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Ki Tissa 5780 - "A Bearhug on God"

You all know how much I like hugging.  In a world of fear, of suspicion, where we’re alienated from each other, being in contact with each other is vital.  Vital, as in life-giving.  As souls, we need intimacy, the love of other souls.

But today, I don’t need to tell you, we find ourselves in uncharted territory.  COVID-19 has created a worldwide crisis.  Our old ways of moving through the world, at least for now, don’t apply.

In the parasha this week, Ki Tissa, we also find unprecedented crisis.  The Israelites, anxious about the absence of their leader Moses, beg Aaron to make them an idol.  The paradigmatic idol, in fact — the golden calf.

It starts small.  The Israelites break off their earrings.  Then Aaron melts down the gold.  And then he makes the calf.  And then he builds an altar.  And then declares the calf God.

And then the dancing begins.

Step by step, the people lose their center.  They forget about the Source of Salvation in the Universe.  They sacrifice their souls for substance.  They put their faith in gold instead of God. 

When our priorities are out of whack, when we forget the value of every soul, the value of our own souls, we flirt with danger. 

And, sure enough, God sees the Israelites worshiping the calf, and says to Moses, Hanicha li, va’yichar api va’hem, va’achaleim.  “Leave Me alone, that my anger rage against them , and I will consume them.”[1]

God, further, makes Moses an offer.  I’ll kill them all, and start over with you.

Our sages teach that it is a test.  Will Moses forget his own values, and look out only for himself?

Thank God, he remembers what’s important.

According to the Zohar, the Kabbalistic commentary on the Torah, the worship of the Golden Calf had banished the Shechinah from the scene.  If you don’t know, the Shechinah is the name for the immediate, readily observed aspect of God.  The feminine aspect, the part of God that we feel dwelling within us and among us. 

With the Shechinah banished, all that was left was harsh judgement.

In the words of the Zohar, “Rabbi Shimon [bar Yochai taught]… The ‘mother’ (the Shechinah), Who holds back the right hand of God when God is about to punish God’s people, Who holds back the lash, was not present there.”[2]  So why weren’t all the Israelites killed? 

In Shechinah’s absence, somebody saved them.  In the words of the Zohar, “it was necessary for Moses to take Her place.”

In a moment of crisis, that is, Moses stepped in to hold back punishment — with the power of compassion.

Rabbi Shimon explains, “Three times [in the Torah] did the Holy One arouse this feeling in Moses… [first,] ‘Leave Me alone“ — [second,] ‘that my anger rage against them’ — and [third]  ‘I will make of you a great nation.’”

For each of these three phrases, then, Moses literally held God’s punishment back.

In Rabbi Shimon’s words, “[Moses] took hold of the right arm [of God,] which corresponded to the first [phrase;] he took hold of the left arm, which corresponded to the second; [and finally,] he embraced the body of God, which corresponded to the last. And when [Moses] had embraced the “body”, and the two arms, the one from this side and the other from that side, God could not move to any side…”

In other words, Moses put God in a bear hug. 

Chevreh, normally I tell you to hug each other.  I can’t do that today.  What’s needed today is an even bolder kind of hug.  The bear hug that Moses puts on God.  Holding back anger.  Misplaced priorities.  Xenophobia.  Selfishness.  Replacing it with compassion.

When we feel like looking out only for ourselves and our own families, protecting only our own interests, we have to hold that feeling back with the power of compassion for all God’s souls.

When we feel wary of the Asian person because of racist rhetoric about the “Wuhan virus,” we have to hold that feeling back with the force of respect for all creation.

When we would worry about our 401K instead of our friends and neighbors, we have to hold that feeling back with the strength of expansive love.

And when, in a time of increasing isolation, when we might hold ourselves back from reaching out to those living alone or those without a social network, we have to stretch out our arms.  Not with physical hugs.  But with calls.  And texts.  And FaceTime.  And Zoom.  With whatever’s available.

My colleague, Rabbi Shais Rishon, wrote that — much like for Moses — our current predicament is a test.  “In a world,” he said, “which has been increasingly defined by polarization, dehumanization, and a distinct lack of kindness and respect, of leaving and abandoning others to deal with ‘their’ problems because they don’t affect ‘us’… [this may be a] time of self-reflection on how we've caused others to be socially isolated.”

Like the servants of Golden Calf.  Step by step, we’ve lost our way.

For those who have died of the virus, who have just as assuredly died of callousness and carelessness, it is too late.  But for the rest of us, there is still time.  For us, like Moses, to reach out.

In the Zohar, after the teaching of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Rabbi Abba said, ‘Had do I come into this world only to hear [your] words, it would have been worthwhile.’ Then he wept… “

Abba concluded, “The Holy One, God’s Self, rejoices in this conversation. Joy upon Joy has been added before the face of the Holy Ruler.” Finally, he addressed Rabbi Shimon: “Who will awaken words of wisdom in this world as you do?

Of course, he addresses us now as well.  May we all be safe, and protected, may we all feel calm and love.  And may we awaken wisdom and compassion in ourselves.  And in the world.


[1] Exodus 32:10

[2] This and all following citations from Zohar II:193b

Thu, March 30 2023 8 Nisan 5783