19 Yehuda Hanasi St., POB 437, Netanya 4210300, Israel
Parshat Ki Tissa 2018
If we were to consider how to stage the events at Mount Sinai after Moshe ascends, we might conceptualize the scene in terms of musical counterpoint, as Rabbi Ari Kahn suggests. Moshe ascends. The ethereal sound of plucked harps accompanies his every step. Violins emit soul-lifting runs as he nears the pinnacle where God awaits him. The majestic kettledrums and trumpets of divine royalty ring out as our hearts are swept up in a rapture of holiness.
Meanwhile, down below, the people are getting restless. The sounds are muted at first but they become insistent, aggressive, demanding. The rhythm is jagged. The screeches of clarinets clash with the belching of a saxophone. Cymbals smash. Drums pound out an irregular beat that grows in intensity. The ground begins to vibrate as people stamp their feet in growing impatience and frustration.
As the music on high soars into greater and greater rapture, the noise below climaxes with human shouts and screeches and even song – but song that you could never sing.
Neither party seems aware of the other. Below, it is all lust and thirst for – for what? Leadership? Security? Hope of getting out of the desert alive? A visible God? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. Meanwhile, upstairs, Moshe is learning the laws, absorbing it all so that he can bring it to the people. He is so absorbed that he hears nothing else.
It is God who stops the music. Your people have gone bad, He says to Moshe. They’ve made an idol. How can that be? One of the two commandments that the people heard from God was: You shall not make an idol or a picture of your God.
This sounds like a deliberate slap in the face. Perhaps it wasn’t meant that way. The people needed security. To know who was leading them, who was protecting them, who was there for them. That person was Moshe. Of course he was the representative of their God but for the people – Moshe was the man.
Now the music shifts. No more harp and soaring violins. Moshe tramps down the mountain to the sounds of despair until he enters the Israelite camp. There the people are in an orgiastic ecstasy of dancing, singing, and shouting.
Boom! The two tablets with God’s writing on them are smashed with a resonance that silences the cacophony of the camp. The people look up and they see – Moshe. Their leader has returned.
Those who are naked quickly try to cover themselves up. The leaders squirm out of sight. The people come out of their self-induced trance and realize that they are in deep trouble.
The music picks up again as Moshe battles with his own feelings of anger and frustration and sorrow. “Whoever is for God come to me!” he cries out and the tribe of Levi comes to his side. Martial music begins as the Levites tramp through the camp smiting all those who engaged in the orgy of the golden calf.
The scene shifts back to the top of Mount Sinai. Moshe is there again, this time pleading to save the people. The sorrowful strains of a single crying violin underscore his words. And when God says that He repents of his intention to destroy the Israelites, the orchestra crescendos in relief.
Ah, Cecil B. DeMille. But underneath the spectacle are a number of important developments. One is Moshe’s attitude and behavior. When he was first recruited to the thankless task of leading the Israelites, he did not have much faith in them. “They will never believe that the God of their fathers spoke to me,” he said.
From the time he took them out of Egypt he had nothing but problems with them, at least those are the stories that appear in the Torah. Perhaps there were other, more positive events too. And here, at Sinai, after the greatest revelation of all times, the people simply rebel. Perhaps they can’t help themselves. That’s the way they are.
Here Moshe is given the opportunity of a lifetime. God says, I’ll annihilate them and we’ll start again with you as the progenitor of a nation. And Moshe says, no way. If you’re going to erase them, erase me from your book.
Doesn’t Moshe realize the terrible time he’s going to have? Is he really that masochistic? Is talking to God face to face so overwhelming that it clouds his sensibility?
Evidently not. That’s just the way Moshe is, the reason that he was selected for this job. He’s the type of person who when he accepts a job, will see it through to the end. He is loyal. He is protective. Even though they are a collective pain in the neck – the Israelites are his people, and he will protect them even from God and even at the expense of his own potential gain.
Today the leaders of most countries insist that they are leading for the good of the country. And while we may not agree with what they are doing, we can often say that they are being true to their vision of what is best for the country.
The only area in which most leaders – in countries around the world – differ from Moshe is in their underlying motives. Or their covert, unconscious motives. If you are a businessman and become the president or prime minister, there is always that possibility that your economic decisions are colored by how they will affect your businesses (even if they have been given over to others for the duration of your tenure).
This perhaps explains the ambiguous commandment in the Torah – justice, justice shall you pursue. There’s no mention of actually catching it.