If a Tree Falls In the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

The story told in this week’s Torah portion- Ki Tissa– about the Israelites worshipping a golden calf is a fascinating one. The traditional take on the story is that the people committed an act of apostasy, an act that is judged as an especially egregious one by the Talmudic sages since it came so soon after a series of miracles performed on their behalf by God. The rabbis are quick to condemn the people for turning their backs on God when instead they should have shown that they had faith in God. A more modern approach to interpreting the story would question the actions of Aaron and Moses. To what extent were they responsible for what the Israelites did? Could it be argued that Aaron was too compliant, that he was all too willing to act on the demand to build an idol? Shouldn’t he have resisted, or at least stalled before giving in? Or could it be argued that Moses shares a portion of the blame for his people worshipping an idol. After all, he seemed to have no succession plan in place, nor did he prepare Aaron to take his place in the event of a long absence. Perhaps there are leadership lessons to be learned from this story.

The sages do comment extensively on the role played by Moses, not only in opening the door to the people’s apostasy but for smashing the two tablets by throwing them on the ground in anger. Indeed, we read in the text that Moses was hot tempered: 

As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)

Did he let his anger get the better of him? Was shattering the tablets an acceptable thing to do, especially for someone in a leadership position? Angrily smashing the two tablets, which had been written “with the finger of God,” would be similar to throwing a Torah scroll to the ground in anger. Could such an act ever be justified? Actually, some commentators do justify what Moses did, or at least they try to explain it. For example, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 43:1) asserts that Moses intentionally smashed the tablets to let his people off the hook of a severe punishment, reasoning that he would tell God that had they known the consequence of their actions they would not have worshipped an idol. Another Midrash (Tanhuma Ki Tissa 26) suggests that Moses was able to carry the two tablets because, having been inscribed by God, they possessed an aura of holiness. Once he saw the people dancing around an idol, the letters fell off the tablets and they became too heavy for Moses to hold them. While this interpretation doesn’t exactly sync with the storyline, it suggests that Moses didn’t really intend to smash the tablets.

One other interpretation is worth considering. Rabbi Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen (1843-1926, Latvia) suggests that Moses smashed the tablets intentionally, but not out of anger. He writes:

“He feared they would deify the tablets as they had done the calf. Had he brought them the tablets intact, they would have substituted them for the calf. It was the first tablets, which were the work of God, that were broken, not the tablets hewn by Moses, which remained whole, demonstrating that no holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah…”

According to this sage, as he descended the mountain Moses realized that his people were likely to deify objects in their search for God. He realized that the tablets he was holding were literally crafted by God. So he made a bold decision to destroy them, knowing (or perhaps hoping) that he would be able to get a replacement set that he himself would craft.

It’s the last line in Rabbi Simcha’s commentary that captures my attention: “No holiness resides in any created thing other than that invested in it by Israel’s observance of the Torah.” In other words, the holiness of the tablets resided not in their having been crafted by God but in Israel’s willful embrace of their message. Moses didn’t want his people to gravitate toward objects because they seemed to be holy—they had seen enough of that in Egypt. Instead, he wanted his people to come to a place of holiness on their own. We might say, by extension, that there is nothing inherently holy within Judaism—no object or time is holy in and of itself. What makes an object or a period of time holy is how we relate to it and how we think and behave differently because we have encountered it.

If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound? Put differently, if Shabbat comes around and nobody celebrates it, is it still Shabbat? Perhaps the answer lies in this week’s story of the Golden Calf.

Every Person Matters

We all matter…we all count. That truth is deeply ingrained in the Jewish tradition. We don’t need a text from the Torah or Talmud to authenticate its truth, but we have many. Here’s one from this week’s Parasha, Tetzaveh:

And you shall make the breastplate of judgment with skillful work…of gold, of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine twined linen, shall you make it. And you shall set in it settings of stones, four rows of stones…and the stones shall be with the names of the people of Israel, twelve, according to their names, everyone with his name shall they be according to the twelve tribes. (Exodus 28:15-21)

 Try to visualize the breastplate worn by the High Priest. It was rectangular, woven from colorful twisted linen, with precious stones set in four rows, each stone bearing the name of one of the tribes. The Kohen Gadol, the leader of the people, wore the breastplate as a symbol that every member of every tribe mattered, everyone counted. A nation, any community, is the sum of its individual parts. We must convey the message, in the strongest possible terms, that every person matters.

Unfortunately, the truth that every person matters still doesn’t resonate across the spectrum of humanity, including the Jewish world. Discrimination and intolerance often pollute human relationships. More often than not, such attitudes are the result of ignorance and fear. We still live in a world plagued by racism and by homophobia.

The inclusion of LGBTQ Jews in Jewish life is important for any synagogue and for the Jewish community at large. Despite its importance, many people do not fully understand what it means to be LGBTQ or the challenges that LGBTQ Jews face from ignorance, discrimination and intolerance. At Oheb Shalom we have always prided ourselves in being an inclusive and diverse congregation. But there is still much for us to learn and ways for us to grow, especially regarding the LGBTQ community.

keshet-logo_largeOur sacred task thus becomes that of promoting understanding, tolerance and acceptance through education. We will embrace the task of nurturing a culture of acceptance of LGBTQ Jews at a workshop led by Keshet this Tuesday, February 23rd at 8:00 PM. Keshet is a national grassroots organization that advocates for the full equality and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews in Jewish life. The Keshet workshop will be devoted to a discussion about LGBTQ Jews and the development of a plan that will ensure that our commitment to diversity is matched by tangible actions individually and as a community.

This is a crucial issue is crucial and your presence matters. Please make it a point to attend and to invite others to attend as well. The workshop is also appropriate for teenagers of any age.

We all matter, each one of us, regardless of sexual preference or gender. It’s time to translate that lofty principle into action. I hope you will join me on Tuesday at 8:00 PM to welcome Keshet.

Do You Do the Right Thing When Nobody’s Watching?

It’s a fact of human nature that each of us has a public face and a private face. It’s normal to filter what we do and what we say in public places, in the presence of people that we know only casually or don’t know at all. We are inclined to share our most personal thoughts and “let our hair down” only around people who know us well and for whom we do not feel we need to make a good impression.

It’s also a fact of human nature that we are more inclined to be our best selves when our good behavior is noticed by others and reinforced by praise and appreciation. That does not mean that we do good things only when we get credit for them. But we are certainly more inclined to do the right thing when others are aware of our actions, or when others would be aware that we chose not to do the right thing in any given situation.

Despite human nature, we ought to strive to what is good and right even when no one is watching what we do. This idea can be found within this week’s parasha, Terumah, in which we encounter the commandment to build the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary used by the young Israelite nation as they trekked through the Sinai on their to the Land of Israel. The passages of Torah we will read this week describe the components of the Mishkan itself, as well as its furnishings, including the ark containing the tablets with the Ten Commandments.

And they will make an ark of acacia wood…and you shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside shall you overlay it, and shall make upon it a rim of gold around it.

(Exodus 25:10-11)

The ark that was to be built and kept in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Mishkan, was a simple box, overlaid and decorated with gold. Atop its lid were the two “keruvim,” creatures facing each other with wings pointing upward. It was surely an impressive and artistic piece. Interesting, though, is that the instructions include overlaying the box with gold on the inside as well as the outside. That’s strange, considering that the ark was kept out of sight and was never supposed to be opened. Why cover the inside with gold?

The Talmudic sages tells us that the ark was covered both inside and outside with gold to teach us that we must strive to make our inner being match the person that we present outwardly. Displays of piety and righteousness must be matched by an inner conviction that we are doing the right thing. That’s not always easy to achieve, since our motive to do the right thing is sometimes the positive reinforcement and affirmation we receive from others who see and appreciate our actions.   But being a good person means that we must try to do the right thing because we believe it is right, even if we aren’t seen doing it and don’t get public credit for our good behavior.

When I pray each day, I dwell for a few moments on this passage in the Siddur, a line that is said each and every day of the year:

“L’olam y’hey adam y’ray shamayim ba-seiter u-va-galui u-modeh al ha-emet v’dover emet bi-l’vavo… A person should always strive toward righteousness both in public and in private, and speak the truth both outwardly and inwardly.”

Our commitment to a life of goodness can be measured not only by our reputation for doing the right thing but also by what we do and think when no one is watching us. It’s sometimes hard to do, but a lot of things worthwhile are just that.

Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk

After having met God at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the Israelite nation is presented with an array of laws that will guide them in creating a just and decent society, in response to which they say “Na’aseh v’nishmah…we will uphold them and we will contemplate them.” The Israelites affirm that, with regard to the Torah, they will not only “talk the talk,” but they will “walk the walk.” They seem to recognize that one’s support of an idea must not be theoretical, but must be reflected in action. The best way to demonstrate commitment to an ideal or a cause is through one’s deeds.

This week officials of the State of Israel also declared, in a manner of speaking, “na’aseh v’nishma.” A compromise solution has been reached that will bestow formal status at the Kotel for non-Orthodox Jews. This milestone means more than tolerating non-Orthodox Jews praying together at the Kotel, something that can be done at the Kotel Masorti near Robinson’s Arch. The agreement announced this week represents official recognition by the State of Israel that there is more than one way to be Jewish. State law will now mandate that principles of religious pluralism will govern conduct at Judaism’s holiest site. A major renovation project will soon get underway to transform the entrance to the Kotel. One common entrance to Judaism’s holiest site will be created, with separate pathways established for Orthodox men, Orthodox women and non-Orthodox Jews. (For a map of the proposed new area, click here.)

What’s needed now is for the new prayer space to be used regularly. Nothing will be more damaging to the cause of Masorti Judaism in Israel than for the non-Orthodox section of the Kotel to be empty on a routine basis. If you’re visiting Israel, make it a point to daven there, whether or not you’re attending a special simcha. And I urge you to become an active supporter of the Masorti Movement. Learn what the Masorti Movement in Israel is doing to connect Israeli Jews to Judaism. To discover what the Masorti Movement is all about, visit www.masorti.org.

Na’aseh v’Nishma…support for important ideals must be expressed in word and in deed. This week, the Israeli government put their muscle behind that statement. So must we.

Note: Would you like to explore the richness of the weekly Torah portion? Would you like to discover how there is something to learn about how we live our lives from each of its passages? For several years I’ve been teaching a weekly class on the Torah portion. Beginning in March, that class will be offered twice on Mondays—once in the morning (9:00 AM) and one at night (8:00 PM). I hope you’ll be there to share in the discussion and to contribute your ideas!