Parashat Ki Tissa 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Ki Tissa
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)

Whether it be in a D’var Torah or in a Derash, two obvious sources of material I have assiduously avoided have been politics and what I have viewed as the thematically obvious. I have avoided the former not because I ignore or do not possess opinions about issues most would see as political. I am on the boards of many organizations who work in highly political spaces. My work has involved civil disobedience; including a night in jail and I have asserted my views in very public spaces. My congregants all know of my activism and progressive leanings without me having to say anything to them.

However, what I discovered pretty early on is that I am rarely in a position to change anyone’s mind based on what I say from the Bimah. My congregants either already agree with my stated views, which means I am speaking into an echo chamber, or they are entrenched in their opposition. The realization that my powers of persuasion are wanting (at least within the walls of my shul) is a tough pill to swallow. I am more than reticent to keep testing the theory only to be yet again disappointed.

The other reality is that our shul is seen as a refuge, a place and time to decompress. Our congregants need emotionally safe space before they head back out into the acrimonious world.

As to the thematically obvious, I am a bit ornery.  I like the challenge of focusing on lesser discussed events in the Torah. In so doing I think it shakes the doldrums of those I am honored to teach and compels them to think in different ways about Torah, and how we see our relationship with G-d and each other. By way of example a favorite of mine for study and discussion is the Parah Adumah-the ceremony of the Red Heifer.

That is as good a segue as any to this week’s Parashah, Ki Tissa, and the sin of the golden calf. I had fully intended to avoid a discussion of the golden calf based on the obvious thematic themes surrounding idol worship. How many times do my congregants need to hear about the modern-day idols of material possessions, cell phones, televisions and laptops, etc., etc.  Sounds like Homiletics 101.

Yet, there it was last week. A gold figurine/statue/idol of our former president. Void of any reference at the CPAC Conference was a discussion of policies, issues facing the country, differences of opinion. This was out in out fealty to cult personality.  So, notwithstanding the above commitment to avoid things political, sometimes you can’t ignore the obvious gift.

My interest in the topic leans more toward the factors that motivate one toward idol worship rather than any discussion of the idol being worshipped. Framed within our present political landscape the question is: why do people vote against their self-interest; a most prevalent question in my home state of Missouri.

The question posed by Nehama Leibowitz in her commentary on the parasha is: “[h]ow was it conceivable that forty days after the Sinai Revelation, with the commandments ‘I am the Lord. Thou shall have no other gods but Me’ still ringing in their ears, they could seek other gods?” (New Studies in Shemot (Exodus), part 2 at pp. 554-555). Citing further to Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed she refers to the “inevitability of gradualness” as a means of approaching any lasting transformation in human character. Miracles can only momentarily shake the human soul from being mired in the everyday status quo. They cannot effectuate lasting transformation.   “One single religious experience, however profound was not capable of changing the people from idol worshippers into monotheists. Only a prolonged disciplining in the precepts of Torah…could accomplish that.”

In his D’var Torah on this week’s Parashah, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie takes a different view of the golden calf story. His focus on those who danced around the calf provides a different way to read the story. Like those dancers, Lau-Lavie was transformed by the act of dancing, finding a way to honor his gay sexuality and his long-held faith; that the two could coexist harmoniously. (“Mounting Sinai” in Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible, pp. 112, 111).

Ellen Davis cites to a literary pattern in our Tanakh going back to Genesis. In this particular instance it is: 1. Our covenant at Sinai representing a new relational reality; 2. A rupture in the relationship-the making of the golden calf; 3. Divine Judgement and the ensuing punishment- a plague?; 4. Beginning again-building the Mishkan.  (Opening Israel’s Scriptures, pp. 59-60). It is as if we need to have the rupture in order to inform, renew and strengthen our relationship with G-d, and for personal and communal transformation.

Reconciling these conflicting views regarding transformative change, between the need for disciplined behavior, and moments of rupture to change the status quo is a big challenge. As to which approach is the correct Jewish approach, of course the answer is yes.

But what of a clearly bad choice, choosing to declare fealty to a golden calf-which does not stand for anything.  How do I distinguish my own acts of civil disobedience (acting on behalf of fast food and other low wage workers for Stand Up KC, and acting on behalf of those marginalized by race and economic disparity via the Poor Peoples Campaign), from the actions of those with whom I vehemently disagree? Who are the true idol worshippers?

Ultimately the litmus test is whether or not we are living our most deeply held Torah values. While we as Jews do not always agree on what those values may be, and on how those values have evolved (See Lau-Lavie above), looking to Torah as our guide provides us with a needed foundation to make lasting change.   As my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Moshe Berger said, “Torah is pretty durable.” It has lasted through our many ruptures, and will through the many ruptures to come.
Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.