Thursday, February 17, 2011

Parashat Ki Tisa

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Sermon Parashat Ki Tisa, Herefordshire Liberal Community


We humans are fickle. We dedicate ourselves to the highest principles, only to be seduced by our basest instincts. There is a danger that we focus too much on fragmented self-interest. And so we trust in the idolatry of the immediate.

But what would you have done?

We witnessed miracles and Revelation. We saw the angel of death in Egypt and the Torah of life at Sinai. We were redeemed and covenanted. In our religious enthusiasm, we donated gold to the Sanctuary in the desert. We trusted.

Yet we didn’t trust enough and paid the price.

Moses disappeared. He ascended the mountain to encounter the Divine and we were left wondering how long he would be gone. Moses had always kept his promises. The Eternal provided for us in the desert, sated us with manna, quenched our thirst with Miriam’s well. But still we didn’t trust.
Moses was a day late, or so we thought. Only a day and we panicked.
This desert adventure is scary. We felt lonely at the camp, lost in the unfamiliar, divorced from the only life we knew. Despite the prayers and sacrifices, we felt unsettled. It was hard to remember why we fled from Egypt in the first place. Suddenly, we felt very small.

We approached the next-in-line; Aaron. We needed something tangible that we could touch, taste and feel. At least in Egypt, things were real. The pyramids and the Nile, temples housing the finely crafted statues of the gods. We served motherly Isis, friend to the oppressed, the imposing, falcon-god Horus and elegant, feline Bastet. We had our fleshpots there, bread and cucumbers. We had work. Oppressive and alienating work, but a job is a job. We may not have had our dignity but we had a place.

And now we were in the desert, that placeless place, the empty space where the only thing you will encounter is the shimmering mirage of yourself. Praying to a faceless God. We didn’t trust this situation at all.
Aseh lanu elohim asher yelchu lefaneinu!’ we commanded Aaron (Ex. 32:1). ‘Make us gods who will go before us’. Aaron heard the anger in our voice. What could he do? He stalled by requesting all our gold jewelry, from us and our wives and children. Perhaps he thought that this confiscation of the last of our securities would change our mind. It didn’t. Then he stalled by building us a singular idol, the egel, the golden calf. Perhaps he wanted to limit our idolatry to one god rather than many. We bowed down to it and lapsed into the comfortable and familiar. The golden calf gleamed majestically in the desert sun as we proclaimed, ‘this is your god, oh Israel, who brought us out of Egypt!’
Then Aaron tried to stall us one final time. ‘Tomorrow shall be a festival to God!’ But we didn’t trust in tomorrow. Tomorrow is invisible, just like that abstract Israelite God with a Name of whispered breath. Whose presence was no more than a hovering cloud at the edge of our vision.

We celebrated. Well, it was quite licentious, to be honest. If we didn’t trust in God, how could we trust in our own morals? If tomorrow cannot be trusted, then we only have today and we need not think about the consequences. We danced till the stars became a blur; we drank and indulged in the pleasures of the flesh. ‘You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife’, that last of the Ten Commandments, was far from our mind.

But God saw. Moses came down the mountain and heard our debauchery. In fury, he smashed the tablets of the law, into a thousand pieces of shattered covenant. Moses ground our idol into powder and made us drink it. It tasted bitter, of disappointment and betrayal.
And then Moses made us choose. What people are you, he told us. One moment you bring offerings for the Sanctuary, and the next moment you tear the rings out of your daughters’ ears for your idols!1 Do you not know that idols have mouths but cannot speak, have eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear? Those who make them shall become like them! Oh Israel, trust in the Eternal, Who is our help and shield!2

Where now is our God?3, we thought. We have the right to doubt and the obligation to question. It is hard to trust in the unseen. But the alternative is far worse. What happens if we do not trust? If we take a fragment as the whole? Idolatry is not only about making the idol but about investing it with more meaning than it deserves. Until it grows so large that it eclipses what is truly important and sacred.

‘Whoever is for the Eternal, come here!’ (Ex. 32:27). Moses tried to rally us but we didn’t hear his call.

Still our idols tug at us. Things we think are so important. Have we really changed?
The glint of money, the gleam of power… it is easy to pay obeisance to these. We fuel this furnace but the only thing we do is burn ourselves down. Ultimately all this falls away. What remains are the unseen but eternal ideals of justice, of compassion, of human dignity. Written on our hearts, offering us a focus on the whole, of how this precious and tender life fits in the palm of the One Who loves us with an eternal love.
How long will we teeter between two opinions?4 Or will we be able to trust? In ourselves, in each other, in the goodness of man and God alike? And call out to the unseen certainty: ‘Adonai Hu haElohim!5 The Eternal alone is God.

Let us trust so that we may become more like God and less like our idols.

1 Reference based on Bavli Shekalim 1:1 ‘said Rabbi Aba Bar Acha, ‘There is no understanding the character of this people! They are solicited for the Golden Calf and they give; they are solicited for the Sanctuary and they give’’
2 Based on Psalm 115:4-5
3 Another reference to Psalm 115:2
4 Reference to the Haftarah from 1 Kings 18:21
5 Ibid, 1 Kings 18:39

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