Drash on Parashat Ki Tisa (Parah)
Rabbi Rafi Kaiserblueth
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
How do people deal with a continually escalating experience? What happens to their expectations? How do they achieve satisfaction if they are always expecting more? Is there a way to temper expectations so that they are not on a continually upward trajectory?
As an educator of one sort or another for the past 20 years or so, I have struggled with these questions. If I have executed a particularly successful program, the expectation to follow up is tremendous and to build on it with something bigger and better. If I failed, the students would begin to either tune out or seek other ways of fulfilling that need. The need of the students, I think, was not that they were continually seeking a new rush (though that also can be a problem); I think it was a desire for engagement. If it was not present or not satisfied, the basic human need would be sought elsewhere. If I resorted to gimmicks to replace that engagement, the students would very quickly lose patience once the gimmicks lost their appeal. The engagement needed to be sincere and intimate, stimulating and satisfying a need. The gimmicks are not in and of themselves, bad. The problem arises when the gimmicks act as a substitute for the substance.
The Israelites have much the same problem in this week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa. There has been a continuous build up from the beginning of the Book of Exodus: the arrival of Moses, the confrontations with Pharaoh, the ten plagues, the triumphant exit from Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea and finally the revelation at Mount Sinai. And now, that momentum comes crashing to a halt. Moses, the one who has always been at the centre of the plot, the one who has been driving the action forward, is gone. He has been at the top of the mountain for 40 days and the Israelites, quite understandably, are left wondering, “What’s next?” Their answer to that is the great sin of the Golden Calf.
Rambam, a famous medieval philosopher and commentator, posits that the Israelites were not attempting to replace God with an idol, but Moses. Moses, their great leader has been gone for 40 days and nights. The people “didn’t know what happened to you [Moses] or whether you [Moses] would return or not’…” (to Exodus 32:1) In their need for further excitement or to continue the upward trend of expectations, the people took action to fulfil that craving. While misdirected, it is certainly understandable.
The Israelites finally have that engagement after being ignored for so long, languishing as they did in slavery. Finally, God, embodied in their eyes as Moses, has come to pay attention to them, to care for them, to lead them out of Egypt. And all of a sudden, Moses is gone for 40 days. Even though a month before, the entire Israelite camp is entering into a direct and intimate relationship with God; the sudden cessation of the direct presence is jarring. It is a complete withdrawal that they are not yet prepared to deal with. The Israelites perhaps faltered because they mistook the miracles and wonders as gimmicks, not realising that it was God being in direct and intimate relationship with the people. When the presence was altered, they faltered and turned to a gimmick instead of something of substance.
Today, we are bombarded with gimmicks that claim to offer substance. Things are vying for our attention, distracting us from the elements of true substance. As a society, we are continually seeking the next thrill, the next rush, the next excitement. If we subscribe to that way of being, then yes, the opening questions above would be valid. There would be an unending escalation that would eventually be self-defeating. It is crucial to realise if the needs are being met or simply masked by a gimmick.
Yet, if there is truly substance behind the gimmick, the engagement will be real. Our relationship with one another is one such area, as is our relationship with the community. You have actively chosen to be a part of your community, not because of a gimmick, not because of the rate of membership dues, not because of one person or one program, but because of the substance of the community, what it stands for and what it represents. A deep, meaningful and hopefully intimate exploration and experience of faith and tradition. No gimmick can replace that. So the challenge then to all is to continually evaluate first what those needs are and then how to meet those needs in a genuine way.
I pray this week that we learn to discern our needs from gimmicks, to find ways to satisfy those needs which are genuine and not insincere attempts for an immediate short term satisfaction. That we seek to build our lives in a productive and fulfilling way and not in a counterproductive, unsustainable and eventually destructive manner.