Drash on Parashat Ki Tisa - Parah 2013

Rabbi Gersh Lazarow
The King David School

"Seeing is not always believing"

Our Sidra this week, Parashat Ki Tissa presents a series of profound spiritual crises that challenged Moses and the Israelites during the years of the exodus and still test many of us as modern Jews today.

The more famous of these crises is the episode of HaEggel HaZahav, the Golden Calf. When Moses has been away on top of Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights, the people ask Aaron to make them "a god, who will go in front us" (Exodus 32:1). Aaron obliges, creating this idol and proclaiming, "This is your God, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (32:4) - a direct echo of the opening of the Ten Commandments.

One of the most interesting interpretations of this episode is that the people thought the calf was a reasonable representation of their God, the very One whose miracles and words they had experienced. Not another god, but the God encapsulated in a concrete (or golden), visible form.

The other crisis we encounter in the Sidra belongs to Moses himself. After pleading with God not to destroy the people, Moses asks God, "Show me, please, Your Presence" (33:18). The Hebrew word kevodecha comes from the root kaved, which means something heavy, something with substance. God's kavod is God's presence, God's nearness to us here on earth.

So we have it, shnayim she-hem echad - two stories that are really one. The people and Moses are really asking for the same thing. They are asking for an image of God that they can see and touch in a tangible, palpable way. The two parties are in the same boat; neither the people, who experience God through miracles and marvel, nor Moses, who speaks with God "face to face, as a person speaks with his neighbour" (33:11), feel that they really know God.

And if this was true for them, the generation that was redeemed from slavery and led across the parted sea to shores of freedom, then how much more so is it true for us!

The simple fact is that we live in a world where many people readily say that they don't believe in God. They say they are rationalists and don’t believe in a God that was the Creator, who made the universe and operates it, or a God that simply chooses just to watch. They say they don’t believe in a God who speaks or spoke specific words and commands, a God who rewards and punishes. In a world in which scientific discovery has revealed so much about the mysterious inner workings of the universe, the rationalists reject the concept of a higher power.

To them, I say only one thing: Where is it written that the rational and the spiritual cannot live together in one heart?  Where is it written that we must choose science or religion, rather than science and religion?  Science and religion ask different questions, they seek different answers. 

The great scientist Stephen Jay Gould put it this way. “Science and religion are different enterprises and serve different purposes in our lives.  Science is about discovering facts and religion deals with other, and perhaps even more important, questions about why we are here and the purpose of the cosmos, things about which science has nothing to say.”  

“For those who believe in God,” remarked Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, “there are reasons now to be more in awe, not less.” To say we do not believe in God because we believe in science is like saying we do not believe in love because we believe in math. 

Similarly, Ki Tissa teaches that if the scientist in you wants to verify what God "looks like", God will not oblige, for no single image or likeness can define God. Like the light through the curtain over the aron kodesh we see only glimpses of God's reality through a covering.

Our sidra comes to tell us that just because we can’t touch or feel our God does not mean God is any less real. As the great Rabbi Milton Steinberg said, “the believer in God has only to account for the existence of unjust suffering; but the rationalist has to account for everything else.” 

Don't let the God you don't believe in cut you off from God!

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