The parshah for this week comes at a time when illness, anxiety, and doubt are clouding the minds of most. The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19 has begun its spread in the United States, and in our very own state. It has even touched our town. Parshah Ki Tisa contains what I would consider one of the most famous descriptions of mass hysteria and panic that we have on record today. Moses ascended Mount Sinai and “…delayed to come down from the mount” (Exodus 32:1). According to Hertz, The Rabbis have often claimed that Moses told the people Israel that he would be atop Mount Sinai for forty days. In actuality, Moses meant that he would descend from Sinai after spending the entirety of 40 days on the mount. On that fortieth day, the people of Israel became collectively alarmed. Their leader Moses, who was to guide them, was assumed dead or missing. Without Moses to forge the path, the people became anxiety-ridden, and in what appeared to be panic, demanded that a tangible god be made evident. Aaron was left in charge of the people Israel in Moses’ absence, and was put in a difficult situation.
“‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us.” (Exodus 32:1) said the Israelites to Aaron. According to Torah, Aaron was the person who actually took the gold of the people and sculpted it into the infamous Golden Calf, which the Israelites began to worship. If one is to read the Torah in a cursory manner, it might seem as if Aaron, such an honorable man, was strangely complicit in this idolatrous act. According to Midrash Aggadah, and a closer look at the Torah’s text, Aaron was likely looking to halt this idol-building by the Israelites. Aaron said to the people “‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me’” (Exodus 32:2). Aggadah says that Aaron thought this request would go unheeded, as people were likely to balk at the idea of giving up the gold in their own ears. To Aaron’s amazement, the people responded to his request for gold expeditiously and in large amounts. The people literally broke the golden rings that were in their ears to provide Aaron with material for idol-building.Talmudic Rabbi Jeremiah said that upon his receipt of the gold from the Israeli people, and prior to building the golden calf, Aaron turned toward G-d and said, “..it is against my will that I am about to do this.” According to The Rabbis, the fickle nature of humankind was on display here. The same people who gave their gold and silver to the Sanctuary were so quick to give this same material for idolatrous reasons. All of this occurred just weeks after G-d told the people “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image” (Exodus 20:4).
Yes, Moses does eventually descend from Sinai, becomes very angry, breaks the tablets in his hands, and absolutely destroys the golden calf. At this point in the Parshah for the week, we might be compelled to ask why. Why did the Israelites so quickly turn anxiety and fear into full-blown panic and hysterical dancing at a bovine sculpture? If we look at this issue in the context of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, there is a psychology that underlies this type of behavior. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, claims that buying many things during a time of crisis gives people some sense of control. If you have been paying any attention to the news, you are likely aware that it is close to impossible in some places to find toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and antibacterial cleaners. People want to feel that they have some control in what seems like an unpredictable world. Moses had led the people of Israel out of the horrors of Egypt, and many had likely hung on his word with bated breath. When he behaved in an unexpected manner, people “panic-bought” a golden calf. Yes, the money all went to Aaron, not to Target or Costco, but the psychology is similar. Throw your money at something to ease your anxiety. If I am stocked up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer, perhaps I will be OK and make it through these very uncertain times. If I throw all of my gold at the building of an idol, I will have something tangible to pray to, and my anxiety will reduce.
If we can take anything away from this discussion, we must remember that Moses returned to the people of Israel, and G-d was always there. What kind of damage do we do when in a panic? Yes, the reality of a pandemic is very scary, as is the idea that our consistent “Moses” has disappeared. We all tend to seek comfort in tangibility. Sometimes we buy toilet paper, and sometimes we buy a golden calf to dance around. We must remember that times have been uncertain before, and G-d has never left. Aaron says “Unto Thee I lift up my eyes, O Thou that art enthroned in the heavens” (Ps. 123:1). Mishkan T’filah tells us on page 57 that, “when anxiety makes us tremble…we look inward for the answer to our prayers. There may we find You…”
During this uncertain time, I would like to say: “Baruch atah Adonai, asher b’yado nefesh kol chai v’ruach kol b’sar ish” Praised are you, Adonai, whose hands hold the soul of every living creature. Also, the Talmud tells us, “Whoever makes light of the washing of his hands will be uprooted from the world” (Sot. 4b). So, remember to wash those hands, keep panic at bay, and remember that building a golden calf in panic will not resolve our anxieties. Look upward and inward for peace.