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Torah Commentary
Ki Tisa (March 7, 2015)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

WE BEGIN THIS WEEK’S PORTION — the longest in the Torah — at the end of Moses’ 40 days atop Mount Sinai. While God inscribes with a finger two stone tablets, the Israelites at the foot of the mountain plead with Aaron to “make for us a god who will go before us because this Moses — the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt — we do not know what happened to him.” There are many other moments in their homeless wanderings when the Israelites lose hope, complaining that they were better in Egypt. This time, however, they do not long for a return to the security of slavery. The Israelites remain committed to the dream of a new home in the Promised Land. They want to resume their travels but are neither capable of continuing the journey nor to patiently and confidently await Moses’ return.

It isn’t surprising to me that the Israelites are unable to leave Moses behind and head toward Israel on their own. After 400 years of slavery, it is understandable that the Israelites would look to others for leadership. What is more surprising is that they so quickly are ready to find a new leader other than Moses. How is it that within a few months after experiencing the greatest miracles in the story of our people — the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea and the revelation at Sinai — our ancestors lose faith in God and in Moses?

Many commentators suggest that it is the fear that Moses has abandoned them and never will return that prompts them to seek new leadership, both human and divine. If we think of the fledgling Israelite nation as akin to a small child, perhaps Moses should do what parents do at Nursery School drop-off: reassure them that he’ll be coming back. Then, the Israelites can encourage one another to be patient, reminding them of Moses’ promise to return soon. I can imagine the Israelites building a Golden Calf, not as a substitute for Moses or God but as a transitional object, something tangible to help them stay strong while longing for the return of their heroic leader.

The Israelites lose heart despite the memory of recent miracles. Today, we may long for clear signs of Divine Providence and for inconvertible evidence of God’s intervention in human affairs, but even miracles don’t provide us with reassurance in those moments when it feels like God is absent. It is only through our relationships with one another that we are comforted in times of trouble. As part of a community that cares for one another, we can say with confidence the ancient Hebrew words “Emanu-El…God is with us!”

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