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Parshat Ki Tissa 2019
Mixed messages abound in parshat Ki Tissa, mainly in response to the sin of the golden calf.
First we have Aharon, the acting leader, trying to placate the masses who are demanding a god they can see. He hopes to stall them by asking for the gold earrings of their children and wives (expecting the wives to object), but immediately, the fomenters donate their own earrings. Aharon is tripped up by his own ruse.
So he boils down the gold and shapes a calf (how could he have done it so fast, where did he get a mold? – we have no idea. Later he says, I just threw it into the cauldron and out came this calf! A miracle!). He manages to delay the celebrations for a day, hoping that Moshe will return, but on the morrow a holiday to the new god is pronounced.
Meanwhile, on top of old Sinai, Moshe is learning the law with God. God says, Moshe, go down. Your people have made an idol and have worshipped it, saying it is the god that took them out of Egypt. Let me at them, God continues, and I’ll destroy them and make YOU into a great nation.
But Moshe understands that if God says “let me do it,” he is actually saying DON’T let me do it (“let me go, hold me back…”). God relents and cancels or at least postpones the evil decree.
At this point Moshe descends and sees the people worshipping the calf. He goes ballistic. Smashes the two tablets on which God had inscribed the 10 commandments. Sends a vigilante squad to kill those who worshipped the idol.
What happened? First he placates God and then he himself lashes into the people?
But it gets stranger. When Moshe goes up the mountain yet again, God says, “Those who sinned before me – I will erase from my book.” And then he tells Moshe: Go down and lead this people that you took out of Egypt. I will send an angel before you and I will force out the Canaanites and the Emorites and the Hittites and all the others, and bring you-them to the land of milk and honey. Forward march with the original plan, as if nothing happened.
God continues: You are a stiff-necked people and I won’t go with you (my angel will) because at any moment I might just demolish you.
What do we understand from this hot and cold approach, this “let me get them – hold me back,” “I’ll send an angel in my place or I might kill you”? We see a love-hate relationship of epic proportions.
Perhaps the resolution is given in the next section. Moshe is talking to God and says: Look, You promised You would let me know who You are, Your ways, so that I can find favor in Your eyes.” Why? “Because this nation is YOUR people.”
Moshe is playing psychologist to God. “God, I understand what made you so angry with the people. They didn’t follow Your way. They didn’t fulfill the basic elements that You feel are necessary. So make me privy to what these things are so that I can help to assuage Your feelings, and then (he intimates) You can transfer these good feelings onto the people, who are, after all, Yours.”
Moshe then goes further. “Let me see You,” he begs. “No. Not possible,” is the answer. “No living person can see God and live – but I will give you a peek from behind.”
This reads like a script two eight-year-olds would play out in the back yard. I want this. You can’t have it, but I’ll give you that. But then Moshe adds two sentences that clarify his approach: If you (personally, not an angel) are not with us, Moshe says, don’t take us out of the desert. It’s only by Your being within us that we are something special.
As Rabbi Laura Rumpf points out, what Moshe is doing in this story, directly and indirectly, is demonstrating how to defuse an angry confrontation. In front of God, Moshe remains quiet about the unpardonable sin the Israelites have committed. Down below, he lashes into the people because he is as distraught as God was.
When Moshe goes back up the mountain, he has to let God vent. Once the immediate conflagration has been brought under control, Moshe seeks to appease God (but also to satisfy his own desires), by giving God what He wants – obedience, and recognition of the importance of His presence.
When confronted with anger, Moshe shows us, it is best not to respond with anger (especially when you know you can’t win). Another person acting like Moshe might be considered a sycophant, but not Moshe. He truly wants to be closer to this Entity that is controlling his life and the lives of the people he is leading.
When he says, if You are not with us, then what’s the point of going anywhere, he is pulling tight the strings that draw God and Israel together, into one indivisible unit.
This approach can help us to understand the seeming ambivalence earlier in the parsha, where God first wants to destroy this stiff-necked people and in the very next sentence is sending an angel who will bring them to the promised land. Moshe’s attempts to bring the two sides together succeed in hammering home the message that we are led to believe that God evidently wants to hear: the Israelites, through Moshe, appreciate Him.
This, of course, is a gross oversimplification. But the lessons in crisis management are there for all to see and internalize.