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Ki Tissa 5779 - "Don't Have a Cow, Man"

February 22, 2019

When I sit down to write my drash each week, there’s often a point when I have some sort of mini lightbulb moment. Like, this week. I had a really cool a ha moment. I knew I would be writing about chet ha-egel — the sin of the Golden Calf — considered by our sages to be the worst sin in Jewish history

You probably know the story — at the very moment that Moses is receiving the tablets of the covenant on Mount Sinai, down below the covenant is disintegrating, as the Israelites dance and sing around a gold cow they’ve built — rejecting both God and Moses in one fell swoop

“Wait!” I thought, as I sat in front of my MacBook. “Golden Calf? ’Don’t have a cow, man!’ I bet that comes from the Golden Calf story

Um, it doesn’t

According to Robert Allen Palmatier, in his 1995 book, Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors, “to have a cow,” means “to have an anxiety attack.” He continues:

On the TV show "The Simpsons," Bart Simpson says, "Don't have a cow, man!" meaning, "Don't get all upset about it." Bart is likening an anxiety attack to giving birth to a cow - a frightening thought. Normally cows are the ones that give birth to cows - i.e., bull calves and heifer calves. Compare Have Kittens

“Have kittens,” it turns out, is a British saying. Leave it to the Yanks to turn British kitties into Texas longhorns

But even though my light bulb moment was more like a power outage, I still like the comparison of the Golden Calf to a panic attack

Yes, the incident is considered a sin. But imagine, for a moment, that you are a recently-freed Israelite

You are in a terrifyingly strange place, a literal and figurative wilderness. The one support, the one touchstone in your life, Moses, has vanished. Imagine the conversation:

“Wasn’t Moses supposed to be back already? Have you seen him? Did he send a messenger? Shlomo said he heard from Shimon that he was eaten by coyotes. Oh my God. Why did you let him go alone? What’s wrong with you??”

The prophet is nowhere to be found. And so the Israelites are ripe for panic and hysteria. Hence the sin

In fact, you might be inclined to be upset not with the Israelites, but with Moses our rabbi. Off Mr. Big Shot Moses goes to his fancy Mount Sinai. 40 days, you couldn’t even send a note?

Our rabbis — being rabbis — anticipate that criticism, and try to cut it off at the knees

Rashi’s response is typical: when he said he’d be back in forty days, the Israelites were counting the day he left as the first day, while Moses didn’t start counting until he arrived at Mount Sinai. Seems legit

Still. You don’t call, you don’t write…

But before we rush to judge our irresponsible prophet too harshly, let’s look at his side. Imagine for a moment Moses, up on that mountain. Taken first from his birth parents, and then from his adopted home, he is called to great service and sacrifice. Now, finally, on Mount Sinai, he is in communion with God. We learn that the greatest sign of God’s love for us is our Torah. So here’s Moses, having a personal moment of love with a God of love

For a man with what can only be called an unstable family history, this must have been immensely powerful

We learn at the end of the portion that when he came down from Sinai, he would sometime literally glow.

Have you ever had a moment like that, that left you glowing? Can you identify with Moses, a man of a broken past, who now has the opportunity to connect with a Being who accepts him? Who loves him?

But here’s the thing. Moses is in communion with God not only to heal his own personal wounds. His meditation has a greater purpose – nothing less than the birth of a people. The genius of Judaism lies not only in the declaration that there is one God that desires communion with us, but also that this God desperately wants us to act ethically

To be ohr la-goyim. “A light to the nations.” [1]

In our quest for spiritual growth, we cannot forget the ethical needs of our loved ones, our communities, our world. Moses is so busy basking in the glow of talking to God that he stays late at shul. He could have at least called

Do the Israelites, then, have any responsibility? Let’s see. In Moses’ absence, the Israelites press Aaron for a god to worship. Why? Tellingly, they don’t claim that it is God who has let them down. The Torah here provides specific dialogue. “Make us a god!” they demand of Aaron, ki zeh Moshe ha-ish asher he’elanu mei-eretz Mitzrayim — “for this Moses, the man that brought us up from Egypt[2] — is missing. Moses brought us out of Egypt

But it was, of course, God who brought them out of Egypt

So we see that the idol-worship had begun long before the calf was built. It began the moment the Israelites saw their deliverance as Moses’ doing, and not God’s. The calf was not a replacement for God, but for a man, zeh Moshe ha-ish – one idol replacing another

As kids, we were taught that idols are statues, like the ones Abraham smashed in the famous Midrash. Yet the Israelites make an idol of Moses. And in doing so, they deny Moses’ very purpose – not to be God, but to create a community that is accountable to God’s teaching.

Not my problem, not my responsibility. If only the leader was different, things would change, life would be better. This is the diametrically opposed to the teachings of our sacred texts. By identifying Moses as the deliverer, they disregard Moses’ message. They forget who he is, they forget who God is, and they forget the power in their very own souls.

Moses hurts the community on his spiritual journey by misusing his power. And then the Israelites hurt the community by denying their power

And, as the covenant lay in ruins, the relationships are all broken. The Israelites no longer have a holy community

They just have a cow. Man

OK then. After the hurt and the brokenness, what comes next?

God tests Moses on this point. Tell you what, God says. Let’s start over. How about this: va’achaleim – I will DESTROY them and I will make of YOU a great nation. [3] Moses, to his credit, doesn’t take the bait. Let not Your anger blaze against amecha / YOUR people.[4] Without the people – God’s people – the prophet is nothing

The prospect of the total destruction of the community snaps Moses back to his senses. No matter what Moses’ individual dreams may be, no matter how hurt he is, it is the community, all together, that counts

Moses rejects God’s offer

If you don’t forgive them, he says, m’cheini na, / please — ERASE me from the book You are writing.”[5]

Amazing thing, this Torah. Moses’s purpose isn’t just himself. He lives to serve his people. His people live to serve God. Without them, he’s nothing. As if he had never been. The rabbis understand this as well. They actually erase Moses’ name from the Passover Haggadah

In doing so, they remind us that while Moses’ mission is eternal, Moses the man is only human. And sure enough… human Moses goes down the mountain, sees the calf and the dancing and his dreams in ruin… and Moses the man becomes enraged. Oy bubbeleh

And Moses the man — the angry man — smashes the two tablets of the Covenant at the foot of the mountain — the two broken tablets matching the broken covenant

Two tablets. One for Moses, perhaps, and one for the Israelites. Each having its own responsibility for the wreckage. Each having to heal its broken past. And only together, as a group, could they continue

Jewish practice teaches us likewise. Anyone who has waited to davven at a sparsely-attended minyan knows that that TENTH person is so important. In making the minyan, she has great power. But by herself, she is just as incomplete as the other nine

In a shul in your neighborhood, just as in the dusty wilderness of Sinai, praise of God only occurs when all parts are joined, focused on the needs of the community. Together

And finally, this is also true of our ethical lives. We will not achieve justice, provide the working poor with equitable wages, overcome hate, if we wait for someone else to do it, a better mayor, a smarter rabbi, a nicer president

We will not make our schools any safer, love each other any more, make our criminal justice system any fairier, our shul any more welcoming, if we only care about our needs, and care nothing for the needs of our neighbors

Each member of the community — at the top of the mountain and at the bottom of the mountain — is required for our holy work. Everyone in this room. And the people not in this room. When one of us is strengthened, our whole community is strengthened. God’s One-ness is affirmed

No, we probably won’t give birth to a cow. But we just might give birth to a community of healing and wholeness


[1] Isaiah 49:6

[2] Exodus 32:1

[3] Exodus 32:10

[4] Exodus 32:11

[5] Exodus 32:32

Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782