”  A little while later, they declared, “This is your god (meaning the golden calf), O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” 

We will cover the rest of the text in Torah study tomorrow, but needless to say, it is still powerful, but reflects a different reality than that depicted by DeMille. 
There is a lot to unpack here. First, we are not going to get into Aaron’s culpability. Nor are we going to spend much time thinking about this golden calf. For it was made of the gold acquired from Egypt that were earrings. Which meant, this calf was probably not a six-foot figure, but much more likely a small figurine. A much less impressive idol. We are also not going to argue how this was not why the Israelites had to wander another 38 years in the desert (hint, that was because of the incident with the scouts). Nor are we going to really dive into the poetic license taken by the filmmakers to capture such an indelible image that many of still see in our minds’ eye of when we story of the golden calf.

Instead, we can start with the impulse of the Israelites and others to create such an idol. Here, the Israelites are newly freed from Egypt. They are awaiting Moses’ return from the top of Mt. Sinai. They are waiting for their leader, their redeemer, to come back to them. Moses had already been on the heights of Mt. Sinai receiving any number of mitzvot, not just the 10 Commandments. And as the text states, he was delayed. 

The peoples’ sense of comfort, assurance, and safety was fading, if not shattered. To this end, they responded to by creating the only manifestation of such feelings they knew they could conjure, an idol. In times of great uncertainty and discomfort, it is all too often, human nature, to turn towards certainty. But why an idol? Because for them, the idol gives the illusion of control. If the idol is a manifestation of your god, and you make it of your own hands, it will obey or at least hear your will, and look kindly upon you. This is in part, why idolatry was frowned upon early in our tradition, idols are our own creations. In a sense, by worshipping idols, we are really worshipping ourselves. 

And today, I wanted to speak a little more about this illusion of control and how it is manifesting with the ongoing conflict, battle, war, in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank.

One of the many conspiracy theories of antisemitism is that we Jews or at least a cabal of Jews controls world events. You can still see it when people mention the name like George Soros, or also as it is articulated in the famous fictional, farcical, Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This is in part why you don’t see protests in front of Russian Orthodox churches over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but you do encounter such protests, graffiti, and violence around Jewish intuitions like synagogues and JCCs because of Israel. Because clearly, all Jews are responsible for Israel.

When it comes to Israel, however, there is more than just this antisemitic conspiracy theory. Even we Jews have a belief that we have more control than we actually do. This is in part, because for a long time, Jews, especially those of us in North America, helped Israel come into existence and supported it through many existential crises. We bought and continue to buy bonds, and we planted trees. But nowadays, Israel is a first-world country, with first world problems. Our speakers from the Spirit of Galilee, articulated some of these challenges including racism, educational inequalities, social inequalities, rising religious fundamentalism, and many of the challenges minorities face. Concepts not so new to us living in the imperfect democracy that is the United States.

But the piece we don’t really talk about so much is that there are now more Jews in Israel than anywhere else in the world. To use a poor analogy, like a grown adult, Israel no longer needs us, and instead is looking for more of a mature relationship with us, as opposed to one that looks more like Shel Silverstein’s the Giving Tree. 
There is no stance, there is no fight, there is no argument we can make here, between each other, that is going to influence what happens half-way across the world. Look, we can’t even get Israel to fund and support an egalitarian section of the Western Wall, the Kotel, let alone listen to us about how to approach military operations.
But what about the United States? Can’t the US put pressure on our ally? As I was watching the Daily Show with the return of Jon Stewart, he and his guests reminded us that we in the US have been living with the fiction of the Marshall Plan for decades now. Yes, the US helped to rebuild Europe and Japan after World War II. But almost every other American intervention since then, whether in Vietnam, Central or South America, Afghanistan, or Iraq, just to name a few; even with the best of intentions, has more often than not, has failed. The U.S. has much less influence than both our politicians and other countries would have us believe. 

Why do I mention all of this? I mention it because we are still living, like the Israelites, under the illusion of control. And because of that illusion, we allow ourselves to get angry at others and demand answers, actions, or other responses that in fact, are not really going help solve anything, but may instead, tear families and communities apart. 

This is not to say we should not have opinions. This is not to say we should not care for all those who are suffering. This is not to say we should not demand a return of the hostages or call for a diplomatic end to the current violence along with an end to the continued cycle of violence.
But it is a call to realize that there is more going on. Throughout most of its history, Israel was not important. But it was always on the way to somewhere else important. That is why it was conquered over and over again. It was only with the rise, first of Christianity, and later Islam, with this idea of who was in control of the land, did Israel, later renamed by the Romans, Palestine, did it start to become important to the larger world as opposed to the people who lived there and the dreams of a small, oppressed people forced out of the land.

Except perhaps for during the times of the Crusades, Israel-Palestine, was really a forgotten part of the world. So why has it become the central focus of seemingly everyone? There answers are myriad and complex. We aren’t going to be able to dive into all of them tonight, but simply to say, it is more than just a struggle between two peoples over who should have possession of the land. There is so much more afoot. For example, the suffering of the Palestinians often serves the narratives of dictators in the Middle East. This enables the people suffering in other lands to be able to blame Israel and the United States for their suffering as and keeps despots in power. It plays into the hands of nations like Russia that want the US distracted and focused on the Middle East as opposed to Eastern Europe. Iran wants to expand its hegemony, which is why it is such a huge sponsor of terrorism and terroristic regimes. Nations like Saudi Arabia are looking to fight against Iranian influence. And this is without even looking at Turkey, or China, or others who have a vested interest into continued instability in the region as a means of serving their own ends. And the current right-wing government of Israel that has its own political and religious aims that is also bolstered and emboldened by right-wing settlers and religious zealots.
And for those who are arguing that all financial aid needs to be cut off from Israel, just remember, Israel is using that money to buy American military equipment. The US is just supporting its own military industrial complex, which always has a vested interest in war. 

This is so much more than an Israeli – Palestinian conflict. It is not merely the imagery of David vs. Goliath, or Goliath vs. David. It is multi-faceted. It is messy. And it is ugly.

Of course, lost in all of this is the continued suffering of the Palestinian people and so many Israelis. 

And yet, with this illusion of control, we have to be careful of not falling into the narrative that all we have to do is win the argument. All we have to do is shout down opposing viewpoints. All we have to do is prove that we are right and the other side, whatever side it is, is wrong. It is so comfortable and so human to create idols of certainty. And where there is certainty, hate is not far behind. For if someone disagrees with me or my perspective, then not only are they wrong, but it is not a far leap to them being evil.

And this is what we cannot and should not give into. For those who were with us through one or more of the presentations last week, is that we heard a variety of opinions and experiences, some of which were hard to hear. We heard from a woman, a staunch peace activist, a self-described Palestinian Muslim with Israeli citizenship, mourn the loss of a dear Jewish friend on October 7th. We heard words of her being called a traitor for eulogizing her friend. And we heard her call out the systemic inequalities of Israel and its often blindness to non-Jewish minorities. We heard words from a Palestinian Priest of the Greek Church, who holds Israeli citizenship talk about his struggles with Israel’s national anthem while also mourning those murdered on October 7th. And we heard from a Reform Rabbi, who spoke passionately about the importance of inter-religious, inter-personal community and dialogue. That only by tearing down walls, by ending occupation, whether as a one-state or two-state solution, can there ever be the hope for peace. 

I like to believe that everyone who shared in these words and stories had their assumptions and beliefs challenged and found themselves willing to let go of at least a piece of their illusion of control over their own sense of certainty and surety.

After the incident of the golden calf, Moses pleaded with God to show mercy to the Israelites. His words became the model for the 13 attributes of God’s merciful nature that we recite every Chag and High Holy Day season. God heard Moses’ plea. 

The story of the golden calf, whether the Torah’s version or Cecil B. DeMille’s is powerful. And it is also a powerful reminder for us to let go of our absolute certainty and sense of rightness, and instead be willing to hear and see the stories of others and their perspectives. It is also a powerful reminder that the concepts of mercy and justice are intertwined in our tradition. In pursuit of one, we should never forget the pursuit of the other. Nor should we ever forget the humanity of all of those affected. 

I, for one, do not know what the answers are, or what the future will bring. What I do know is that I am done letting the violence and hate of a small group of people in power decide how I am going to live my life as a Jew, as a member of Temple Israel, as a member of this Tri-Faith community, and of the world. I want to spend more time listening. I want to spend more time learning. I want to spend more time in dialogue. I want to spend more time advocating for an end to the violence, the return of the captives, and encouraging the pursuit of peace. I want to support organizations and visionaries who want to bring these dreams to fruition. What I do not want to do is give in any more into despair. For enough golden calves have been constructed. Maybe it is time to finally let go of our idols and renew the search for God in our fellow human beings.

Shabbat Shalom


Watch the entirety of Friday’s service here.

Temple Talk is a recap of sermons given from the Bimah for those who missed a Sermon or who wanted to revisit the words spoken at a previous sermon.

Mon, April 15 2024 7 Nisan 5784