Shabbat Ki-Tissa 5779

Some of the best narratives are the ones where no one comes out looking good. House of Cards was certainly one of those stories full of entirely unsympathetic characters. It’s possible to read the Golden Calf narrative the same way. Aharon (weak leader) loses control of an impatient Israelite community (ingrates). Moshe has to talk a hypersensitive God off the ledge, only to display an irrational temper. Then the tribe of Levi is called forward to act on their most bloodthirsty instincts. There are no good guys in this story, at least as I set it up.

But what if a reader’s instinct was to find some benefit of the doubt in the story’s protagonists? Would that change the story? More importantly, would it change the reader?
Consider the first two verses of the story in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Ki-Tissa: “When the people saw that Moses was delayed, they gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us an elohim who will go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt–we do not know what has happened to him.’ Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons and daughters, and bring them to me'” (Exodus 32:1-2).
The worst-case interpretation is to understand the word elohim to mean “god,” in which case the Israelites have scarcely heard the command from Sinai that they are to worship no other deity but God before forgetting that rather important instruction. Aharon, for his part, can’t capitulate fast enough. But what if there’s another way to understand elohim? Can we read the text with greater tolerance and sensitivity? And if we do, are we weakly exonerating multiple grave offenses?
On Shabbat morning, we’ll read one commentary that takes a more forgiving route to understanding what happened here, and we’ll think about how it serves as a model for principled, positive leadership.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wise