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Parsha Ponderings – Ki Tisa – Heaven (is not Exactly) on Earth

וירא העם כי בשש משה לרדת מן ההר, ויקהל העם על אהרן ויאמרו אליו, קום עשה לנו אלהים אשר ילכו לפנינו כי זה משה האיש אשר העלנו ממצרים, לא ידענו מה היה לו

The people saw that Moshe had delayed in descending the mountain, and they gathered around Aharon and said to him, Rise and make for us gods thatwill go before us, for this man, Moshe, who brought us up from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.

Moshe, upon ascending Mount Sinai following the Revelation, had assured the Israelites that he would return in forty days. Alas, the fortieth day dawned, and Moshe was nowhere to be found. Fearing that they had lost their leader, the Israelites panicked and begged Moshe’s brother Aharon, to somehow call forth a similarly Godly being to fill the leadership vacuum. Inexplicably, Aharon immediately acquiesced to their idolatrous request, going so far as to personally initiate a collection for the raw materials from which to construct the idol. “Remove the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, sons, and daughters”, says Aharon, and bring them to me.” After receiving the requested materials, he then continues by fashioning them into a Golden Calf, which miraculously takes on life. Seeing the Golden Calf emerge, the Israelites joyfully call out, “These are your gods, O Israel, which took you out from Egypt.” Aharon then builds an altar and announces, “A festival for God tomorrow!”, in a belated attempt to forestall the forbidden worship of the Golden Calf.

While the Israelites’ behavior itself is difficult to make sense of, Aharon’s behavior seems entirely unintelligible. Why would Aharon join forces with the devil, instead of standing up for the rule of Torah, even at the cost of his life? Is not idolatry one of the three cardinal sins for which even an ordinary Jew must sacrifice his very soul?

Perfunctorily understood, the entire chain of events indeed makes little sense. A deeper reading of the Torah’s nuanced terminology, however, will reveal a fascinating new angle to the entire episode. Let us begin.

The Israelites begin by voicing their worries, for, in their own words, “this man, Moshe, who brought us up from Egypt, we do not know what has become of him”. What does “this man, Moshe”, mean?

Apparently, it was not so much Moshe’s disappearance which worried them so, but the disappearance of the uniquely human Godliness which he represented. Esoteric gods and illogical theology were hardly in short supply before Moshe made his appearance on the world stage. What was missing was that coherent Torah spirituality which deals with its constituents’ humanity as a Godly dimension to be worked with, rather than an evil perversion to be vanquished. When Moshe overstayed his Heavenly visa, the Israelites therefore feared that they had lost yet another spiritualist to the high-floating heavens, never again to return and be capable of relating to “them earthly beings”. It was this fear which caused them to desperately beg Aharon to somehow create gods which “will go before us“, and not float around in the heavenly spheres.

Alas, they had gotten a little carried away with their fear of having their leader carried away. So frightened were they to lose touch with what they saw as their humanity, that anything even remotely reminiscent of spiritual weightlessness frightened them to the nth degree. Sensing their true intent, Aharon instructed them to remove their golden rings. Tellingly, his instructions were not simply to donate their gold, but to physically remove the golden rings from their family members’ ears. “Shed your cherished ‘human’ things for once”, is what Aharon meant to say, “and you will be able to see that transcending your supposed ‘humanity’ will simply turn you into a more spiritual human, not morph you into a six-winged seraph”. When that failed to knock some sense into the Israelites head, Aharon tried his next tactic: Showing them the “god” which would have to be created to satisfy their ‘humanity’, and having them compare that snorting calf to their former leader Moshe.

Alas, the Israelites didn’t get the message, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t. Yes, we believe in a religion which addresses our humanity, finds expression in physical acts, and considers all earthly matters holy, but that doesn’t mean that we must forever be grounded by the gravity of Earth, forever bound by the shackles of conventional mortality, or forever beholden to our preconceived notions of what humane (or human) religion ought and ought not entail.

Better nudge Earth heavenward, than tug Heaven earthward.

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