Tag Archives: Ki-Tissa

Moses the Mensch and Moral Imagination

18 Mar

Hillel teaches us in Pirke Avot: In a place where there is no mensch (decent person), strive to be a mensch. In Parashat Ki Tissa, Moses demonstrates how to be a mensch when his entire environment is chaos.  The Israelites push God’s patience to the limit when they create the Golden Calf. God threatens to destroy them, but Moses saves the day. Let’s take a closer look. Upset that Moses is tarrying for 40 days on the mountain, they build a Golden Calf to worship as God, despite the fact that they were specifically instructed not to make a graven image.

God is furious and threatens to destroy the people and start a new nation with Moses.

9The LORD further said to Moses, “I see that

this is a stiffnecked people. 10Now, let Me be,

that My anger may blaze forth against them and

that I may destroy them, and make of you a great

nation.” 11But Moses implored the LORD his

God, saying, “Let not Your anger, O Lord, blaze

forth against Your people, whom You delivered

from the land of Egypt with great power and

with a mighty hand. 12Let not the Egyptians say,

‘It was with evil intent that He delivered them,

only to kill them off in the mountains and annihilate

them from the face of the earth.’ Turn

from Your blazing anger, and renounce the plan

to punish Your people. 13Remember Your servants,

Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, how You

swore to them by Your Self and said to them:

I will make your offspring as numerous as the

stars of heaven, and I will give to your offspring

this whole land of which I spoke, to possess forever.”

14And the LORD renounced the punishment

He had planned to bring upon His people.

 

It seems clear enough from Exodus that Moses intervenes and saves the people from God’s wrath and certain destruction. To underscore the point, Psalm 106:23 singles out Moses for praise:  “And [the Lord] said He was about to destroy them, if not for the fact that Moses, God’s elect, stood in the breach against Him to deflect His anger from destroying.”

Aviva Zornberg notes the Zohar’s contrast between Moses and Noah:

[T]he Zohar rereads Noah’s obedience to God’s commands—to build the ark and save his own family as a genetic basis for a future humanity: what looks like normative obedience is in fact collusion in the destruction of the world. Moses perceives the analogy with his own situation and prefers to die, rather than incur such a charge. The moral intuition that Moses articulates constitutes a momentous advance in ethical sensibility: to accept God’s offer to found a new nation on Moses, reconstructing history with Moses as patriarch of a revised world, would mean in effect to conspire, like Noah, in destroying the sinful world.

“Indeed, the contrast between Moses and Noah may be deciphered from a possible wordplay on Hanicha li (Let Me be…) …Moses, unlike Noah catches the drift of God’s intention, rather than unimaginatively obeying His explicit words. Noah becomes the paradigm, then, of an unimaginative literalism, which is harshly judged as murder. This moral vision is Moses’ creation, making sense of God’s implicit communications. To achieve this order of sensitivity to the unexpressed desire, a kind of self-forgetful attention is necessary. (Kornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, 416)

God wants us to think beyond the bounds of our personal lives.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes of approaching life with a sense of moral imagination, the ability for people to think about the implications of their actions before they do them—to think through before we do it.  People often have imagination but lack moral imagination.

Leaders in our country today have plenty of imagination but are woefully lacking in moral imagination. When lawmakers threaten to strip health insurance away from 24 million Americans, they suffer from a deplorable lack of moral imagination. When our leaders threaten to cut heating subsidies from single mothers in the Midwest who would freeze in the winter without this assistance, that’s not just a lack of moral imagination, it’s pure cruelty.

Moral imagination is the ability to learn before you do something. But how do you teach this? How do we cultivate genius for helping other people? Telushkin writes that we have the ability to cultivate moral imagination, particularly in youngsters, when we reserve our highest praise not for good grades or athletic prowess, but for acts of kindness. Examples may include returning a lost object, helping someone in need or stopping a friend from committing an act of vandalism or some other anti-social behavior. By praising children for simple acts of kindness, and I might add adults as well, “they will identify having a high self-image with being a good person.”

One young man in my community was on a high school sports team a few years ago when a teammate of his developed cancer and lost his hair in the course of treatment. In response, all members of the team shaved their heads to show solidarity with their teammate during his treatment. Somewhere along the way, this team developed moral imagination. Telushkin writes that “children who grow up associating being praised and loved with the performance of ethical acts are apt to most like themselves when they are doing good.”

In our society, it’s too easy for us to say Hanicha li—leave me alone—as God said to Moses in this morning’s Torah reading. But God didn’t really want to be left alone. He was testing Moses’s level of moral imagination. Moses had this keen sense and was able to think on his feet act swiftly so that his people were not destroyed. In a place of chaos and no decency, Moses rose to the occasion to be a mensch. We learn from  Moshe Rabbeinu that God expects no less effort on our part. Ken Yehi Ratzon, so may it be God’s will.

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All the World’s a Stage–Moses’s Dramatic Flair in Smashing the Tablets

14 Feb
Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Moses breaking tablets (Rembrandt)

Expanded upon 2/13/14 blog post

The last couple of weeks have confirmed more than ever how obsessed America is with celebrity. Even when events of much greater consequence to our daily lives occur, more newsprint, more air time and more Internet bandwidth are given to celebrities in the news. Why do we grant equivalent if not greater importance as a society to people who entertain us rather than people who produce for society in other ways, such as manufacturing and teaching? There may be numerous answers to this question. One is that entertainment is a vital human pursuit that makes us, well, human. We need to be entertained to nourish our souls, and the people who entertain us play important roles. Furthermore, the songs singers sing to us; the stories actors perform for us; the games that athletes play for us become part of our individual stories. Their successes and failures become metaphors for our own.

Let’s consider some recent headlines to illustrate this point. Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first trip to America and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s amazing how these four men, their music and the moment they stepped onto the American stage all continue to capture our imagination. Their music was transformative in that it feels current, even decades later.

The recent passing of Shirley Temple Black reminded us of the young girl who brought song and smiles to our nation in the midst of the Depression. She then grew up and became a distinguished diplomat and public servant, blazing a trail for women in public service. Sid Caesar, who died this week, revolutionized American comedy, bringing Borscht Belt humor to the masses via television. Pete Seeger, the granddaddy of American Folk music, used joyful song to galvanize multiple social movements including for civil rights, labor and the environment. These were not just three people who grew old and died. They touched people’s souls in personal ways and were transformative figures through their genres of entertainment.

Other entertainers in the news remind us of the fragility of life, its complexity and occasional tragedies. Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death by a drug overdose reminded us of the dangers of substance abuse and that some of the most accomplished and celebrated actors are not immune from this disease. New public allegations that Dylan Farrow was molested as a child by Woody Allen forces the issue of child sexual molestation back into the limelight. We are forced to confront not just whether or not we think Woody Allen is a creep but whether our society has turned a corner in confronting the seriousness of the broader issue of child sexual abuse.

Any of the celebrities I mentioned and their respective achievements and failures would probably warrant a sermon in his or her own right. I’ve chosen to briefly survey these recent newsmakers to highlight the extent to which people who entertain us grab our attention. We live vicariously through performers such as these because, as human beings, they help provide structure and purpose to our lives.

In this light, perhaps it should not come as a surprise that among the numerous roles that Moses plays in leading the Israelites, he is also a great performer on the public stage. We see his flair for the dramatic on full display in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki-Tissa. The reading contains the famous–or infamous–story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites fear that Moses is not returning from the mountaintop, and they make a graven image–a golden calf–in direct violation of the second of the Ten Commandments that they had just received. God is incensed and threatens to destroy the people. Moses, not having yet seen the idolatry has enough distance to put God “on the couch” as it were, and talk him out of destroying the people. However, once Moses sees the idolatry himself, his rage is so great he throws down and breaks the tablets of the Decalogue.

The above is the plain sense of the text. The Midrash and commentators probe a little deeper to try to get inside the head of Moses to see what he was really thinking and why he would take such an extreme measure.

The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah says: When Moses saw there was no future hope for Israel, he threw in his lot with theirs and broke the tablets and said to the Holy one blessed be He: They have sinned, but so have I with the breaking of the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me too; as it is said; “and now, if you will forgive their sin” forgive mine too. But if thou do not forgive them, do not forgive me but “blot me out I pray from Your book which You have written.”

According to the Midrash, Moses has a flair for the dramatic, and it is none other than God whom he needs to impress. Abarbanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator agrees that Moses has a flair for the dramatic but takes a different approach: Moses did not break them on the mountain itself when he was first apprised of the sin of the calf, but he broke them in the camp. For had Israel not seen the Tables intact, the awesome work of the Lord, they would not have been moved by the fragments, since the soul is more impressed by what it sees, than by what it hears. He therefore brought them down from the mountain to show them to the people and then break them before their very eyes.”

Moses may have been the great lawgiver, but his job description also included Actor-In-Chief. It’s possible that both the Midrash and Abravanel are correct and that Moses was playing to different audiences at the same time–God AND the people. In this case he gave the performance of his life. Moses shows that a leader is tasked with engaging the soul as well as the mind. He intuitively understood that the people needed a performance. They needed drama. In fact, his absence for forty days prompted their yearning for the ritual performance of the Golden Calf. His clamping down on that act of idolatry had to be even more dramatic in order to get his point across.

Last Yom Kippur, I paid tribute to my late grandfather, Sam Lesner, who was the film and entertainment critic of the Chicago Daily News. His birthday was February 16, and he would have been 105. In a 1978 lecture on the Yiddish theater, he said the following:

“It has been written that ‘[a]ll the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely the players’ (Shakespeare). For Jews everywhere, that is more than a literary catch phrase. It’s a philosophy for living, for surviving. For, do we not daily reenact our traditions? Do we not daily reenact our faith? And do we not daily rededicate ourselves to continuity of a vast, varied and colorful heritage, the Jewish heritage?

“It has also been written that ‘[t]here is that smaller world which is the stage, and that larger stage which is the world’” (Isaac Goldberg, early 20th century journalist).

“And yet another sage has written the theater is not a game. It is a spiritual compulsion. Once it celebrated the gods. Now it broods over the fate of man. Mensch trocht, Gott lacht (Man plans, God laughs).”

My grandfather’s words continue to ring true. So, the next time we read an obituary about an entertainer or a story about a fall from grace of a celebrity, let’s remind ourselves that it’s only human for us to consume such stories because we need performers in our society. But let us also remember that Moses himself was also a performer who mustered his dramatic skills to inspire a nation towards repentance and renewal.

Shabbat Shalom

#TieBlog #Ki-Tissa

13 Feb
Moses breaking tablets

Moses breaking tablets

Parashat Ki-Tissa contains the famous–or infamous–story of the Golden Calf. The Israelites fear that Moses is not returning from the mountaintop, and they make a graven image–a golden calf–in direct violation of the second of the Ten Commandments that they had just received. God is incensed threatens to destroy the people. Moses, not having yet seen the idolatry has enough distance to put God “on the couch” as it were, and talk him out of destroying the people. However, once Moses sees the idolatry himself, his rage is so great he throws down and breaks the tablets of the Decalogue.

The above is the plain sense of the text. The Midrash and commentators probe a little deeper to try to get inside the head of Moses to see what he was really thinking and why he would take such an extreme measure.

The Midrash in Shemot Rabbah says: When Moses saw there was no future hope for Israel, he threw in his lot with theirs and broke the tablets and said to the Holy one blessed be He: They have sinned, but so have I with the breaking of the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me too; as it is said; “and now, if you will forgive their sin” forgive mine too. But if thou do not forgive them, do not forgive me but “blot me out I pray from Your book which You have written.”

According to the Midrash, Moses has a flair for the dramatic, and it is none other than God whom he needs to impress. Abravanel, the 15th century Spanish commentator agrees that Moses has a flair for the dramatic but takes a different approach: Moses did not break them on the mountain itself when he was first apprised of the sin of the calf, but he broke them in the camp. For had Israel not seen the Tables intact, the awesome work of the Lord, they would not have been moved by the fragments, since the soul is more impressed by what it sees, than by what it hears. He therefore brought them down from the mountain to show them to the people and then break them before their very eyes.”

Moses may have been the great lawgiver, but his job description also included Actor-In-Chief. It’s possible that both the Midrash and Abravanel are correct and that Moses was playing to different audiences at the same time–God AND the people. In this case he gave the performance of his life.

#TieBlog #Eikev

24 Jul
Moses breaking tablets

Moses breaking tablets

The rabbinic term for the fifth book of the Torah is Mishneh Torah, repetition of the Torah. This is because the book is a collection of Moses’s sermons that he gave to the people on the banks of the Jordan River shortly before his death. The Greek term “Deuteronomy” is synonymous with “Mishneh Torah.” In Moses’s sermons he reminds the Israelites of their history and exhorts them to stay true God’s law. In recounting 40 years in the desert, our Torah portion this week contains Moses’s recounting of the sin of the Golden calf and his breaking of the tablets of the Decalogue. The original account is from Exodus Chapter 32, Parashat Ki-Tissa. As you read the selection below from Parashat Eikev, it will be clear how this week’s tie connects to the portion.

Deuteronomy Chapter 9
8 At Horeb you so provoked the Lord that the Lord was angry enough with you to have destroyed you. 9 I had ascended the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant that the Lord had made with you, and I stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water. 10 And the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God, with the exact words that the Lord had addressed to you on the mountain out of the fire on the day of the Assembly.
11 At the end of those forty days and forty nights, the Lord gave me the two tablets of stone, the Tablets of the Covenant. 12 And the Lord said to me, “Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted wickedly; they have been quick to stray from the path that I enjoined upon them; they have made themselves a molten image.” 13 The Lord further said to me, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. 14 Let Me alone and I will destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven, and I will make you a nation far more numerous than they.”
15 I started down the mountain, a mountain ablaze with fire, the two Tablets of the Covenant in my two hands. 16 I saw how you had sinned against the Lord your God: you had made yourselves a molten calf; you had been quick to stray from the path that the Lord had enjoined upon you. 17 Thereupon I gripped the two tablets and flung them away with both my hands, smashing them before your eyes. 18 I threw myself down before the Lord — eating no bread and drinking no water forty days and forty nights, as before — because of the great wrong you had committed, doing what displeased the Lord and vexing Him. 19 For I was in dread of the Lord’s fierce anger against you, which moved Him to wipe you out. And that time, too, the Lord gave heed to me.