Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on 16th Adar 5775, 7th March 2015
How optimistically our parsha begins, with the command for a census, followed by the recipe for the incense to be concocted for use in the Tabernacle, and rounded out with the Shabbat to conclude creation of the Tabernacle. How very spiritual. Moshe goes up the mountain, for what is the most transcendent spiritual climax ever recorded – 40 days and 40 nights of being taught the Torah by God himself.
And that is when all hell breaks loose below. The people are restless. Rootless. Leaderless. These are people who are used to having someone tell them what to do, and their present boss has taken an extended vacation from which, they fear, he many never return. Perhaps goaded by the erev rav, the riffraff that also exodused Egypt, they prevail on Aharon, ever the peacemaker, to make them some image they can follow. Not a god, but a godhead. And out comes the golden calf. The most heinous crime recorded in the Torah – in terms of spitting in God’s face (so to speak) – since Adam and Eve took a bite from the forbidden fruit. Talk about backsliding.
Let’s turn now to the haftara. Here we have another story of backsliding. The spiritual leader is none other than Eliyahu, and he has been having a bad time of it. King Achav, ably assisted by his wife Izevel (Jezebel), the daughter of the king of Tyre/Sidon, have promoted the worship of Ba’al in the country, which Eliyahu is trying to root out.
And our haftara represents the stupendous climax of the story. Eliyahu invites 450 prophets of Ba’al to Mt. Carmel to prove once and for all who is the real God, his or theirs. The test – bring down fire from heaven to burn the sacrifice that has been prepared. The 450 try all day, chanting, dancing, slashing themselves with knives. Eliyahu prods them to make more noise, perhaps Ba’al is sleeping – and they do! Then, Eliyahu prepares his sacrifice, douses it three times with water, calls to God, and Shazam, fire comes down and consumes it all, including the water.
The parallels are clear. The people in both the parsha and the haftara are worshipping idols. Moshe and Eliyahu have the task of leading them back to the right. In the Torah reading, the first impression we get is that the whole nation, or at least a large part of it, has joined in the orgy surrounding the calf, which is why the shocked Moshe hurls down the two tablets containing the words that God inscribed on them, and smashes them to smithereens.
Moshe calls out, “He who is with God come to me” – and all of the tribe of Levi join him, and they are commanded to kill all those who partook of the debauchery – and 3000 people are killed.
Only 3000? That’s out of 600,000. One half of one percent. That’s the extent of the backsliders? Not bad, considering the people are only three months and a bit out of slavery.
What about the rest of the nation? Were they loyal to God? We don’t know. Many probably were but many were probably sitting on the fence, not sure which side to take. Unsure or apathetic, although that’s hard to imagine given the circumstances.
In the haftara the situation is clearer. In his tirade, Eliyahu says to the people, Make up your minds. Either God is your God or Ba’al is. You can’t have it both ways. And the people say nothing. Either they are unsure or apathetic (which is also difficult to imagine, given the circumstances).
We know that our people are stiff-necked. We don’t learn. In terms of believing in God, it’s a matter of: “If you haven’t done something for me today, preferably just now, then I don’t know who you are.” We see this throughout the Torah and the prophets and so one could credibly argue that this is the way we are.
Fence-sitting is still around. I feel almost sacrilegious making a comparison between these two ideas, we have elections coming up and aside from the dyed-in-the-wool followers of whichever leader wears your colors, most of us are sitting on the fence, with the feeling that our choice will once again be for the least of all evils. The choice is hard because the candidate we may like regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue couldn’t care less about social issues. Those who speak a good case for social issues don’t have the wherewithal to deal with foreign affairs. Or education. Or refugees/infiltrators.
So far, the election campaign has done nothing to enlighten us. If anything it has darkened our days. Those in power would have us think that any other party will sell us out. Those not in power cry out “failure, incompetence, corruption.” I have the feeling that even the editors of the news media can’t figure out who’s on first and what was yesterday’s scandal. It’s like a kaleidoscope in which the same materials are rearranged into different patterns (of corruption, violence, badmouthing and random scandals).
Some of our candidates offer us more positive visions of what will be, but then we remember that when they were in office, they did exactly the opposite. Can’t trust them.
Then there are the reputedly honest candidates (yes, allegedly they exist) and we think to ourselves, how can an honest person succeed in politics, in Israel, in dealing with our multiple enemies and even with our limited friends?
So we are left nonplussed, ambivalent, undecided, of three or four minds about what to do. What a shame that election day was not set for Purim day. Then we could have gotten drunk and gone to the voting booths happy and carefree – because in the end, without serious reforms in all areas of our political and economic life, it will be SOS – the same old story after the elections.
But not to despair. Surveys show that we are still among the most satisfied people in the western world. So, we must be doing something right!