Thank you, Rabbi Weiss, for giving me this opportunity to speak to my community. And also, thank you to Rabbi Gerson – who introduced me to the concept of a proem – actually an introduction in itself. I have used some quotes and literary forms to develop my d’var – my commentary on our parasha for this week, Teruma, “gift” in English.
Miss Fuller, in “April Bernard” said this:
“Now I know something else – that it is my labor to understand others, & possibly even myself, that it will be the accomplishment of my life – the accomplishment in the act of trying. Not to be understood, but to understand; not even, alas, to be loved, but to love.”
I HAVE COME TO BE NAMED
I have come to be named.
Riding in the autumn wood
I came to know my life is shaped by misunderstandings
I have come to be named.
I am not unhappy with the shape itself
for no matter what crooked road I have traveled
I have come to be named and I have been led to this moment
The fugitive explosions
The disconcerting schisms
I see in a world where awful harmonies I never guessed still exist.
I have come to be named.
I have come to be named
Following Pacman/Whack-a-Mole’s frothy paroxysms
I came to know my life is not yet culminated
I have come to be named.
I am not unhappy with the sequelae themselves
for whatever mountains out of molehills I have made
I have come to be named and I have been led to this moment.
The dazzling coincidences
The staggering lurches
I deduce in a breath that would not, did not die.
I have come to be named.
Inspired by Peter Carey “My Life as a Fake”
And by Jewel Mathieson “We Have Come to be Danced”
The population of the world hovers around seven billion people right now and that could also be the number of interpretations of this week’s parsha, squared or cubed or whatever the next order of measurement would be. But I want to talk to you about gifts, in Hebrew, Terumah, the name of our portion. In particular, I will speak about the gift of a name, from my favorite part of Hebrew Scriptures, which you may have heard me speak about in the past.
Jacob was given a gift of a name. Jacob becomes open to the climax of his life, an encounter with a mysterious stranger who speaks in the name of God. In the wrestling that follows, Jacob displays two of his strongest characteristics -- tenacity and the ability to make it pay. Jacob wrestles the stranger to the point where he can ask for a blessing. As his blessing, Jacob's name is changed to Yisrael. Unlike the firm faith of Abraham and the accepting faith of Isaac, Jacob wrestles with God all his life, doing His will only after that wrestling.
I recently came upon an alternate interpretation of the Sh’ma – different from the familiar “Hear Oh Israel.” “Listen you God wrestlers,” it says. “Listen. God is One.” It seems that Jewish tradition always had more than one audience in mind for our prayer life. Not every prayer is addressed to some Divine Power beyond and apart from us. In this case and perhaps many others, we say the words of prayer to ourselves. To remind ourselves of what is important. To awaken ourselves to what we really need and to cultivate gratitude for what we already have. We say the words not only in order that God hear them. We say the words in order that we ourselves can hear them. Prayer becomes not only an act of speaking, but also an act of profound listening -- but listening is not always easy.
This has been my struggle also – to listen well enough – to learn from what I hear. So difficult, yet so essential.
Those of you who have known me for a long time know that I have chosen different names for myself over the years for various reasons. First was my last name – riding my bicycle alone in the woods on a gorgeous autumn day, I heard a whisper from the cosmos – Baruch – praised/blessed. My oldest daughter had chosen other names for herself and I admired her courage. Then I began to think I could also do it.
A Jewish tradition is to take a new first name to outwit mal'ach hamavet, the “Angel of Death” so that it will be fooled and cannot find you. With Rabbi Gerson’s help to overcome my fears, I added Baruch to my last name – not to cheat death, but to transform some of my past - and that’s how most of you know me. Then, recently enough that some of my friends have not gotten used to it, I rescued a childhood nickname. At home, we all called each other Dolly and I wanted to add some silliness to my life after an extended period of seriousness as Roberta, a solemn name, I think.
Again, this was not to trick death – but to help alter my own perception of myself – to become named.
By the way, call me either – when I talk to myself about something that HAS to be done, I call myself Roberta. The rest of the time, I think of myself as Dolly.
So what would a mysterious stranger have named me? Since biblical speakers don’t always have as clear a message as Jacob was given - and I’m not convinced it was a clear message– I don’t know. And perhaps the confusion about my “real” name is part of what allows me to continue to live, so that I can continue to struggle – and so that I can continue to expand on one of my strongest characteristics – tenacity – and maybe even develop the other – the ability to make it pay – the ones that Jacob displayed. And so that I can continue to search – and so that I can continue to cultivate gratitude for the gifts I’ve been given – and so that I can continue to listen and perhaps also so that I can continue to give myself and my love to others as they have given themselves and their love to me.
Vayishlach by Roberta Baruch - date unknown
Each story in our Torah tells in some measure the story of our lives: a memory that is built from our very protoplasm, a consciousness that surfaces when we find a story that touches us, explains our being, informs our present and portends our future. Torah contains many such stories, and the one I speak about tonight is one that has touched me deeply, troubled me, changed me and continues to tell me who I am, where I come from, and where I am going: The eternal questions, the answer to why I study Torah, why Jews study Torah.
Jacob becomes Israel: I concentrate on only a few verses: Genesis 32:25-32. This cryptic tale takes place during the night after Jacob attempts to mollify his brother Esau - you remember this story, Jacob's mother Rebecca conceived when her husband Isaac asked the Lord to give her a child and she bore twins, Esau the red, the hairy, the hunter, and Jacob. Pay attention! Names are important in the Bible and to our own lives. Jacob, Ja-a-kov. The name evokes laughter, Ja-a-kov. It means the heel in Hebrew. Jacob emerges from the womb holding his brother Esau's heel. It also means to overreach - and to be deceitful. Jacob the overreacher, Jacob the deceitful, who lived, like all overreachers, like all deceiver, in anxiety and confusion.
You remember Jacob took Esau's birthright for a mess of pottage. And Rebecca insisted Jacob steal Esau's blessing. She disguised Jacob when Isaac was old and his eyes too dim to see, by putting hairy animal skins over Jacob's smooth skin. So Isaac gave Jacob Esau's blessing "May God give you the dew of heavens and the fat of the fields the Lord has blessed. Abundance of new grain and wine. Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you. Be master over your brothers and let your mother's sons bow to you. Cursed be those who curse you and blessed they who bless you."
Esau cried for his own blessing and hated Jacob, harbored a grudge against Jacob and swore to kill him. Rebecca tells Jacob to flee to Haran, to his uncle Laban. There Jacob sees Rachel by the well and falls in love at first sight. There he is deceived by his uncle Laban and marries Leah instead of Rachel. Anxiety and confusion? Jacob often seemed not understand what was happening around him. He fell in love with Rachel but marries Leah of the weak eyes, the elder, tricked by Laban. How did that happen? Jacob didn't know, or did he?? - in this story of intrigue, he may indeed at some level have known, how could he not?? Whatever the motive, whatever the knowledge, Jacob indentures himself to Laban for 14 years to pay for this confusion. He has six sons during those years with Leah. He cohabits with Leah's maid Zilphah and fathers two more and then with Rachel's maid Bilhah and fathers two more after that. People have served him. Finally, after many years of barrenness, Rachel is blessed by God and bears Joseph, and then his last born son, Benjamin - 12 sons, the 12 Tribes of Israel. "Nations shall serve you." No, not quite yet. It is still Jacob. His sons give him nothing but trouble. He bears the blessing of Esau - he has carried out the prophesy of his mother's late conception. He has lived in deceit and with the burden of the blessing.
Twenty years pass - Jacob has become rich. He fears God. He has changed greatly. He now must return home to fulfill the prophesy: to meet his future, he must confront his past. Jacob is still greatly afraid Esau will kill him but he starts his journey and sends a message ahead to Esau. And he sends ahead the rich gifts, the munificent bounty of his 14 years of subjugation, across the stream so that perhaps his brother will forgive him. There is something to be said about these 14 years of indenturehood. What does he learns from those years: can we assume patience? kindness? tolerance? At least we know that he has become financially independent - some call his methods of obtaining that security trickery. Can we be kinder? Maybe those years signify a metaphor of toil, subjugation and ultimately of survival, even prevailing, that brings Jacob to the point where he can give away what he once had to steal. Esau, by now himself rich, does not need the gifts but Jacob remains frightened of confronting his past, and he needs to give the gifts even if Esau does not need to receive them. Jacob stays behind by himself, does not cross the stream, his gifts are sent on but he waits on the other shore by himself. Perhaps he cannot bring himself to confront Esau. He does not know how Esau will be changed after twenty years. Perhaps Jacob is, as Jacob is wont to be, anxious and confused. And not exactly ready to see Esau.
And so to the verses. I use the text from the Jewish Bible according to the Masoretic Text from Sinai Publishing: And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day/And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him./And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me./And he said unto him. What is thy name? And he said, Jacob./And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel, for as a prince has thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed./And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there./And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel; for I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved./And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him and he halted upon his thigh.
There are various translations from the Hebrew of the creature with whom Jacob wrestles. It may even be that Jacob thinks he is wrestling a demon from the stream that he has been afraid to cross. Or it may simply be a man, or a messenger from God, or an angel, or God Himself. Or could it be, as some say, a dream, so that Jacob wrestles with his own unconscious, personified as a man who asks his name?
Emily Dickinson, in "A little east of Jordan," calls Jacob the "bewildered Gymnast" who "found he had worsted God" and "sublimely inverts" the blessing and takes it for herself: "I will not let thee go except I bless thee." She takes the act upon herself and blesses the man, the angel, the messenger of God, God Himself. But Jacob in our story does not bless the other. He wrests a blessing from the man, and gets permanently damaged in the struggle. If we think of this as a dream, the injury may be metaphor - expressed as injury to the thigh muscle, or the hip joint. Whatever it is, Jacob limps, or walks haltingly in the morning to met his brother Esau after twenty years. Jacob is humbled.
The man asks Jacob his name - don't forget names. Jacob replies very simply "Jacob." And the man gives Jacob a new name: "your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human and you have prevailed." From Ja-a-kov, the heel, the overreacher, the deceiver, the confused and anxious one, Ya-a-kov-el, the one whom God makes to limp, Ja-a-kov, the laughable - to Israel, the striver, Ya-shar-el, the one whom God makes straight.
Jacob becomes Israel only after he has striven with the mysterious "Beings divine and human and prevailed." Jacob insists on a blessing but the blessing is not specified. How are we to understand this story? The outlines are simple, the words are few, but the psychological impact is profound and powerful. Jacob's very sense of himself - his very self, from the moment of birth - literally hangs on his brother. And his mother. And his mother's view of him as not quite capable - a son for whom she has to lie and prevaricate and manipulate and devise schemes or he will never be able to fulfill her God given prophesy. We are never given a sense of Jacob's actual capabilities. We do not know much about Jacob. We have a physical description: he is smooth. Nor do we know if he is smart, or decisive or courageous, we do not know these things, that is, until he wrestles with the man. Until then, it is his mother who provides us all we know about Jacob - she dresses him in animal skins. She tells him to flee to Haran where Jacob promptly falls in love at first sight - a journey's time away from mom and his first action is to fall in love and then pay for it with 14 years of work.
And what of Jacob's father, Isaac? Is he really fooled by the feel of the animal skins on Jacob's arms? I think not. Isaac asks twice if this is Esau. Is this confusion of old age? Or is this, perhaps, conspiracy? In the end, Isaac bestows the blessing of founding a people on Jacob and Esau again gets a mess of pottage.
What are we to think of these, our patriarchs, our forbears? Isaac and Rebecca have taught Jacob that deceit begets family prosperity, that fulfilling a higher purpose demands conspiracy and manipulation, that the end justifies the means. It is not hard to imagine why Jacob continues to make bad mistakes, continues to be anxious and confused, that it would take divine intervention (if that is how we are to understand the wrestling in the night) to impel Jacob on his journey of change, of transformation, into adulthood.
Confronted by the man, Jacob, true to his name, hangs on. He does not quit even though he has now been broken. And not only does he hang on - he also asks for the blessing for himself. He asks. When he was younger he stole the blessing - his mother inspired, no, required him to receive the blessing - he was it seems a willing co-conspirator - after all, it appears he was some 35 years old at the time of the stolen blessing. But now, wrestling with the man, he demands the blessing, and, as Emily would have it - he blesses the wrestler. No conspiracy. No manipulation. Just straight out - "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
What is the blessing? It is not spelled out in this story. Perhaps the blessing is the new name. Jacob has been afraid to meet his brother. He does not cross the stream. He stays alone on the other side. He wrestles with the man. He is injured. He does not let go until he is blessed. He gets a new name. And in the morning, he limps toward his brother who, perhaps to Jacob's surprise, no longer seems to harbor the grudge, no longer wants to kill him. Again, we are given precious little detail. But Esau too has changed over twenty years. If the ages are right, the twins are now 55 years old. Hard to carry grudges - takes too much energy.
Can we expect that Jacob has changed overnight? Is this a miracle? No, I quote the very next chapter, 33:1: "Jacob saw." We are back to Jacob. But now Jacob is also called Israel. Perhaps two traditions, but intricately interwoven, like our own selves - intricately interwoven parts - not all of one thing or another, but caught by the heel, caught in the circle.
The rest of the Jacob story is summary. The wrestling in the night, I believe, is the denouement of Jacob's life. His son Joseph becomes the focus for the next chapters. But Jacob - Israel - moves at last from childhood to adulthood. Our tradition tells us, in so few words, what it is really like to become an adult. We can limp into our own future no matter what we have been taught, no matter how old we become, no matter how we have been damaged along the way, we continue to have the capacity to grow and change.
Some of my friends have asked me why I chose the story of a patriarch instead of one of the noble women of the Bible. They know I consider myself a feminist - why Jacob? Because I believe Jacob and the blessing he wrests from the man are interchangeable - if you read the passage for the first time it is difficult to know who is talking to whom, which line is whose - "I will not let thee go unless you bless me/I bless you." In the end, it comes to the same thing. Just as it comes to the same thing with male/female and with ends and means. Jacob's gender does not matter in this story. It is Jacob as archetype, Jacob as infant, Jacob as child, Jacob as sibling, Jacob as parent, and most of all, Jacob as striver/wrestler/prevailer, with whom I identify.
At some point in my own life barely knowing what I asked for, and not knowing the bounds of the journey, I asked for truth. And with that search for truth came a name change. I chose it myself. I shall say I chose to change my name but the rabbi can attest that did not come easily: it took several years and in the end, it was not a choice but a blessing.
Remember how important names are. My name, Baruch - it means blessed and praised. It is I who have learned to bless and praise. The promise that Jacob received, the blessing that he wrested from the man, the name change, has power in it. The power frees those of us who either seek it or are given it. Jacob, near the end of his sojourn on earth, called the days of the years of his life short and dark. I hope to be able to say near the end of my days that they have been long and light. I know that my Torah, my story, my heritage, my mess of pottage, my blessing, and my study will continue to bring me light and joy. And so may it be for you also . . .
Roberta Baruch, August 23, 2002
Parshat Ki Tavo is a description of entering the land, that is Israel, and begins by describing the annual mitzvah for the farmers of Israel to bring their bikurim, or first fruits, to the Kohen (priest) in the Temple. Also there is a description of how stones shall be found and Torah written on them. Following a recounting of the wonderful blessings that God will bestow upon the Jewish people for remaining faithful, Moses gives a chilling prophecy of what will befall the Jewish people for not following the Torah. Known as the tochachah (admonition), Moses graphically describes the horrible destruction that would come to pass if we stray from God.
Ki Tavo tells us to get into action, it plays out at the margin between curses and blessings, chaos theory in action if you will. A very simplistic definition, based on Donahue's explanation, is that chaos theory is a study of unstable aperiodic behavior in deterministic nonlinear dynamical systems. Aperiodic behavior never repeats and it continues to manifest the effects of any small perturbation; hence, any prediction of a future state in a given system that is aperiodic is impossible. Whether or not you understand this definition, and I understand it only in its most simplistic form, I see its application to Torah, and to Ki Tavo in particular.
The blessings and curses are listed as a result of behaviors. Although the curses are pronounced for seemingly specific actions, in the case of blessings, behaviors are not spelled out, one is simply to observe faithfully the teachings. Thus, receiving a blessing or a curse by performing any specific action cannot be predicted. Torah is not temporal, Judaism manifests the effects of perturbations, and since the teachings are ambiguous, I describe the action of Ki Tavo as being at the margin of the curses and blessings. That is why taking action, and thereby, risks, I believe is the lesson of this parsha.
Being Jewish has always been a risky occupation. Besides the risks of the responses and reactions of the external world, very much on our minds right now, there are personal and internal risks - of choosing to do the right thing, when for so much of our lives, we do not know what the right thing is. We do not know what the outcomes of our actions may be. The future of our actions is unpredictable.
Let's take the simplest of the curses "Cursed be he who insults his father or mother." How are we to know what insults our mother or father? For instance, it is accepted in our society that when elders become too disabled, whether from physical deterioration or mental incapacity, to maintain a home, they are institutionalized, even though a parent may protest at length-and even revile us for our decision. What is the proper Jewish action? Is giving a parent a safe place to live with adequate supervision and activities that a working adult child cannot provide an insult? Or a necessity? Or even a blessing and a joy, for the elder, for the family, maybe even for the institution? One can't know, at least not in one's own lifetime, the real outcomes of such an action.
That's why I say being Jewish is risky. We have to make our decisions at the margin of the blessings and curses without full knowledge of where our behaviors or the perturbations of Judaism will lead us. We know what not to do, at least according to this list of curses, but as my example shows, even the most simple of the curses is not at all clear. The real question is what to do, what actions to take. I think Ki Tavo tells us not to stay on the margins, where perturbations of dynamical systems can confuse us about Jewish values. Ki Tavo says take action and not only that, to take action with joy, because it tells us if we are not joyful in our actions, God is not pleased, and the action has neither the right intent or nor the proper meaning God requires. We will have strayed from God. So we must try to make our lives for a blessing. Enter it, as God told the Jews to enter the land. Take risks. And give thanks, if not on stones, then at least by reciting the blessings. One joy we can all agree on. A bat mitzvah is for a blessing.
33: 21 Vayomer Adonay hineh makom iti venitsavta al-hatsur. God then said, "I have a special place where you can stand on the rocky mountain.
33: 22 Vehayah ba'avor kvodi vesamticha benikrat hatsur vesakoti chapi aleycha ad-ovri.
When My glory passes by, I will place you in a crevice in the mountain, protecting you with My power until I pass by.
33: 23 Vahasiroti et-kapi vera'ita et-achoray ufanay lo yera'u.
I will then remove My protective power, and you will have a vision of what follows from My existence. My essence itself, however, will not be seen.
To be given a special place on a rocky mountain
To live under the protection of Gods hand
To have a revelation of Gods existence
From my earliest days I have longed
I have longed for the vision of understanding and love
Implicit in Gods gift to Moshe
It is here, it is here, chavarim
Among our loved ones at our Seder tables
In our congregation in prayer and song
In our study groups as we deepen our commitment to Torah
It is said
It is not for us to finish the task
Neither are we free to desist from the task
We need only say as did our ancestors
Here I am.
Roberta Baruch, February 28, 1997
"The rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating." Anne Lamott
I'm going to tell you two stories tonight. One is the parsha for the week we have just read, Ki Tisa, and the other is a story of my vacation a couple of months ago in Florida.
First the parsha. You may have seen the Hollywood version of this, but I think the text from Torah just as it is written contains many story lines and enough drama for a thousand Star War trilogies. I'd have to do a d'var on this section every year for the next 50 to do it justice. It is complex, has a great deal of overlap, numerous stories retold a little differently or a lot differently, perhaps by different authors, and several exciting climaxes as well as a few disappointing anticlimaxes. It has song and poetry and prayer and rules for the Shabbat. It has prescription and description. It has elements of familiar folk tales and forms the basis of legal statutes we observe today. It has narrative and dialogue. God describes Himself to Moses, so we have a sense of the God that the Children of Israel knew in the Exodus. And in it is one of the most bizarre incidents we have ever tried to comprehend, the story of the golden calf, that traverses from the supernatural to the most human of scales, from the sublime to the depths, the fears of the vulnerable, very human Children of Israel who remain ignorant of Moses' theophany, his face-to-face encounters with God. We have a story of transformations, of creations, of choices, and finally, of a nation preserved.
As you recall, the Children of Israel have accepted the covenant, they will do as God asks them without actually knowing what the covenant they've agreed to consists of. When this parsha begins, God is telling Moses that the Children of Israel must pay, whether rich or poor, a half-shekel for a census (the gap between rich and poor not being as wide then as it is today). God gives Moses instructions for building a washstand, a prescription for mixing a potion to anoint not only the Tent of Meeting and the Ark of the Pact, but also Aaron and his sons. God is architect, designer, engineer, contractor, pharmacist, and talent scout. God tells Moses to remind the Children of Israel to observe the Shabbat using the words we now sing as "Veshamru."
No sooner has God written the words on the tablets of stone with His own finger than He warns Moses to hurry down the mountain, because your people, as God calls them, have built a molten calf and have bowed down to worship it. God threatens to destroy the Children of Israel (that is, the children of the transformed Jacob) and offers to make of Moses and his descendants a great people. But Moses pleads with God to spare the people, Moses soothes the face of God, and asks God to remember his covenant as He has with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And also, by the way, to remember what the Egyptians might think of the God of Israel if He now kills those He brought out of Mitzraim. God agrees to let these people live.
Moses descends the mountain with the stone tablets inscribed with the finger of God. Joshua collars Moses along the way and says he hears sounds of war in the camp. Moses replies in poetry:
Not the sound of the song of prevailing/Not the sound of the song of failing/The noise of them that sing do I hear.
Moses strides into camp, sees the Children of Israel dancing around the golden calf, takes in the mounds of sacrifices the people have offered to the calf god, and then throws the tablets from his hand, and smashes them beneath the mountain, and takes the calf that they had made and burns it with fire, grinds it up until it is thin powder, strews it on the surface of the water, and makes the Children of Israel drink it.
When Moses asks Aaron how the people could have gotten so out of control, Aaron placates Moses: Let not my lord's anger flare up (what might Moses do now, he has already smashed the tablets, and made the people drink the powdered gold). Aaron defends himself further: You yourself know this people, how set on evil it is. They said to me: Make us a god who will go before us, for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him! So I said to them: Who has gold? Didn't they all have gold? They had stripped Egypt, going to their neighbors and requesting permission to borrow their finery, an offer the Egyptians could not refuse. Aaron continues his explanation to Moses, probably backing away bowing: They broke it off and gave it to me.
And here is what I think is one of the most human of verses in Torah. Aaron whines: I threw it on the fire, and out came this calf!
So picture this. Moses knows his people have angered God, have been afraid, have built themselves a golden calf to worship, but Moses has the tablets of stone, Moses must descend the mountain, Moses has promised the people. God has made Moses quite an offer, one we might have trouble refusing, knowing as we do the story of Passover, how the Children of Israel are a stiff-necked people, how they are never satisfied, how they came from slavery and complained all the way, "all we have is manna, it was better back in Egypt," and "Did you bring us here because there were not enough graves in Egypt?" Might Moses not have been tempted when God offered to annihilate the Children of Israel and offer a new covenant and a new beginning starting with Moses' own heirs? But Moses does not succumb, he is a noncompromiser, an intercessor, free to argue with God for the Children of Israel, for those who are already there. Moses does not hesitate to refuse God despite the tempting offer, one we might have fantasized about ourselves, to start a new nation, to forget about our pasts, to never have to deal with our forbears, we, ourselves at the head of a brand new family.
I can see Moses trudging down the mountain, meeting his henchman Joshua along the way, listening to Joshua's painful rationalization of the Children of Israel's behavior, that they are celebrating a war victory, "What does Joshua think," Moses might say, "that I would confuse the triumphant victory song of the sea with Carnivale?" and wearily Moses re-acknowledges the humanness of his people whom he already knows too well, who never stop their whining, their rationalizations, their idols, their wicked revelry. Moses continues to plod down Mt. Sinai, ruminating over Joshua's feeble attempt at justification, despairing of his own brother's weakness and perfidy in responding so readily to the Children of Israel's remonstrations against Moses. Moses has a mission, now it is his to do himself. God has guided Moses all the way to this point, but the golden calf episode has seemingly exhausted God's store of patience - God wished to wash His hands of the Children of Israel and to start again, a new creation, as He had done before, as He did with Noah and the flood, as He tried to do with Abraham, a new creation with his servant Moses as the new Adam. But Moses does not accept the offer, he girds himself to confront the people, summoning up all his strength, striding into the camp, shocked again at what he already knows is there, taking in this grievous transgression on the part of his people, growing incensed, hurling the sacred tablets to the ground where they break into a million pieces, and intimidating younger brother Aaron such that Aaron gives a child's wheedling answer to a an adult's harsh question - this calf just appeared, thinking a child's thoughts, does my brother Moses have eyes in the back of his head?
Moses has had some time to think of a punishment for his people as he slogged down the mountain trail gathering energy to do what he must, destroy the tablets, and he comes up with a brilliant solution, make the Children of Israel drink the golden calf so that it will forever be a part of the Jews. Perhaps this punishment, the drinking of the powdered golden calf - Moses has strewn it on the water and thus, he himself has to drink it too - as much as Moses' taking on the burden of the future of his people, perhaps these actions are what has made us and kept us a nation. We too at the site of three most dramatic and powerful religious experiences, the covenant with God, the descent into degradation, and Moses' plea to God forgo another creation, perhaps we too have ingested along with this bitter water, this powdered calf, the reality of our fearfulness, the reality of our desire for concreteness in our beliefs, the difficulty we have, especially in times of uncertainty, of relating to an unseen, unknowable God. A midrash says that all that has happened to the Jews since is in part traceable to the golden calf. Maybe all of us have a little gold in our bones - maybe this is the origin of the "pintele Yid," the collective unconscious memory of having stood at the bottom of Mt. Sinai receiving Torah!
Now, here is the second story.
I was down in Florida a couple of months ago, and I was having dinner with some of the old folks in my family, my father, who is 82, his next younger sister, my Aunt Mary, my father's Aunt Hannah, who is 89, and her husband - these old folks and my sister and I were having dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Sarasota on Christmas eve.
Aunt Hannah, who in her youth was known as Aunt Fanny to my father, a name he has never stopped using, was asking about my sister and me and my brother and our children, and what we all did. My father proudly announced that not only did I have a grandson, making him a grosse-zaydie, but that I also studied kaballah. Now you might think that my father knows something about kaballah, and indeed he does. He knows it's part of a mystical strain of Judaism, and that a lot of people are "into" it today. Those around that table in that Chinese restaurant in Sarasota looked impressed, or skeptical, or bemused, according to each one's nature, but not too interested. I did venture one more remark, to say that my studies in kaballah were based on my deepest interest, that is, the study of Torah, and that one had to be fully grounded in Torah before kaballah could be properly understood. And again, they all were suitably impressed, or skeptical, or bemused, but no one asked me any further about my studies. These oldsters are a generation or two removed from most of you in this congregation. They tell stories about their parents who came here from the old country, and how it was in the first few years here, and depending upon who tells the stories, they are proud (my father), sentimental (Aunt Fanny), comical (my Aunt Mary). These are rational Jews. Supremely rational. My father is an engineer.
Although this older generation of Jews, my relatives, aren't very interested in Judaism, they are highly connected to their Jewishness. The subject was quickly changed, and I, I am grateful, was let off the hook. What has happened here? These Jews, these old ones in their zeal to become Americans and to forget the heartbreak of the old country are not like the Children of Israel, spending 40 years in the desert, bemoaning their wonderful times in Minsk or Pinsk, their generation has become nearly assimilated, completely rational, tries to forget their past, has chosen to do what Moses did not, to become part of a new nation, and in so doing, has abandoned a portion of their Judaism - they are bagel and lox Jews. Pastrami. Kugel. Mooshu pork and kung pao shrimp Jews.
The fourth generation was represented in Florida too, my lovely niece and her boyfriend. She brought with her a massive album of pictures from her recent trip to Machu Picchu.
She had gone Machu Picchu, up in the high mountains of Peru, for a shamanistic learning experience. She and her group of fellow seekers of various religious convictions were there for a week. There was yoga, and vegan meals, and drumming, and meditation, and prayer. The new generation of Jews - reaching out for all the world has to offer, to other ancient traditions. Incorporating them into their very now Judaism.
Now, you may think this is all very interesting, but wonder what this has to do with the rich, powerful, and complex parsha for this week, Ki Tisa.
And I think it has everything to do with it. I think the common thread is that rationality squeezes the juice from our religious practices.
My father and his generation in some part abandoned the Judaism of their fathers, especially the superstitions that passed for wisdom, as soon as they could. Although my father learned prayerbook Hebrew from his own grandfather and has been part of a minyan for many years, and despite the fact that he is Jewish to his marrow, he has very little knowledge of Judaism and has never studied Jewishly beyond his bar mitzvah. The ruah, the soul, the spirit, the breath of Judaism I think is embarrassing to him. Kaballah is from some other world than the one he lives in, from some esoteric place "out there," still, he is proud that I study. He can read Hebrew, but cannot translate it. Even so, I believe my family has inherited a great gift, because my father's family had scholars in their past, they were from Satanov, a center of Hasidism and Kaballah study.
On my mother's side, we have a rich tradition of Jewish food and whole baskets full of old wive's tales, prejudices, and conventionality, this side of the family came from the ghetto in Riga, not long removed from subsistence farming. Speaking Yiddish did not prepare the daughters of the Latvian countryside to pass learning down, and much of my mother's Jewishness consisted of preparing the holiday meals, prejudices against nonJews, and an outlook characterized by her familiar litmus test "Is it good for the Jews?" Women of her age were simply not taught they had any part in Jewish culture, tradition, or learning outside their home. Although my mother vehemently denies it, as children, my sister and I hung red felt stockings on the mantelpiece on Christmas eve, and I remember being delighted by a tiny bottle of Jergan's lotion and tickled by the silliness of an orange as stocking stuffer when we lived in California. How easy assimilation would have been, we were far away from our family back East, and we practiced the secular traditions of our neighbors, not that we are unique among Jews, or nonJews for that matter, in choosing those particular observances.
It seems that none of the joy, the awe, the depth, of the Torah of Judaism was available to us, and except for a fluke of distance, I would have followed in their footsteps, a vaguely "ethnic Jew," a bagel and lox Jew, a mooshu pork and kung pao shrimp Jew. From the age of my confirmation at 14 to my coming of age at age 40, I had abandoned all but two Jewish practice; taking my children to my parent's home for the Passover seder and living with a sense of nagging guilt every Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that was not strong enough, however, to press me to attend services. My children were growing up, and I was divorced. I began to know somehow that our vague "let them choose their own religion" might not be the healthiest or most loving nurturance for my children, and that, however distorted or meaningless it might have seemed to me, they did have a heritage and I could introduce them to it. So I brought my girls, then aged 13, 10, and 5 to Oak Park Temple, where Rabbi Gerson had just arrived. I had searched out all the congregations in the western suburbs, and found that my girls' lack of religious training and non-Jewish dad would not be a handicap here. And since we lived too far away for me to just drop them off, I began to attend the Sunday morning activities here, including Rabbi Gerson's Torah study classes.
I expressed my desire to explore this way: "Judaism has lasted 3000 years. There must be more to it than a Passover seder." And, thanks to fortuitous geography, I began to learn. Ironically, part of what I learned is that there is not more to it than a Passover seder.
My daughters and niece are fairly typical of many young Jews today, searching for connections everywhere, from Machu Picchu, to drum circles in the Glaciers, to Rainbow gatherings in the deepest woods. And they might even have encountered kaballah. But they too, miss out: they do not study Torah.
We have been like the Children of Israel, always forgetting the miracles that happened just yesterday, grumbling, grumbling, what have you done for us lately, unable to fathom a unseen God, making rationality our golden calf.
And yet, and yet. We have drunk of the bitter water. We have not, as Moses did not, entirely cut off our past. We may not know exactly what we are looking for, but Ki Tisa tells us clearly, veshamru, the Israelite people shall keep the Shabbat. Part of that Shabbat for us must include study.
To use a phrase that would be familiar to my children, the golden calf is on the cusp between the literal and the mystical, the place where prayer is, the root of worship, the connection with the real and the imagined, wherein we can fashion a new creation for ourselves.
Judaism does not sculpt a calf-god we can see in the world. Judaism brings God into the world, by worship, by observing Shabbat, by study. The worship of the calf is about what we can see. The study of Torah is about who we can become, who we are, what our relationship to God, and thus to each other is, who God is in our lives.
And the story of the golden calf is a story of creation with a twist. It tells us that it isn't only God who creates a new relationship with life for us. Like Moses, we can take what we already have, and turn it into what we long for. And we have a truly life-affirming and creative way to do it, that has nothing to do with the rational. The study of Torah is rich, juicy, and fascinating. We can live our lives according to its teachings if we study. As our morning prayer says, "These are the obligations without measure, whose reward too is without measure: to honor our father and mother, to perform acts of loving kindness, to attend the house of study daily, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to rejoice with the bride and groom, to console the bereaved, to pray with sincerity, to make peace when there is strife; and the study of Torah is equal to it all, because the study of Torah leads to it all."