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Parashat Ki Tissa

February 25, 2016

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

“And the people bowed and prayed, to the neon god they made…”
(from The Sounds of Silence by Paul Simon)

In Parashat Ki Tissa, we read about the golden calf, that surrogate object of worship which the Israelites create as they give up on waiting for Moses, who has yet to return from his mountaintop sojourn with God.

For modern readers of the Torah, Moses departed for his Divine rendezvous three Torah portions ago. In all that time the Israelites have been without their leader, while we’ve read about the many laws and instructions being transmitted from God to Moses. If that seems like a long time to us, we can only imagine what it must have felt like for our ancestors — here they are out in the middle of nowhere, having left Egypt with the promise of a future in a homeland that has yet to be conquered. Since leaving Egypt, Moses has never been away this long.
One might liken the experience of the Israelites thus far, to that of a baby in its first few months of life. A newborn quickly learns that crying brings food when he is hungry, but he does not yet differentiate the providers of the food. By the time she is about nine months old recognition sets in, and so does separation anxiety whenever her caregivers leave her.

So it is with our ancestors as they experienced Moses and God as providers for their needs. Having been together in the wilderness for several months now, they are feeling the absence of their providers. No Moses. No pillar of cloud, or thunder or Voice. Separation anxiety sets in.

And so we read in Exodus 32:1, the people go to Aaron and say, “…Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him.” This is of course in defiance of the commandment against idolatry that they had only just received and accepted.

While there is clearly an intention to worship a false god, this verse suggests that it is Moses rather than God they are seeking to replace. When the molten calf is complete they say (Ex 32:4), “…This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” While this is a direct reference to the first Commandment: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2), and one so central to our theology that it is repeated numerous times in our liturgy, it is also a reference to verse 32:1 which expresses the absence of Moses “who brought us from the land of Egypt”.

Regardless of whom the molten calf represents, the people have chosen idol worship to alleviate their feelings of fear and uncertainty. It is comforting, but it is false.

We can try to imagine what the people might have done rather than fabricating an object of worship. Might they have tried to face their fears rather than mask them? Shared their concerns and taken comfort from one another? Perhaps they would have attempted to contemplate this ineffable new God that Moses has introduced to them. Instead, they choose to focus their attention on a piece of metal and call it a god.

The classic Simon and Garfunkel song from the 1960s, quoted above, has been interpreted as a warning against our infatuation with the “neon god” of television.   How much more true this is today, with our many forms of electronic and digital media. This is not to disparage the important advantages of social media and modern communication technology. But when we rely on media sound bites and easy explanations, emotional rhetoric and misleading information, and when we accept these as “Truth”, then we are not unlike our ancestor idol-worshippers. The molten calf was an easy god, familiar and reassuring — and a distraction from grappling with the complexities of their new existence as free, monotheistic Israelites. We are not so different when we rely on easy, reassuring, false truths in response to the overwhelmingly complex political, social and environmental issues of our time.

Despite God’s anger at the idol-worshipping Israelites, we might also imagine the Divine One, then and now, whispering these other lyrics from the Paul Simon song: “Hear my words that I might teach you; Take my arms that I might reach you!”  But first we have to stop worshiping our neon gods.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.