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Sunday, March 7, 2010

So, Who Really Did Take Us Out Of Egypt?


Dvar Torah For Parshat Ki Tissa/Shabbat Parah 5770.

At times in the Torah, we encounter lead words and phrases whose repetition is so explicit and unsubtle that, in the words of our sages, they appear to be screaming: “interpret me!” Ki Tissa contains one such phrase that is used in three different contexts. I believe it is a critical key to understanding the meaning of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, their relationship with God, and the importance of their journey to the promised land.

Ki Tissa opens with five sets of directions and commands that are part of God’s instructions to Moses concerning the mishkan, the desert sanctuary: the half shekel poll tax to be given by every male twenty years and older, the copper laver for the priests to wash in before performing sacred service, the anointing oil for the sanctuary items and the priestly vestments, the incense for burning before the holy ark, and the commissioning of Betzalel and Oholiav, the master craftsmen of the building project. God then reminds Moses and the Israelites that Shabbat, the sanctification of time, takes precedence over the building of the mishkan, the sanctification of space. This portion of Ki Tissa closes God’s instructions to the Israelites with a tone of cosmic order and peace. God finishes speaking to Moses and gives him the two tablets containing the Ten Commandments. All is right with the world, above and below.

Then, all hell breaks loose. What follows, of course, in Exodus, ch. 32 is the infamous story of the building of the golden calf by the Israelites who, in their frenzied longing for Moses’ delayed return from his encounter with God, force his brother Aaron to build them “a god who shall go before us.” Aaron does this with the people’s gold that was supposed to have been used for the holy purposes of building the mishkan. They tell Aaron to do this because, “That man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” Note, of course, the total absence of God in the people’s statement. Having forgotten so quickly that it was God, and not Moses or some other power, Who performed miracles for them at the Sea of Reeds and who gave them the Ten Commandments, the people look at the golden calf and exclaim: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” How ironic and terrible that the Israelites would so quickly forget what the true God of Israel had done for them just months before, and that they would replace their allegiance to God with exclusive allegiance to Moses or to a piece of molten gold. Even more ironic is the way in which they turn God’s introductory words to the Ten Commandments –“I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt”- on their heads. A more emphatic misidentification of their true divine savior there could not have been.

What follows is the whole messy story of God, in God’s fury, seeking to destroy the entire people, Moses staying God’s hand, Moses burning the idol, forcing the Israelites to drink water mixed with its ashes, the slaying of 3,000 Israelites, and God’s begrudging reconciliation with the people. What I want to look at is the way in which this phrase “bringing the people out of the land of Egypt” continues to be used in the story, and the possible message that its use has to teach us. The first two uses of the phrase we noted above. However, now turn to Exodus 32:7, p. 531 in the Humash. While the people are engaged in their debauched and idolatrous revelry, God tells Moses: “Hurry down, for your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.” Once again, note the bitterly ironic appropriation by God of the Israelites’ own incendiary language to describe Moses as the sole redeemer of the people from Egypt that we saw above. We almost imagine God saying to God’s self, “Well, you folks want to rewrite history, with My redemptive efforts struck from the record and Moses as the center of this drama? Fine…Moses, you deal with your people whom you delivered from Egypt. I have nothing to do with them anymore.” But Moses will have none of this. After God threatens to let God’s anger blaze forth and destroy the people altogether, Moses engages in a kind of deferential conceit to stay God’s hand. Notice Moses’ words in Exodus 32:11, p. 532 in the Humash: “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze forth against Your people whom You delivered from Egypt with great power and a mighty hand.” Moses not too subtly shifts responsibility for the people’s redemption from Egypt back onto God’s shoulders, as it were. But this bit of political and spiritual ping pong is not yet over. After the great massacre of the people that Moses and his fellow Levites execute, God tells him, in Exodus 33:1, p. 536 in the Humash—“Set out from here, you and the people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, ‘To your offspring will I give it…’” In a state of extended rage against the sinful Israelites, and in an apparent attempt to disown them and all responsibility for them, God continues to turn this language back onto Moses. However, note the transition that has taken place in the verse we just read. Despite the rage and almost willful disownership, God is still willing to look to the future that is the Israelites’ raison d’etre, and the reason for their leaving Egypt in the first place: to enter and settle the land promised to our ancestors, Canaan, or what we call the land of Israel. Only after God calls up this ancient promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, can Moses move God –as it were- to reclaim shared responsibility with Moses for moving the people forward to the promised land. God then promises Moses to help him lead the people, and reveals to Moses God’s 13 attributes of mercy and compassion.

So, who was responsible for bringing the people up out of Egypt, and into the promised land? Certainly not the mute, inanimate golden calf that symbolizes the most infantile, slavish impulses of an immature people. I suggest that what emerged from this extended dialogue between Moses and God was the recognition that both of them –the human leader and the divine Leader- were responsible. It is not that God and Moses were equals, but that neither of them alone –as it were- could fulfill the necessary criteria for redemption from slavery and possession of the promised land. Without God at the helm, the mission would have no spiritual energy. Without Moses at the helm, that spiritual energy would lack a channeled, human focus, and would hemorrhage uselessly.

Having just spent three weeks in Israel –our modern promised land- I am once again amazed at just how true this insight of the Torah is. From the beginning of our Israel pilgrimage until its end, our Ohav mission group experienced almost non-stop the vital energy flowing through our Jewish homeland and the awe inspiring, world class Jewish society that our people has created there. The great quantities of great food that we sampled daily were paralleled by the rich expressions of the Jewish past, present and future and the rich varieties of diverse Jewish backgrounds and experiences that we encountered as well. Even those of us who knew no Hebrew or Bible quickly immersed ourselves in a highly compressed and emotionally intense embrace of Jewish knowledge and experience: as it were, we became the Israelites entering the promised land, we entered into dialogue with God near the Holy of Holies, we lived through the horrors and heroism of the Holocaust, the terror and the triumph of the War of Independence, the prosaic banality of ancient Jews living their daily lives in the Holy Land, and the poetic bliss of Jews achieving our greatest dream: to be a free people in the land of Zion and Jerusalem after two thousand years of homelessness and hope in the face of despair. Here is what we learned there, and what I learn there time after time that I visit: the Jewish people, the great Zionist enterprise to assert our right to freedom, dignity and sovereignty, and the creation and continuation of the State of Israel continue to flourish because of a powerful partnership between us and God. This partnership brought us out of Egypt and into the promised land; it brought us out of Auschwitz and into the founding of the Jewish state; it brings all of us out of the diaspora and into an utterly transformative encounter with our destiny each time we visit Israel, each time we support Israel, each time one of us makes aliyah. Almost all Israelis, from the most idealistic to the most cynical, from the most religious to the most secular, from the most right wing to the most left wing, are bound together by the simple Hebrew phrase, yihiyeh tov, it will be alright, everything will turn out ok, I have hope. That is more than just a phrase: it is a whole way of life, a massive leap of faith forged in the crucible of time, vision and spiritual energy, and given distinctive shape by a lively people who express it in myriad ways, great and small, every day. It binds together and lifts up the people of Israeli society who are often deeply divided and plagued by difficult internal and external problems, yet who refuse to give into despair.

Walk down the streets of Jerusalem before Shabbat as our group did, or walk those same streets in the week before Purim, as I was privileged to do by myself, and you feel it. Talk, as I did, to the students and faculty of the amazing Hand In Hand School For Jewish-Arab Education who are trying to create a civic space for dialogue and peace, and you feel it. Plant a tree in the Kennedy Memorial Forest, listen to the words of David Ben Gurion proclaiming Israel a state in the actual place where he made that proclamation, or sing Hatikvah –the Jewish National Anthem- on the beach in Tel Aviv at sunset, and you feel it: you feel God, however you feel God, very much alive and present in this place called Israel, but especially among this people called Israel.

Who brought us up out of the land of Egypt and into the promised land? God did and Moses did. Who does this today, time and time again, when we are open to it happening? God does and the people and State of Israel- do. It is great to be home, but already I miss our imperfect, pock marked, crazy, beautiful Jewish home, our promised land, our Israel: partnership of God and Man, old/new miracle, sign of God’s eternal covenant with us and with the world.

(c)2010 by Rabbi Dan Ornstein

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