Ki Tisa The Golden Calf –Sasha Tulgan

Posted on March 22, 2024

Ki Tisa

The Golden Calf

Sasha Tulgan

Ki Tisa is a commentary about idol worship, faith and trust, community organizing, leadership, fracture, and repair. I want to focus in particular on fracture and repair, and the importance of strong leadership at a time of brokenness.

A basic overview of Ki Tisa is as follows. Moses receives instructions for building the mishkan and keeping the Sabbath. While Moses is at the top of the mountain receiving this knowledge, the people are waiting at the base of the mountain for 40 days for his return. They are growing impatient and anxious. They say, “This man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt — we don’t know what has become of him.” They start to get anxious, restless, and fearful.

The feelings of anxiety are uncomfortable and the people have difficulty sitting with them. There is no biblical concept of meditation, of mindfulness, of deep breathing through the disconcerting feelings. The people can’t manage the waiting and not knowing. Their hasty response? They demand that Aaron build a golden calf to worship. This helps them feel as if they are protected, grounded, led.

G-d is furious and threatens to destroy the people. Moses is also furious. He comes down the mountain, holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments that G-d just gave him, and he smashes them. Biblical times were so violent and volatile – and this is a biblical version of failed emotional regulation not unlike the people’s dysregulation. But Moses pulls it together and advocates for the people, begging G-d not to destroy them, to rekindle G-d’s love for them. He puts himself on the line – and in fact succeeds in persuading G-d to have a change of heart. G-d forgives. G-d instructs Moses to construct a new set of tablets to replace the first – and this one is an amalgam of G-d’s creation and Moses’s labor. It captures the fracture, the brokenness of the original tablets and the people’s sin – and also models repair.

I was trying to make sense of this portion last week when I was in Florida visiting my in-laws for my kids’ school break. Some of you know that I work as an administrator at Harvard Law School. One of the areas I oversee is discrimination and harassment. Moments after I arrived, Ifound my inbox flooded with anguished messages from students, sharing with me an image they had seen on an Instagram post advertising an event by two Palestinian solidarity groups on campus. You’ve probably read about it in the Globe or the Times – the invitation was to an event analogizing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to apartheid South Africa and the Civil Rights movement in this country, with a horrifying image of a hand with a Star of David on it and a dollar sign at the Star’s center, the hand holding a noose around the necks of two men, one Black and one Arab. It was unsettling to say the least – despicable and frightening and particularly awful in a place of learning. A place whose motto, “Veritas,” literally means “truth.”

What leads to such hateful and vile imagery? And why do many students who describe themselves as social justice advocates feel drawn to it, or the rhetoric that connects to it?

Tensions have been escalating all across Harvard and at other college campuses since October 7. Many student groups on Harvard’s campus issued an immediate statement after the attack on Israel holding Israel fully responsible for what would follow. The subsequent reaction to that statement was similarly swift and forceful, even after many retractions and apologies. Muslim students reported being “doxed” – their information was spread across the web with encouragement to target them and shame them as antisemites. Law firms and other organizations began rescinding offers to students who had any affiliation with any groups that had signed the statement. Another swift action that didn’t necessarily grapple with nuance – some of the students who lost jobs had not been part of the decision to sign the statement, as it had all happened quickly. Student organizations didn’t necessarily have written guidance in their charters about who could make such decisions and who needed to be consulted. A truck appeared in Harvard Yard with the faces and names of students who had allegedly signed the initial statement. As someone whose job includes supporting students who are experiencing challenges that interrupt their studies, I felt my own barometer for calm, reasoned decision-making spinning out of whack.

The intensity and disagreement is even more charged on social media, with some students unwilling or unable to hold more than one perspective in their minds at once. It is difficult to square the notions of Israel’s self-determination and need to defend itself with the vast humanitarian toll in Gaza. It is painful to hold both of those ideas in our minds simultaneously and make sense of them, without forming quick judgments and statements. In the face of so much nuance, complexity, history, and conflicting narratives that have evolved and been taught since 1948 and earlier, it’s easier to see the world as binary. There’s my side and yours. There’s wanting to be on the side of history, of “justice” and “equity.” There’s seeing anything short of this as incorrect and ill-considered.

The deeply charged rhetoric and in some cases hateful speech or personal attacks are manifestations of hurt, of anxiety and impatience, not unlike the people growing impatient in the absence of Moses, their leader. There’s limited patience for dialogue, for calm, reasoned, active listening. We live in a world of real-time information and communication, where the pressure for immediate action and solutions can lead to hasty decisions and emotional responses. It is tempting to adopt extreme positions without engaging to form a better understanding.

The creation of the Golden Calf represented a form of idol worship. I see an analogy in the tendency to idolize opinions or beliefs, often at the expense of exploring all the facts and engaging in constructive dialogue. This can lead to a lack of openness to alternative perspectives and a failure to acknowledge valid, differing viewpoints. Antisemitic speech often involves the idolization of negative stereotypes and biases against Jews. Similar with racist speech. The perpetuation of myths, like conspiracy theories about Jewish money and influence, can be fueled by an unwillingness to appreciate the depth and complexity of issues entrenched in several millennia of history. Opinions can become rigid and unyielding, at which point the potential for openness and collaboration diminishes. Like the Israelites, we can be blinded by beliefs to follow a false north star.

This underscores the importance at this moment – and any moment where major societal shifts are at play – of clear-headed and responsible leadership. Leadership that engenders faith and trust to obviate the need for idolatry. A historical figure like David Ben-Gurion comes to mind. A mid-century Moses who took difficult but decisive actions more than 70 years ago to inspire a people to unite and overcome all odds. To create a home for the Jewish people in a land surrounded by nations and groups that made it part of their literal mission to defeat and destroy the Jewish state.

I felt that the response from Harvard’s interim president, Alan Garber, to this particular episode, struck the perfect chord. Writing to the entire Harvard community last Tuesday, he wrote, “Perpetuating vile and hateful antisemitic tropes, or otherwise engaging in inflammatory rhetoric or sharing images that demean people on the basis of their identity, is precisely the opposite of what this moment demands of us… We must approach one another with compassion, open minds, and mutual respect, our discourse grounded in facts and supported by reasoned argument.”

Leaders have a role in setting the tone for discussions, promoting respectful dialogue, and advocating for the well-being of the community.

Moses, upon returning from his communing with G-d, took responsibility for the people’s actions and engaged in a dialogue with G-d on their behalf. After the fracture and repair of the Ten Commandments – the literal breaking of the laws that underlie our religion and our peoplehood – Moses partnered with G-d to build them anew, baking in a reminder of our brokenness, a future promise of partnership and repair.

It may be too much to expect that a modern-day Moses will find us in this moment and urge us to see the damage we are doing to each other by entrenching our positions and not looking for ways to engage with openness and curiosity. But my hope is that with small steps each of us can take to build and foster relationships across ideas and ideals, we can wrest our focus from temptations of modern golden calves, pick up the pieces of our tablets, and merge them with new, creative ideas. As Jews, we are commanded to engage in tikkun olam, recognizing the world is broken and needs repair. We should let the broken tablets be a compass; we should not despair; and we should and look for ways to put them back together. As we seek truth, we should approach people with compassion, consider other ways of seeing the world, and commit to taking thoughtful, reasoned actions with the resources we have.