Ki Tissa: Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
“Living Our Lives “All in!””
It is fascinating to follow Moses’ spiritual evolution one Torah portion at a time. From the beginning of his story, we find him to be ambivalent toward the Israelites, remaining somewhat distant, aloof. Perhaps, wrestling with a dual Egyptian-Israelite sense of identity, Moses is unsure about his own path. Whatever the reason, it appears as though this ambivalence of his was felt by the Israelites as well. This week’s parashah brings us the episode of the Golden Calf. Once Moses disappears up Mount Sinai, the Israelites’ lack of trust in his commitment to lead them through the wilderness drives them to erect a Golden Calf to replace him: “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that fellow Moses—the leader who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him” (Exod. 32:1). It is, therefore, possible to read the story of the Golden Calf as being all about Moses.
Atop the mountain, God gives Moses the tablets of the Pact, “inscribed with the finger of God,” and then tells him to hurry back down because the people are acting “basely.” God is about to wipe out the Israelites, but Moses manages to obtain a stay of execution as he makes his way down the mountain with the tablets. There, shocked by the boisterous worship he witnesses, Moses is confronted with a decision. He sees that his ambivalence, his indecisiveness with regard to his own identity, has caused the Israelites to commit the ultimate sin—idolatry—and has placed them on the brink of Divine destruction. With the anger one feels when one’s resistance to doing the right thing has been exposed, Moses smashes the tablets. A story in Midrash describes Moses’ profound realization (Torah verses italicized):
He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them (Exod. 32:19). Once Moses saw that Israel would not be able to withstand God’s wrath at the Golden Calf, he bound his soul to them and smashed the tablets. Then he said to God: “They have sinned, and I have sinned, for I smashed the tablets. If you forgive them, forgive me also,” as Scripture tells us: Now if You will forgive their sin… then forgive mine as well. But if You do not forgive them, do not forgive me either, but rather wipe me out of Your book that You have written” (Exod. 32:32).
In his unfolding process of spiritual awakening, Moses still needed to work through aspects of his own shadow, places where residual holdups of ego were still hindering his process and expressing as impeding ambivalence. His life was to be one of service, but true service can be neither coerced nor half-hearted. Moses had to go “all in”—heart, mind, and soul. Service, as such, is a powerful spiritual practice because by freely giving of ourselves we cultivate egolessness. As we serve the people in our lives, in our community, those in need, and those we love, we transcend our self-absorbed concerns and complaints. Conversely, when we allow others to serve us, we are able to cultivate true humility and let go of our misplaced pride. Both giving and receiving, however, must be genuine and wholehearted. This is what Moses needed to learn. Perhaps this is true not only for the practice of service, but for how we live our lives altogether. What have we “set in stone” in our life that prevents us from living fully, wholeheartedly, passionately and need to be smashed down? What fears are still hindering our process? Perhaps, like Moses, we may find ourselves at a point where we are able to commit to fully living the hand we are dealt.