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Parashat Ki Tissa, 5778

February 28, 2018

Society’s Golden Calves
A D’var Torah for Ki Tissa
by Rabbi Irwin Huberman, ’10

While attending a conference last year on future trends in Judaism, one of the presenters – a rabbi – told the story of how he had aroused the fury of one of his congregants.

One evening, as he taught a class on the ethics of technology, his phone began to ping.

Because his device had been tucked in his jacket hanging in the back of the room, he was not able to immediately respond to the text messages.

After his lecture ended, when he had the opportunity to check his messages, he realized that his lack of immediate response had triggered the rage of a usually mild mannered congregant.

“Rabbi, can I ask you something?” the first text read.

“Rabbi, I need your advice on something,” the next message read.

And then a series of messages followed in rapid fire: “Where are you?”

“Why are you ignoring me?”

“What the heck is going on?”

From there, the language continued to deteriorate. And this entire one way conversation took place over less than thirty minutes.

It’s an amazing thing when you think of it, of how expectations have changed regarding how long it should take for each of us to respond to each other.

We expect instant answers. We demand lightening responses. We have lost our communal patience. We want it now – and not a second later.

Where has our patience gone?

Indeed, in this week’s Parashah, Ki Tissa, patience becomes an issue. The Torah recounts one of the Bible’s most famous stories — of a nation which wanted its gratification “now.”

It is known as the story of the golden calf.

As we read in previous weeks, Moses, upon receiving the Ten Commandments, ascends Mount Sinai and begins studying with God the intricacies of Jewish law. He says he’ll be back in forty days. But there is minor confusion.

The 11th century commentator Rashi observes that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai, he told the Israelites “I will be back after forty days before noon.” But Rashi notes, “They thought the day he went up the mountain was the first of the forty but he actually meant forty full days, including day and night.”

The people become impatient. They demand of Moses’ brother Aaron, to “come make us a god who shall go before us, for that Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt — we do not know what happened to him.” (Exodus 32:1)

Golden earrings are gathered and are melted into a golden calf – likely modeled after the Canaanite chief god El — depicted in the form of a bull.

Moses descends, and observes the Israelite camp enveloped in a wild frenzy. At first Moses thinks he’s observing a post battle victory celebration.

But reality soon sets in. “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged: and he hurled the tablets from his hands, and shattered them at the foot of the mountain….” (Exodus 32:19)

God too becomes angry, but Moses eventually begs for forgiveness on behalf of the people, and this model would eventually form the basis of our High Holiday forgiveness and repentance service.

Indeed, it is easy to understand why the Israelites so soon after the Egyptian exodus reverted to materialism. For hundreds of years, they lived under an Egyptian system of physical gods.

Then came Moses’ and the Israelites’ witnessing of great miracles performed by their transcendent God. But when Moses does not return on cue, the Israelites reverted to their familiar system of comfortable and predictable gods.

When you think of it, not that much has changed. Even today, it doesn’t take much for us to embrace materialism.

In a recent interview, British-American author and lecturer Simon Sinek observes that today more than ever, humanity appears to be obsessed with its physical idols.

He notes that when we obsessively check our emails, or search the Internet to see what is trending, or feel compelled to instantaneously answer text messages – we are not always searching for information or connections. Often, he observes, we are seeking a surge of dopamine, and this quest for nonstop stimulation has become an addiction.

This trend is reinforced by a recently-released book by author Dr. Jean M. Twenge titled iGen, which points to a correlation between obsessive technological use, and loneliness and depression. This is especially true among a young generation which has never known life without a cellular phone, tablet, computer, or the Internet.

Over the centuries there have been many interpretations attached to the story of the golden calf — yet as I read the essence of the story in 2018 what resonates strongest for me is humanity’s perpetual obsession with immediate gratification.

Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion we are reminded that the road to spirituality is a narrow one – surrounded on all sides by flashy gods.

Internet – video games – IPhones – Smart Televisions. Golden calves surround us on all sides.

Yet, while technology has provided us with important forms of escape and stimulation, it cannot rest at the center of our lives.

Each of us, in spite of the lure of games and gadgets, must remind ourselves that true life – a meaningful life – is based on direct human interaction and a direct and personal commitment by individuals and community to heal a broken world.

Moses reminds us that godliness is not linked to physical shape. Rather, it is invisible. It is heartfelt. It is spiritual.

Let us remember the lessons of the golden calf as we seek to find balance within our lives.

This week’s parashah challenges us to return to our spiritual roots. It also begs us to reflect, as we reread the story of the Israelites and golden calf, how can we strengthen our capacity to love, and our ability to exhibit patience.

It also begs us to consider, as we navigate a world full of false gods, who and what are our idols today?


Rabbi Irwin Huberman (AJR 2010) is the spiritual leader of the Congregation Tifereth Israel, a United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism affiliated congregation in Glen Cove, NY.