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Drash on Parashat Ki Tisa 2022

Drash on Parashat Ki Tisa         

Rabbi Beni YedidYah Wajnberg
United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore


Same old story, different punctuation marks

Ki Tisa is a mouthful. Well, it is the longest of the book of Shemot/Exodus, and brings forth the famous story of the Golden Calf. A summarized version of how we seem to collective retell the story is: our ancestors were impatient with Moses’ delay up at Sinai. In their impatience, they talked Aaron into building the image of an animal to worship. Ki Tisa becomes a mouthful through the ages of rebukes to the worshipping of other gods, to lack of faith, to idealizing idols, to adoring the materialistic realm. 

There are ways though to look into the portion with a different perspective, one of compassion towards our ancestors. It is easy to judge a book by its cover, and judge people by a version of the story. A saying in my native Brazil explains that “whomever tells a tale adds at least their personal punctuation marks.” Stories have (concealed and revealed, conscious and unconscious) biases. I would like to offer a different analysis of what went down at Sinai.

Moses was delayed, and the people craved connection to God. After all, the God who liberated them was worthy of being worshipped and celebrated. So they did the only thing they knew how to do, what they had learned in Egypt over hundreds of years: to build an image of the Divine, a representation of Godliness. Wait a second… something sounds wrong here. 

“Rabbi, they WERE WORSHIPPING AN IDOL! And that’s a big no-no, isn’t it?” That’s fair. But let’s apply the same fairness to how it all went down at the time. Worshipping idols is counter to Torah, and we know that because it’s written on… the tablets. Remember Moses’ delay? Wasn’t he carrying the first version of the prohibition against idols? How could they know they were not supposed to build the Golden Calf, if Moses had yet to come down from the mountain to fill them in on that? And can one be judged to the same degree and weight by what they do without knowledge? What if Moses - by breaking the tablets out of anger - was the impatient one?

In Hebrew, patience is called savlanut. Its root is s-v-l (ס-ב-ל), and it means literally to suffer, to be pained. Patience is hard, and is painful. It is much easier and convenient to indeed judge a book by its cover, a person by one behavior, a people by one action. But “no pain, no gain.” To go through an inquiry of compassion and curiosity allows us to gain personally as sentient beings, and collective through the building of healthy relationships. Perhaps one powerful message from Ki Tisa is to exercise a muscle that allows us to, as my colleague and teacher Rabbi David Wolfman teaches, move from anger and impatient to curiosity. From “look what they’ve done!” to “Uhm, I wonder why they did that…” 

This, at the very least, makes us happier, more joyful and less resentful. May we break free from all of our Golden Calves that we worship, especially the one of our ego, who tries to convince us that our perspective is always right, unchangeable, and all-understanding. Amen v’Amen. 

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