Kl TISA 5773
Have you ever had this experience? You come home from work, or from a trip, and find out that one or more of your offspring have done something that is either infuriating, despicable, outrageous or any combination of the above. How do you find out? Your spouse says to you: “Do you know what your child did while you were away?”
I have always been intrigued by this kind of a statement because obviously, I couldn’t have known what he/she did because I wasn’t there at the time, and, besides, when did this child become my solo work of art?
Apparently, this is common human response as we see in the story of the 1st human. Adam, when confronted by Gd for violating the one and only commandment given to him, which was not to eat from the forbidden tree, he pleads: “The woman whom you put with me, she gave me to eat.” What was her response to that? “The snake seduced me!”
In today’s parsha, it’s Gd that seems to echo this human response. Moses is up on the mountain, taking his 40-day crash course in, “How to Teach Torah,” from the supreme Author. The people waiting below grow restless and when Moses doesn’t return when they calculated he should, they panic: “Where is Moses? Did he run away? Did he miss a handhold climbing up the mountain? Did he say something wrong and get incinerated by the same laser beams Gd used to engrave the 10 Commandments on the tablets?”
So they approach Aaron and say (Ex. 32:1), Asey lanu Elokim, “Make us a Gd to lead us, for Moses, who brought us out of Egypt, who knows where he is by now?”
Incredibly, Aaron agrees. Rashi the commentator explains that Aaron, the peace maker thought he could stall them till Moses would return by asking them to collect gold jewelry from the people to fashion the idol. The people surprise Aaron and willingly offered their jewelry. He then had no choice but to melt them down and make a golden calf or be killed as other leaders who refused to cooperate were. When it was done, he showed it to the people who gleefully shouted: Eyleh elohecha Yisrael asher heh-ehlucha meyeretz Mitzrayim, “This is your god O Israel who took you up out of the Land of Egypt.”
Gd, probably upset by what was happening, says to Moses (32:7), Leych Reyd! Ki Shicheyt amcha asher heh-ehleyta meyeretz Mitzrayim, “You’d better go down—for your people that you brought out of Egypt have become corrupt.” How did Moses respond? It seems that he chose not to respond at all at that time. But I wonder if something like this didn’t go through his mind:
“The people I brought out of Egypt. It wasn’t me. I was fat and happy tending the sheep of my father-in-law Yitro, living in that nice big tent with his daughter, Tziporah. I didn’t go looking for this job. It was You, as I recollect, who set up that Sound and Light Show with the Original Ever Burning, Never Consumed Bush. It was You who sent me back to Egypt. As at matter of fact, didn’t you say to me (3:7): Ra-o ra-iti et oni ami asher b’Mitzrayim, “I have seen the suffering My people”—that is, Your people—in Egypt?” Now suddenly they’re mine? I brought them out of Egypt?
If Moses had such thoughts, he obviously thought better about voicing them. He would intervene with Gd on behalf of the people, but he wasn’t about to challenge Gd when Gd seemed upset and disappointed.
Then Gd says (32:10) to Moses: Hanicha li, “Leave Me alone; let My anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them and shall make you (Moses) a great nation.” How would you like to be Father of Your Country, the New Abraham?
Moses, after more than a year of working with Gd, knows how to respond to that one. “Bad Move, Gd, with horrible public relations implications. You finally got the Egyptians to realize You are the most powerful and that the Jewish people are on the side of the winning Gd. Kill the Jewish people and what will they think? That You brought the Jews out of Egypt to kill them in the desert?”
Notice how subtly Moses then responds to Gd’s comment about “your people.” He gently asks: “Didn’t You swear to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that You would increase their offspring as the stars in heaven and bring them into the Promised Land? Was there a time limit on that promise?” Gd relents and the process of forgiveness begins.
So we start off this story with Gd off-loading responsibility on Moses. Rabbi Gilbert Kollin relates the story with Gd telling Moses, “Look at what your people are up to now!” Now look what happens when Moses turns to his brother Aaron for an explanation: “What’s going on here? I go away for a few days and leave you in charge and you let this happen. Where did you ever get the lame-brained idea to make a golden calf?”
“Calf? What calf? Oh, that calf. Well, Moses you won’t believe what happened.”
“I won’t, eh? Try me!”
“Well, those people…you see what a wild and dangerous bunch they are…they came to me and said, ‘Make us a god.’ So I asked them to give me their gold—thinking they would never do it. When they gave it to me I threw it into the fire and when the fire died down there was the calf!”
“Are you sticking by that story?”
“It’s the best I can do,” Aaron says. “Besides, how are you going to explain the broken tablets to Gd?”
“Oh them! Well, I was so upset by the sight of the golden calf that they kind of slipped out of my hands.”
Aaron looks at him with a smile, “I hope they come with a warranty.”
They did, and I guess Gd understood. He never mentioned the broken tablets, but he did bring Moses back up to the mountain and gave him a replacement set.
In the long run, of course, constructive confrontation and change requires that we fess up—admitting our sins and failures—and take concrete steps to try to make up for the pain and loss caused by those failures…and, of course, to avoid behaving that way again. But sometimes we just have to let people retreat with some shred of dignity left, so that we can confront them later, when they may be better able to receive our words and face the reality of what has happened and their role in it.
In Pirke Avot (4:23), Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches:
Al Teratzeh chaveyrcha b’sha-at ka-aso. V’al t’nachameyhu b’sha-a sheh-meyto mutal l’fanav…V’al tishtadel liroto b’sha-at kalkalato, “Do not try to pacify your friend when his anger is raging. Do not comfort him while his dead relative lies unburied before him…And stay away from him at the time of his disgrace.
Rabbi Shimon was trying to tell us that sometimes we need to give each other space in moments of crisis, and that denial of responsibility or lame excuses are part of that process. According to the Torah, even Gd has the need to occasionally say to kings and prophets, “See what your people are up to now,” and even lofty people do foolish things and come up with, “the dog ate my homework” as an excuse.
So don’t challenge such statements in the moments of heat. If you can muster the strength when there are highly charged moments, agree to talk about it later. Let everyone cool off and then speak rationally to each other in safety—trying to figure out what motivated such statements. Only in such calmness can we face up to our actions, fess up to our failures, and try to clean up the mess we have created, repair the damage we have caused and get on with our lives; hopefully, a little humbler, a little smarter, a little more understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings.
Oh, if I said anything today to offend anyone, it really wasn’t my fault. As Flip Wilson’s Geraldine would say, “The Devil made me do it!” Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis