Ki Tissa signals the lowest historic point of Israel's faithlessness. Feeling abandoned by Moses, the people besiege Aaron to fashion a Golden Calf, proclaiming "this is the god who brought you out of Egypt." Imagine the extent of Moses' horror as he descends from his 40-day sojourn atop Sinai to scenes of illicit, idolatrous revelry.
Critical commentators have offered several insights concerning this core biblical event. A close textual reading could indicate that it was the absent Moses — and not God — whom the people wished to replace by fashioning a physical embodiment of Divine Power.
In 1995, Ben Kingsley played the lead in a made-for-television movie titled "Moses." I haven't seen it in 16 years, yet one scene remains fixed in my memory. Moses (Kingsley) descends Mount Sinai and confronts the revelers. After a brief confrontation, he shouts out several times to "purify the camp," at which point the Levites attack, slaughtering the idolaters. Given this film's realism, unlike "The Ten Commandments," the scene turned violent and gory.
Each year when we return to Ki Tissa, this blood-curdling vision replays itself in my mind. If, as we sing when we return the Torah to the Ark, "its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace," what existential lesson are we to learn from this seemingly gruesome biblical vignette?
Surveying the situation, Moses recognized a people out of control prompted by idolaters "menacing anyone who challenged them." After the shackles of Pharaoh had been miraculously broken, the Hebrews had left slavery behind. The goal of Israel's redemption: to become a "Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation."
Yet in a few short months, a gang of Israel's men attempted to hijack that liberation by fear-mongering, unleashing wild emotions and intimidating their opponents through violence. Moses understood that those who wished to maintain the essential character of their deliverance would literally have to fight for it.
Many of us have been watching the current events in Egypt, wondering who will follow Hosni Mubarak, since for decades he maintained peace with Israel and served as a counterweight to radical Islam. Yet we also find it troubling to fully endorse "kleptocrats" who steal their nation's wealth, liberty and aspirations.
While the calls to freedom in Tahrir Square proved compelling, history reveals that, if not protected, popular revolutions can be hijacked by even more dangerous tyrants: the Bolsheviks after the czar's overthrow, the Ayatollahs subsequent to the Shah's departure, and Egypt's own Gamal Abdel Nasser following King Farouk's abdication.
Following the Exodus from Egypt, Moses knew that deliverance required forceful protection against those who would pervert its ideals. May those in modern Egypt who demonstrated for freedom, justice and security be equally guided by this realization.
Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel-Eman-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]