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Torah Commentary
Ki Tisa (March 2, 2013)

David Mintz, Cantorial Intern

“WHAT’S NEXT?” President Josiah Bartlet often would say.

It was his recurring catchphrase in Aaron Sorkin’s depiction of a fictional White House in The West Wing. Amid the show’s political jargon, soaring and idealistic rhetoric, and patented walk-and-talk sections, President Bartlet’s catchphrase served as a reminder that as pressing as any issue of the moment might be, what really matters is what happens next, as we move forward. While I’m certainly not equating President Bartlet with Moses or Aaron, I found myself thinking of the fictional president as I reread this week’s parashah, Ki Tisa.

This week, we read of the people of Israel growing impatient and wondering if Moses ever would return from atop Mount Sinai, as they implore Aaron to make for them a god that they can see — a golden calf. This narrative — the building and worshiping of the Golden Calf — often is understood as the story of the Israelites’ defiance of Moses. One certainly would think that all of the miracles the people had just witnessed might buy Moses some time. Others look at the story as a narrative of Aaron’s failure; rather than offering perspective, attempting to reconcile differences or even adhering to his own principles, Aaron gave in to the mob.

But rather than looking at the narrative along these lines alone, let’s recognize that it also can be understood as a warning of mankind’s ability to act virtuously in one moment and shamefully in the next. The modern commentator Nechama Leibowitz has noted:

We should not be astonished at the fact that the generation that had heard the voice of the living God and had received the commandment “You shall not make other gods beside me” descended to making the golden calf forty days later. One single religious experience, however profound, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshipers to monotheists. Only a prolonged disciplining in the laws of Torah directing every moment of their existence could accomplish that.

Leibowitz reminds us that it would be overly simplistic to view the story of the Golden Calf only as an ancient tale of the Israelites’ defiance or of Aaron’s failure in leadership; this is about each of us as we live our lives today. We learn from this parashah that yesterday’s compassion may be followed by tomorrow’s selfishness, or in other words, that our past actions lose their meaning if they don’t inform what we do in the future. Each day truly presents new opportunities for acceptance or rejection, honor or defiance, peace or strife. As we continue to engage both with mitzvot and the study of Torah, it is our task to perpetually ask ourselves, “What’s next?”

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