Mark Burger, Oak Park Temple, March 12, 1993
Having grown up in a liberal tradition, I have gone through three phases so far, a variation of Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man". As a child, I generally accepted things as they were. As a teenager (and post-teenager), I rebelled. I rebelled for good reasons, for bad reasons, and for no reasons at all.
I think I'm somewhat over the rebellion stage, at least the rebellion-for-its-own-sake stage. Maybe that makes me an adult. Assuming I'm an adult, I have gone through trial, error, and experiuence, tried to know what to acccept, where to challenge, when to be skeptical and how to be optimistic. All this, while keeping in view of my sins, my limitations and my mortality.
What brought all this on was my recent viewing of that classic movie "The Ten Commandments", with Charlton Heston and company. I can use this movie as an emotional barometer in life, since I've watched it almost every year of my memory.
As a child, I watched the movie with awe, accepting everything at face value, and cheered the triumph of good over evil, Yul Brynner and Edward G. Robinson. As a rebel, I hooted and jerred at the movie. I derided Charlton Heston's woodenness, Edward G. Robinson's biblical gangster drawl, and the general pomposity of it all. I cynically cheered on the Egyptions, and thought the whole thing, like Torah itself, was fiction. I was snide about the movie, but I almost always watched it when it was on the tube.
Now, older and with children of my own to watch "The Ten Commandments" with me, I hae a markedly different perspective. Yes, the movie is very stagy, the acting wooden and contrived, but that was how Torah and other surviving documents described life in ancient Egypt and Canaan. I gained new appreciation of the dialogues between the women over motherhood, marriage, love, and what pains in the neck their men were. The women acted better in the movie, as well as in Torah. The movie was faithful to the spirit of what was happening, if you gloss over the Hollywood license of things like combining the Golden Calf with Koray and Dathan's Rebellion, which occurs in the Book of Leviticus.
Oh yes, the Golden Calf, the theme of this Torah portion. Like my life and the life of many other folks I suspect, my feelings of the movie, like the people of Israel, went through three phases. After some childlike stubbornness, they were childlike in their acceptance of Moses, rebellious when things didn't go well, and as adults, well, they may not have gotten their sense of judgement very deeply set, but they knew they forever left their childhood behind.
All the "actors" paid prices. The Israelites had blood shed, were threatened with obliteration by God, and suffered prolonged wandering. When Moses averted the destruction of his people by passionately ordering the death of the most offensive sinners, he may have angered God, contributing to what kept him out of Canaan. Even God, it may be said, paid a price of sorts, in the eyes of people. While God may very well have known what was going to occur, it was revealed to us the two-way nature of the Covenant, that God must have people to love Him, or, as Moses reminded Adonai in this portion, what would the other nations, the neighbors, think, if God wiped out His cherished people. Even God is limited because of our human perspective. For He cannot really make us better. That we must do ourselves, while passing in three phases from childhood, to rebellion, to, perhaps, understanding. Amen.