Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Ki Tisa (Psalms)

Psalm 106: The Golden Calf and Other Betrayals

The sin of the Golden Calf, related in this parsha, is seen as the traumatic event in Biblical history par excellence: an event of mythic proportions, symbolizing the great break in the harmony between God and the Israelite nation, and the paradigm for all subsequent events of rebellion, of faithlessness, of turning against God. Hence, it is not surprising that the one explicit mention in the Psalter of the sin of the Golden Calf occurs in tandem with an enumeration of the other occasions on which the Israelites disobeyed God.

Some weeks back (HY VI: Vaera-Bo) we discussed the genre of the long, narrative psalm which recounts the history of Israel (Pss 78, 105, 106). Among this group, Psalm 106 is particularly concerned with the sins of the people; it is a kind of lugubrious rendering of the history of Israel as a long series of rebellions and acts of ingratitude towards God, followed by punishment, brief episodes of penitence, and once again sin.

The central part of the psalm (vv. 6-41) lists those times in the desert and immediately thereafter in which Israel turned against God. Each occasion is portrayed in terse terms: incidents that occupy entire chapters of the Torah are painted in bold colors in two or three verses. The incidents are not arranged in the chronological or literary sequence in which they are presented in the Torah, but jump back and forth; the assumption is that those hearing it “knew their Bible,” and did not need more than a few verses to remember the gist of each incident. The transitions from one incident to the next are sudden, catching one by surprise; at times, one needs to read a passage twice to know exactly what is being referred to, and where one event ends and the next begins. Amos Hakham identifies this central section as a confession of sin; I tend to imagine it more as a kind of sermon, in which the speaker admonishes his listeners, reminding the people of their ancestor’s bad history and implying that they, as well, need to return to God.

A brief outline: a brief introduction of thanks to God (vv. 1-5: “Give thanks to God, for He is good…. Who can relate the mighty wonders / acts of the Lord, make heard all His glory…”), followed by a verse introducing the theme of the people’s sinfulness and their lack of appreciation of God’s kindly acts (v. 6). The psalm then lists seven separate occasions on which the people broke faith with God: i) vv. 7-12: the rebellion at the Red Sea, momentary as it may have been, when they cast doubt at God’s ability to redeem them (Exod 14:11-12); interestingly, this is immediately followed by mention of the Song of the Sea (“they sang Your praises…”), which is the template for the very opposite reaction—joyful recognition of God’s power and sovereignty; ii) vv. 13–15: the incident of the quail (Num 11:4-35), during which the people were overcome by lust for meat, and many were struck down by a plague in what was known as Kivrot ha-Ta’avah; iii) vv. 16-18: the rebellion of Korah (Num 16-17; strangely, he is not mentioned here by name), Datan and Aviram, and heir followers who were swallowed up by the earth; iv) vv. 19-23: turning backwards in time, the psalmist returns to the incident of the Golden Calf (note its position in the center of the seven sins); v) vv. 24-27: the incident of the Spies (Num 13-14), in which they “were disgusted with a goodly land,” fearing to accept the Divine gift of the Land of Israel; vi) vv. 28-31: the incident of Baal Peor, in which they “paired” with idolators and ate “offerings of the dead”; interestingly, the interpretation here is very different from that in Num 25:1-15; there is no mention of Pinhas’s act of zealotry, spearing the brazen couple while in the very midst of a public (pagan/ritual?) sexual act, but it merely states that he “prayed” and stopped the plague; vii) vv. 32-33: the incident of Mei Merivah (Num 20:1-11), at which Moses lost his temper and smote the rock. In verses 34-39 our author leaves the desert period, and rounds off the psalm by recounting the people’s failures after entering the Land of Canaan. This section recaps the opening chapters of Judges and the admonition of the “angel” who came to Bochim, warning the people not to allow the pagan peoples to live among them in the “remaining land”—a failure that led to idolatry and mingling with the adjoining Gentiles. The concluding section consists of: vv. 40- 43: the Divine punishment; vv. 44-46: God nevertheless remembers His covenant and has compassion on them; v. 47: a concluding prayer for deliverance and ingathering of all the exiles; v. 48: the concluding verse of Book Four, with fulsome praises to God.

Before turning to the focus of our parsha, namely, the meaning and significance of the Golden Calf incident, we must ask: what is the goal of this dwelling upon the people’s sinfulness in the desert? It is well known that the Bible generally sees bad things that befall the people as punishment for sin, and later generations both bearing the burden of earlier generations’ misdeeds, and repeating the pattern of their transgressions. (Thus Rambam, in his discussion of commemorative fast days in Ta’aniyot 5.1, says that such days as the 17th of Tammuz, the day on which the Calf was made, are occasions for reflecting upon “our forefathers’ sins, which are like our own sins, that brought about these evils.”) Similarly, the phrase that introduces the Musaf prayer for festivals, “because of our sins we were exiled from our land,” expresses a like idea.

And yet, there seems something excessively negative, pessimistic, in this preoccupation with guilt, with the “lachrymose view of Jewish history” which sees one long, unmitigated disaster brought about by their own wrongdoing and stubbornness. Interestingly, in yesterday’s Talmud “page” (Berakhot 3a; see below), the Talmud shows God musing to Himself, “Woe to the father who has exiled his children, and woe to the children who have been exiled from their father’s table.” As if to say: God must punish the Jewish people because of a cosmic law of recompense, of deed and consequence, by which He Himself is somehow bound; but on some level, He is deeply pained that such is the state of things. It is easy to be cynical about the stereotyped disciplinarian father who weeps inwardly while beating his children, saying “This hurts me more than it hurts you” and “This is for your own good”— sentences that are often seen as rather disingenuous. (In Israel, a similar phrase is used sarcastically about those who bemoan the state of ongoing warfare, without working to create any real alternative: yorim ubokhim, “they shoot and weep.”) And yet, for those of us who believe in a God who is in constant tension between Din and Rahamim, the image of God shown in this little story has something real and touching about it.

Turning now to the story of the Golden Calf: Aviva Zornberg’s excellent book on Exodus, The Particulars of Rapture, is particularly illuminating on this subject. She begins, in her discussion of Parshat Terumah, by noting two contrasting understandings of the purpose of building the Sanctuary, as reflected in two approaches to the question: did the making of the Calf occur before or after the command to gather materials to “make Me a holy place” (Exod 25:8). One view, that of Ramban and others, sees the Torah as narrating events in their actual sequence; thus, the Sanctuary was preconceived as a kind of completion of creation, a place, after Sinai, for the Presence of God in their midst. As such, it was conceived from the outset as a source of unmitigated joy. Rashi, on the other hand, who does not see the Torah as necessarily presenting things in chronological order (ein mukdam u-muhar batorah), sees here rupture and disjunction—the catastrophe of the Golden Calf “soundlessly intervening between Sinai and the Mishkan.” The Calf is a radical break in the Torah, a kind of gaping hole in the middle— so that the making of the Mishkan was an attempt to repair that breach.

It occurred to me that this may be alluded to in the kinds of offerings made by the revelers at the Calf. “And they rose early in the morning, and offered burnt offerings (olot), and brought whole-offerings (shelamim), and the people sat to eat and drink, and they rose up to play/revel“ (Exod 32:8; Rashi sees this “play” as an orgy of sex and bloodshed). Conspicuous here by its absence is the hatat, the sin-offering. Interestingly, Rambam speaks of the function of the altar primarily in terms of atonement (Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.2, quoting Gen. Rab. 14.8; cf. my discussion in HY V: Yom Yerushalayim), noting that the place where Adam and succeeding generations offered their sacrifices was the same place from which he was created, “so that he would be created from the place of his atonement.” Thus, the need for atonement, the inevitability of man’s failure, is central to the Divine scheme.

Thus, the opposing views of Rashi and Ramban on a seemingly technical, chronological issue may also reflect very different views of the nature of the Mshkan/Temple and the sacrifices offered there: is it a place for celebration of closeness to God, or of atonement for inevitable sin? Does the Mikdash symbolize wholeness, presence, the completion of Sinai, man’s capacity for partnership with God; or guilt, frailty, moral culpability, and the need for atonement?

And what about the sobering, somber note of the mysterious deaths of Nadav and Avihu in the Holy of Holies, at the very height of religious ecstasy on the day when the Sanctuary was dedicated? Or the strange juxtaposition this year of the two paradigmatic events symbolizing the diverse poles of the Temple service: Yom Kippur, symbolizing sin and atonement, and Pesah, the joyful celebration of the birth of the people as a free nation, eating the paschal meal in holiness in the courtyards of Jerusalem with song and praise? In seven weeks, on the Shabbat morning that will immediately precede Seder night, we will read, of all the portions in the Torah, that of Aharei Mot—the account of the atonement ritual!

Further insights from Zornberg’s reading of the Golden Calf: the idea of the circle, in which the makers of the calf danced in ecstatic revelry, is a pregnant one: she notes the linguistic parallels between egel / agul; Meholot / vayehal. The circle suggests an endless present, an illusion of wholeness and harmony, of merging with the other, an ecstasy unrelated to any historical continuum, to the future, or to ethical goals. (There is much danger in the contemporary quest for “ecstasy” or “happiness.” Israeli author Raphaella Bilski writes of what she calls the “happiness industry,” which offers people various panaceas that will make them feel happy. She sees this as part of a major cultural malaise: there are many people today seeking happiness as a goal in life rather than as a byproduct—and at that an uncertain one, that comes and goes—of a meaningful, fully lived, integrated life.)

Zornberg also sees something fetish-like in the attitude to Moses. It all began because he was late coming down from the mountain, boshes lavo. His tarrying, perhaps by only a few hours, led them into anxiety, like a child who fears abandonment by parents; this anxiety may, beyond a certain point, cross over into craziness. In any event, Moses served as a substitute father, if not a God substitute. The people found him mysterious, strange, an outsider; the question in 32:1, “this man Moses… we don’t know what has become of him,” may be read as reflecting an ongoing puzzlement, “What is he all about anyway?” There is a perennial danger in religion in which a spiritual teacher can himself become a reified object of adoration. The more the leader holds himself above the people (and this may easily happen: if he has an authentic, deep inner life, seeing and understanding things that ordinary people don’t see or understand, he is different, and is bound to be aloof), the greater the danger of a cult—of the rosh yeshiva, the rebbe, the imam, the guru, and, in extreme cases, the false messiah. Actually, someone once commented that there was a certain generation in the American rabbinate who thought that being pompous was part of the role. For this reason, I have always admired certain teachers who know how to be informal, even crack jokes, to be a friend as much as a rebbe, since the true object of reverence must always be the living God. Rabbis Adin Steinsaltz, Shlomo Carlebach, Art Green, are among those who project such informality, who know how to “break distance.” (Incidentally, one of the great virtues of the Israeli Army is that it is almost entirely without the cult of military spit and polish, of hierarchical distinctions between officers and soldiers, beyond what is necessary for the actual functioning of the chain of command. Officers are addressed by first name, walk together and chat with their solders. And I’ve been told that this is true not only in the reserves, where it might be more expected, but also in the regular army.)


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