Friday, March 2, 2018

The Golden Calf of Emptiness

Rabbi Joe Black
March 2, 2018
Temple Emanuel, Denver, CO

Our torah portion for this Shabbat, Ki Tissa:  sets up a powerful paradigm – a “split screen” of action which shows us, on the one hand, Moses and God engaged in an intense dialogue on the top of Mt Sinai. Moses begs to see God’s face  - to understand and commune with the Divine.  And all of this happens at the same moment that the Israelites are building the Golden Calf and violating the very intimacy and connectivity that Moses so desperately seeks.

In our text, as Moses and Joshua are coming down the mountain to hear the people reveling after the creation of the Golden Calf we read the following: 

Exodus 32:  17-18                                       

When Joshua heard the sound of the people in their celebrations, he said to Moses:  “There is the sound of songs of war in the camp!”  And Moses said:  “This is not the sound of songs of bravery; this is not the sound of songs of weakness, this is the sound of  (just) songs ….. that I hear.”

It’s a strange passage – there seems to be something missing in Moses’ reply. It’s not a complete sentence.  Joshua hears the sound of the revelers celebrating the Golden Calf – he hears the intensity of their voices – and yet, he can’t quite pinpoint exactly what they are singing about.  Moses seems to be teaching Joshua that it is not the message of the song that they are hearing that is disturbing – rather, the sound of the singers is chilling to his ear because instead of glorifying God, its purpose was to amplify the sin that was being committed.  It was not a song of bravery or weakness – it was merely the people reveling in the sound of their own voices.

To set the scene – Moses has just returned from an intense communion with God just moments before he and Joshua hear the commotion in the camp below.  He is still glowing from the experience of talking with God and receiving the Torah – the blueprint for life’s meaning and purpose.  To be transported from this level of intensity, spiritual depth and communion with all that is holy to an encounter with the most base, profane and idolatrous sounds of the Israelites must have been incredibly difficult for Moses.  And yet, he not only immediately comprehends what is going on, he also had the presence of mind to argue with God who wanted to destroy the His people.  Moses challenges God saying (and I paraphrase…): 

“Why, O God, should Your anger flare up against Your people whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt, with great power and a strong hand?  Why should the Egyptians say that You removed them from bondage so that You could destroy them in the wilderness?  ….Step back from Your wrath and reconsider Your anger against Your people!” (Genesis 32:11-13)

God relents and Moses’ logic prevails, but the contrast between the revelatory experience of Moses and the baseness and meaningless display of ID in which the Israelites are engaged is both profound and telling.

Today, we, all too often, can find ourselves caught up in this gap between the holy and the empty, the sacred and the profane.  How often do we – as individuals and as a nation, engage in pointless sniping and griping? We delight in empty news that is tailored to our own predilections.  In a world of instant messaging, the search for “gotcha” moments is increasingly becoming a compulsion. 

I am as guilty as anyone.  I regularly check my Twitter feed to see what new morsels of outrage those with whom I am ideologically opposed have committed.  The need to feed our hunger for juicy tidbits of scandal is paramount, exhausting and all consuming.

Yes – much of this comes from a White House and Congress that thrives on chaos, name calling and confusion, but it is wrong to place the entire blame on our leadership. To do so is to deflect us from the real problem at hand. Our elected officials represent our values – as individuals and as a nation.  After all, Aaron built the Golden Calf in response to the people’s call – not out of any desire to rule.

The anger and emptiness our mindless sniping inspires can also be tragic and deadly.  I am convinced that one of the reasons that we are seeing so many acts of violence occurring around us – such as the Parkland tragedy of last week and that of Central Michigan University that took place today – is because we have allowed ourselves to be seduced by the soul-draining emptiness of our national discourse.

If you, like me, are tired of the sound of empty singing – of mindless criticism and sniping, then we all must not allow ourselves to be drawn into the trap of appeasing our basest selves.  One of the most important antidotes to emptiness is in the communal search for holiness that we, as a kehillah kedosha – a sacred congregation – are engaged.  The more we shun  the temptation to give in to our own weakness and move towards creating and celebrating the holy and good in our lives, the better we will be.

This is not an easy task.  I do not have an answer to the multiplicity of problems that we face.  I do, believe, however, that if we come together as a sacred community, we have a better chance of drowning out the noise of mindlessness and finding meaning and purpose in our traditions.  Let our singing bring us closer, our prayers make us stronger, and our values shine a light on the path on which we need to walk.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.

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