Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Walk Article

FOLLOW THE CROWD 

Ki Tisa-5779 

Rabbi David Walk 

 

The late author Michael Crichton was famous for many things, including being the tallest writer in captivity at 2.06m (6 foot 9). But his greatest claim to fame was taking cutting edge technology and making it absolutely terrifying, like space exploration in the Andromeda Strain, cloning in Jurassic Park and time travel in Timeline. He adapted science headlines and transformed them into nightmares. Recently, I picked up Prey his 2003 novel about nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. It is, of course, appropriately horrifying, but I found his passages about population dynamics, especially swarming tendencies, fascinating. And, of course, this mob psychology material feeds right into an infamous incident in this week's Torah reading. 

Every year when we get to this parsha we must deal again with the phenomenon of the Golden Calf. There are, of course, many aspects to this event, but the one that nags us the most is: How could these people who witnessed the Ten Plagues, the Crossing of the Sea and the epiphany at Mt. Sinai, possibly reject God so shockingly, and quickly? There are many and varied approaches to this dilemma, but let's see if we can move in a slightly new direction this year. 

Throughout history Jewish scholars have split into two positions. One tries to minimize the enormity of the transgression. In the lead of that pack is, perhaps, Reb Yehuda HaLevi. His great philosophic work on Judaism, the Kuzari, endeavors to present the best face of Judaism and Jews. He, therefore explains: Their sin did not constitute a total repudiation of God's service, rather a partial repudiation of some of God's commands...Their offence lay in fashioning a forbidden image...Their sin seems much more serious today, because few indulge in the worship of images anymore (I, 97). 

Others try to minimize the Jews' culpability by blaming the EIRAV RAV or 'mixed multitude' of non-Jews who accompanied our ancestors from Egypt. These true idolaters convinced the scared Jews to slide back to the common practice of that age, AVODA ZARA. Edward G. Robinson was very convincing: Moses does not return from the forbidden ground...who will lead us to this Land of Milk and Honey? Now we have no leader...(to Aharon) You will make a god for us, a god of gold, a Golden Calf! Very convincing, nyaaah! 

The Ramban (Shmot 32:1) famously explains that the Jews didn't mean to replace God, but wanted a substitute for the missing leader, Moshe. It was, therefore, a sin somewhat lower than true idolatry.    

On the other hand, some commentators see this precipitous fall from the spiritual heights of the revelation at Mt. Sinai as so severe that its tarnish still affects us. Just as Adam and Chava brought a pollution (ZUHAMA) which attached to humanity until we received the Torah. The Golden Calf stain will remain upon our people until the GEULA SHLEIMA, final redemption. 

There are a tremendous number of variations of all these themes. Enough to throw up our hands in despair of ever finding a definitive answer. Sorry, I don't have a clever way out of this thicket of options, but I do suggest strongly that every year it's worthwhile to revisit this complex episode, and try to see it from a new perspective. So, here's this year's effort. 

I perused the well-developed commentary of Amos Chacham (the first winner of Israel's Bible Contest, who passed in 2012) in the Mossad Rav Kook Tanach. He surveys many positions, and then makes the comment which got me thinking. Professor Chacham writes that this story teaches us profound lessons about the nature of human behavior. We learn about how a large group of humans act when they have no leader. That's when I remembered the terrifying passages in Chrichton's book. 

The hero of Prey is in the Nevada desert with a swarm of living nanoparticles (sort of manmade bacteria), which are hunting him. He is a computer programmer who recalls that these artificial swarms will exactly follow the patterns of natural swarms, like herds, birds or fish. They instinctively revert to behavior which they collectively recall saved the swarm in the past, like from a predator or a hurricane. Leaderless swarms follow remembered behavior. For ancient humans that meant looking for an idol. That's what people did 2300 years ago. Monotheism had not yet been rooted into our psyche. 

Now we can understand what God says to Moshe: They have quickly turned from the path I commanded them...they prostrated themselves before the molten calf...(and most significantly) they are a stiff necked people (32:8-9). God's telling Moshe that there is no chance for these people, because they are programmed to return to idols in time of crisis. They can't unlearn that behavior. It's time to replace them with a new population, without that tainted strain of experience. 

Hurray for Moshe! He gets it. Listen to his plea on behalf of his flock, our alter bobbies and zeidies: Remember Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, Your servants, to whom You promised with Your very Self (BACH), that you would increase their seed (verse 13). Wow! Moshe got it! These people can be redeemed because they have belief in You in their DNA. They have knowledge other than their Egyptian experience within them. They just need a leader to remind them of whom they truly are. Moshe gets an A+ in God's class on Jewish leadership. The argument about the Egyptians being confused if God destroys the Jews, is just a side bar to the real issue. Yes, we Jews do have a responsibility to guide mankind, but that's secondary to our primary mission, worshipping God faithfully. 

This scenario continues to this day. We always find ourselves in danger of succumbing to the behavior of the dominant culture. And, tragically, a percentage of our people are lost in every era. But we have the loyalty to God from our illustrious forebears in our genes. In every age we must look to the sincere leaders who help us remain loyal to our tradition, our mission, our God.   

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Seize the Day...Last Chance!

 

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