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The Constant Struggle for Freedom (Ki Tisa 03/02/24)

The Constant Struggle for Freedom

Renowned newspaper columnist and author Bari Weiss spoke last Sunday at the 92nd St. Y. She was presenting a State of World Jewry address. While all her points are worth discussing, she utilized an event in our parsha to drive home her message, and it’s worth sharing.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered against Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the man who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.’”

They immediately get to work.

Aaron tells the Israelites to take off their gold—the rings on the ears of their wives, sons, and daughters. They melt down their jewelry and make themselves a golden calf. They make offerings to it. They dance before it. And they cry out before the idol they have made: “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

Linger on that: they looked at a statue, which they knew they had just made with their own hands, and credited it for an otherworldly miracle.

And not one that happened to others, but one they experienced firsthand.

At the very least, they had to know the cow wasn’t there in Egypt with them.

So, the question is, why?

Why did they do it? Why did a people who had just experienced the miracle of their liberation from slavery turn away from the God who had given them their freedom. . . and toward an idol?

The rabbis provide many answers. The Israeli singer Ehud Banai does the same in his song “Golden Calf.”

“We are here, in the heart of the desert

Thirsty for living water

You’re on top of the mountain

Above the clouds

There is no sign

No signal

So many days

In a closed circuit, we circle

Around the Golden Calf.

There’s no one to hit the rock

Who will give direction?”

So why did they do it?

They did it because they felt anxious, vulnerable, and alone.

They did it because they were desperate.

They did it because they wanted temporary pleasure.

They did it because they lost—or thought they lost—their connection to God.

They did it because they did not have the imagination to conceive of a different future.

They did it because they had come from a place that worshipped idols. They imitated what they had grown up with. They reverted to what they knew. They imitated the dominant culture even though that culture had enslaved them.

And was that so crazy?

Not a moment ago (90 days earlier), these freed people had been slaves.

They may have dreamed, during the long night of slavery, of being “a free people in our own land,” as the words of Hatikvah would put it 4,000 or so years later. But that wasn’t the same as waking up inside a totally new paradigm. That wasn’t the same as being asked to leave behind everything about the world they knew to become a free people with all the immense privileges and the terrifying responsibilities that freedom comes with.

So, Why did they build the calf? Because freedom is so very, very hard.”

(End of B. Weiss)

I believe this is the challenge we’re facing now in America. Do we trust our own decisions and knowledge, or do we want leaders to make the decisions for us? Across the world, democracy seems to be taking a back seat to controlling leaders like Putin, Modi, and Erdogan.

Do we want a country where there’s a separation of Church and State, or are we going to live in a place where fertilized embryos have the status of human beings (Judaism would claim that since the embryos can’t survive on their own, they don’t have the status of humans yet)?

While I believe the story of the Golden Calf is much more complex and nuanced than has been portrayed, Bari’s conclusion is certainly correct: freedom can never be taken for granted.

Ninety years ago, the most outstanding scientist in the world had to flee Europe to save his life. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: “Freedom, in any case, is only possible by constantly struggling for it.”

Now, more than ever, this struggle is ours.

Wishing you a wonderful week,

R’ Neil

Manetto Hill Jewish Center
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