An important part of this parashah is the story of the golden calf. Moses disappears onto Mount Sinai, where he spends 40 days and 40 nights talking face to face with God, and at some point during that time, Bnei Israel approach his brother Aaron and say to him: Come, make us a God. Which he proceeds to do, asking them to bring to him their gold ear-rings. He then melts down the jewellry and sculpts a golden calf for them.
Is this not surprising? Aaron does not say -"Let's wait just a little longer - I'm sure that he'll be here in a minute." Is this not what would be expected of someone in his position: he is the brother, you might say the next of kin - is it not the same as the next in line? In the not very distant past, he spoke on Moses' behalf to Pharaoh, when Moses himself felt he could not do so. We have been told already that he is to be the High Priest - Aaron seems very close to Moses. And yet he complies with this aberrant request without a word of protest.
Rabbi Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg wrote a commentary on the Book of Exodus, entitled The Particulars of Rapture. This book contains 60 pages of writing about this one parashah alone.
One of the things she says about the Golden Calf event is that even though the story is told in the Torah much later on, it actually happens in close juxtaposition to the revelation: at one moment, God is manifest and all is light and clarity, and then just as suddenly, confusion reigns, the Bnei Israel lose their way and turn to idolatry. It is like night and day - good and evil are very close to each other, and it is sometimes hard to see when the transition from the one to the other occurs. It may take only a small shift.
Where is this shift here? Rabbi Zornberg says that it is all in one word "Boshesh". Va yar ha am ki boshesh Moshe laredet min ha har." verse 1 of chapter 32. Boshesh means "delay". "And the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down the mountain."Apparently this is the only time this word is used in the Torah.
Rashi says about this: "When Moses ascended the mountain, he told the people: In 40 days time I'll be back. They thought that the day of his ascent was included in the count, while he meant 40 complete days which began with the night. Since he ascended on the 7th of Sivan, the count began the following night and ended on the 17th of Tamuz. But, says Rashi, on the 16th of Tamuz, Satan came and threw the world into chaos: he showed them an image of darkness and deep fog and chaos, as if to say: "Surely Moses is dead - that is why chaos is come to the world".
In other words, the Bnei Israel suddenly experienced great doubt - we all know how that can happen - we trust someone happily, without question, until one day something goes a little wrong, and the thought occurs to us that maybe we have been blind, that it may be that this person is not what they seem... we experience a sense of abandonment and curse ourselves for not having perceived this earlier, the new scenario looks more and more credible the longer we dwell upon it and we say to ourselves - How could I have been so stupid! We are pervaded by a sense of fear and loneliness, a sense that something that could be trusted, like the earth beneath our feet, is subject to earthquakes and liquefaction, how could we have been so stupid - we experience pain and guilt, maybe even anger at the person - we are now quite sure that we have been deceived, we writhe in anguish.
This is Satan's work, say the Rabbanim. In modern parlance we might talk of paranoia. To the person experiencing it, it is a form of fear: When is it right to mistrust? How do we handle this sort of situation? Maybe what is needed is to examine the past record of that person - in this case Moses has so far never given bnei Israel a reason to doubt him...
There is another interesting fact about this one verse which is the first in chapter 32. The last verse in the chapter just before, which is also in this parashah, tells us that at this moment, Moses is receiving from God the two tables of testimony, written with the finger of God. A most holy moment above, juxtaposed with a moment of evil below. The contrast is very great. How could this happen?
This is where Rabbi Zornberg speaks to my heart. She writes about a sense of abandonment and she quotes modern psychological theory, in particular Winnicott.
Some of you may be familiar with the psychological literature around abandonment. Besides Winnicott, the main writer on this topic was an Englishman named Bowlby. He wrote about attachement. Abandonment is the other side of that particular coin. A child needs to have someone reliable to attach to in order to grow up as a healthy adult. For instance, if we consider Moses' very early life, we may have experienced a sense of relief to realise that when he was rescued from the Nile as an infant in a reed basket by Pharaoh's daughter, the person chosen to be his nurse was his own mother. He was not separated from her for very long.
Bowlby studied babies who were put into day-care during World War II, because their mothers had to work. And he found that the babies did not fare well if the mother was away for a long time, and they fared even worse if the staff changed frequently. Of course, different babies would have different reactions - some were more needy than others, right from the start. The older the child, the better he or she could cope with the separation. There is a lot of theory written about this, about the way a child's mind develops and how long a child can keep an image of a missing mother - it is mostly the mother - in their mind, and what happens when this time is exceeded. Basically at first the child experiences discomfort, then pain and then what is termed trauma.
We have a similar situation here with Bnei Israel. They were only a young people. Moses had lead them to Mt Sinai and all the power and knowledge seemed to be vested in him. Moses himself sometimes promoted this view: he set himself up as sole judge and jury to whom everyone came for justice, and it was his father in law who was not a Hebrew who said to him, Moses, this is too much for any one person, choose among the wise men in your midst and empower them to deal with the easier cases, and keep only the tricky ones for yourself. So Bnei Israel saw Moses as an extremely powerful person - much as a baby sees a parent - and they felt bereft when he was missing. They felt very anxious and needy and they quickly wanted to do something about this feeling, by getting hold of something else to fill the gap. That something else turned out to be the golden calf.
The golden calf is the end product of a psychological process: Rabbi Zornberg quotes from the work Meshech chochmah, by a 19th century Polish Rabbi called Rabbi Simcha HaCohen. For bnei Israel, she says, "Moses had become the source of supernatural power" The beginning of the people's corruption consists in their projecting all power onto Moses, the man who got them out of Egypt. In other words, the idolatry began long before the Golden Calf. The other side of projecting all the power onto another person is that there is no power left for anyone else. Every individual feels weak and in need of protection and salvation. It is an intolerable situation. So the Bnei Israel bow low in front of the calf and say in verse 4 "This is your God O Israel, which brought you out of the land of Egypt". They know this is not the case, and yet this is what they say. And in verse 7 of the same chapter, God who has seen this describes it to Moses "Go down, for your people that you brought out of the land of Egypt have behaved corruptly..." And then he mentions the fact that they are a "stiffnecked people" kshei oref, which would seem to entail just the opposite that they are not easily changed...
Maybe in fact they have not changed, they have remained the way they were in Egypt, idol-worshippers? What is happening could be seen as a resistance to the new way. This is a fairly common reaction when one tries anything new - at first we fail, then we reconsider and try again, and maybe we have to go through this many times, it does not matter in which domain, whether it is learning a new skill or getting rid of a habit, just doing something new is always a bit fraught.
We need to understand this and apply compassion rather than condemnation. The road is hard, the road is long, we stumble and sometimes we fall. The wonder is in how we pick ourselves up and carry on, just like Bnei Israel in the desert, yet again.
Thursday, March 8, 2012
I forgot to post this when I wrote it - realised it as I prepared the next drashah. So here it is in the form in which I read it out.
This is a difficult parashah. It is rich, complex and weighty. As such, it is possible that I may have got things wrong and I would like to ask anyone who has a different understanding please to speak up so that anything wrong may be corrected.
Mishpatim means laws, and indeed the first and main part of this parashah is all about laws. Chapter 21 + 22 + 23 until verse 19 – all laws. There is a lot to do with giving slaves their freedom, and it is always specified that the law is the same for a male or a female slave. Someone called Bernard S. Jackson has just written an entire book about this parashah and he says something interesting about the laws as they were considered in the days when Moses was alive: he says that early biblical law was significantly different from the way we see the law now, which is something like a set of rules to be argued over in Court – he says that many of the laws in the Covenant Code in Exodus should be viewed as "wisdom-laws." By this term, he means "self-executing" rules, the provisions of which permit their application without recourse to the law-courts or similar institutions. They thus conform to two tenets of the "wisdom tradition": that judicial dispute should be avoided, and that the law is a type of teaching, or "wisdom". And of course the word Torah means Teachings.
After the laws, there is a sudden change, where the text moves from practical every day issues, such as who owes what to whom to make up for which transgression, to a promise from God. God says: I shall send you an angel.
Coming upon those words suddenly – after the grimness of the last law, which is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – suddenly there it is, I shall send you an angel.
This angel is to be obeyed and followed, the verses are full of threats and promises. And after 13 verses, there is another change in the topic of the text to a description of Moses going up on to Mt Sinai to receive the stone tables of the Law. “And he walked on a mosaic of sapphires and the sky above was entirely clear.” Everything was filled with light. This part of the parashah takes up exactly 18 verses, which in Hebrew spells Chai, meaning life.
To go back to the absolute beginning of the parashah: the first word is the word Ve which is represented by the one letter Vav and means And
- And these were the laws that were given…
According to Rashi, this indicates that what is in this parashah is linked to what was happening in the previous parashah –. The previous parashah was Ytro and the last bit of Ytro is the list of the the 10 commandments, as they were handed over to Moses. So this one little letter Vav indicates that the laws mentioned in the first part of the parashat Mishpatim were also handed down at Sinai. This is important for complicated reasons which I’ll touch upon later.
This use of the word And is important.
Some years back, some of you may remember, a famous and eminent American rabbi, Rabbi Schechter Shlomi came to Wellington and visited us. Rabbi Schechter Shelomi must be in his 90s by now. He is a great leader of Reform Judaism. The Rabbi at Temple Sinai at the time of his visit was Rabbi Johanna, and she was overjoyed at the honour accorded our congregation. It was very exciting. That Saturday everyone was here, the schul was full, bursting at the seams. The Rabbi looked at our Torah and said something nice about it. Then he went on to say that it made him think of a special kind of Torah, where the scribe managed to start every new column with the word a Ve. You know how the Torah is written down in columns of text? Well every one of them would start with the word Ve – the scribe would play around with the spacing and size of the letters, make them biger or smaller, so that the first word at the top of the column would always be Ve.
And then Rabbi Schechter told a story about the importance of the word And. He told us that one particular committee he belonged to had made it their practice to require that whenever anyone spoke, their first word had to be And.
He said the word And creates links, and these links overcome differences and create inclusiveness, and help us to be together and stay together. He gave as an example the colours in his Talit, which had a rainbow of beautiful stripes in it, so the rainbow represents the and of all the colours; he talked about the different religions of the world that are all necessary, he said, and which each perform a different function, like the various organs in the body…another and.
You might try saying And yourself sometimes when you find yourself about to use a word which is less helpful, such as But … You know, someone makes a suggestion and you feel the word But come into your mind and in your mouth. It might be the birth of an argument, might it not? One might try – maybe not always successfully – to replace that But with the word And – of course you have to change what you were going to say next, at least a little - and that may be a good thing. Counsellors are taught this as a technique. It makes them more agreeable people. And some of them go on to teach this to their clients. You might say, this is all technique, it is not their true self, and maybe that is so to start with. It is possible that in due course, with practice, it might become their true self. And some of you here who are agreeable people in your own right probably have been doing this all your lives and don’t need this suggestion. Just common politeness you might say. It seems easy to say to those of us who are not so blessed that we should try to be ‘positive’ – well, this is actually one way of being positive, it appears like a trick, and the interesting thing about it is that it makes you more aware of what you are about to say, and gives you an opportunity for change. Trying new ways of doing things is always interesting.
There is an important event in this last part of parashat Mishpatim: this is from Rabbi Aviva Zornberg’s commentary: she points out that verse 4 of chapter 24 says And Moses wrote all the words of the Lord. According to Rashi, ‘All the words’ are the Torah – as far as the Bnei Israel knew at the time: it was the history of the world from the Creation from Bereshit, until the present moment, the moment of the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. The next verse, verse 5, talks about sacrifices on the special altar that Moses built. Moses divides the blood from the sacrifices into two separate parts. Now follows a sequence where the word taken VaYikach is mentioned three times: one part of the blood is taken and sprinkled on the altar walls; then the Book of the Covenant is taken and read by Moses “into the ears of the people”, who respond “We shall do and we shall hear!” in verse 7.
After the reading is concluded, the second bowl of blood is again taken and sprinkled – this time on the people themselves, which is something surprising and off-putting; Avivah Zornberg says that water always follows the blood, so presumably there was some washing, but that is not what this sequence is about..
If you think about it, you see that the taking and sprinkling of blood is on either side of the taking of the book, and that there is a link created by the words and he took - Va Ykach - between the altar, representing God, and the people. At the centre of this ritual is the Book, the link between the people and God.
What we do here during the service reflects those events: at the centre, the high point of our service, is the reading of the Book. Everything we do beforehand leads up to it, and then afterwards leads away from it. The reading is at the core, and so everyone who reads from the Torah can know that the first reader ever was Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our greatest teacher. And that is what the word Torah means, it means Teachings.
And the role of the people is to listen and to act accordingly. And that is not exactly what they say: they say it the other way round - we shall do and we shall listen, in other words they promise to act first. -The Lubavitcher Rebbe says that this represents the ultimate declaration of faith: Even before one has been told what to do, one promises to obey.
Here is the tricky bit regarding this parashah: it is based on Rashi’s interpretation. There is a break between what happened before Sinai and after Sinai. Before Bnei Israel hear the story of the Torah, they approach the mountain and experience what is known as the Revelation, seeing the clouds and lightening and hearing the voice of God. They are then exposed to a new narrative which tells the history of the world in a new and different way.
This parashah begins with Ve – which as you know, means And; so do most of the parashot, one linked to the other. One exception is of course the very first parashah, Bereshit, Bereshit bara elohim et ha shamyim ve et ha Aretz. Chapter 19, from the Parashah preceding Mishpatim, Parashat Ytro, which describes the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, does not start with a Ve either.
Rashi says that what is described in twelve verses of this parashah, , is a kind of flashback to Ytro – we are given here a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that was missing earlier – it has been separated from the other part., though it belongs with it in terms of the sequence. Why is this written in this way? Aviva Zornberg writes that Rashi is on the track of something elusive which cannot be articulated in any other way. The reading aloud of the text is placed firmly at the centre of the ritual enactment of the covenant.
Here is the bit that is complicated: what happens in these two days when Moses is on Mt Sinai, what happens between God and Bnei Israel, is qualitatively different from what happened in the previous parashah. What happens in Ytro is the creation of a contract – these are the laws and you must follow them. What happens in Mishpatim has to do with faith, it is the covenant.