Ki Tisa

By Chaplain Mitzi Schwarz

One of the biggest themes that the Torah imparts, as I understand it, is that we cannot live peaceably or effectively on Earth without being connected to the Source from which we spring, the G-d Source.

But what happens when that Source becomes angry with us? What happens to us when we feel, think, or believe that our Source has vanished? What happens when we become angry, or afraid, and we do the best we can to soothe ourselves, even if by doing so, we go against the directives of the Source of Being, and/or those who are our leaders – our parents, teachers, Moshe Rabbeinu even, for example? Then, what happens when G-d, or His agent, Moses, gets so mad at us for “behaving badly” that the M’Kor Chayim threatens to cut us off entirely from the very connection we need to survive? That is terrifying, and we may get very angry, and impatient, and act out of fear, for example, by building a Golden Calf.

I wonder about this because my family, like many families, has a history of trauma and abandonment seemingly baked into it, and I know how hard it can be to rise above circumstances that are beyond one’s control. When there’s a lot of mental illness in a family, for example, it is not uncommon to need to fend for oneself, because the people who are “supposed” to take care of vulnerable and young family members are unable to do so.

So, how can we relate this week’s parsha, to anger and trauma?

In the beginning of Ki Tisa, Moses is still up in Har Sinai (Mt. Sinai), receiving continuing instruction from HaShem that he will soon transmit to our ancestors regarding how to construct this Holy Space on earth, the Mikdash (sanctuary), where we can reconnect with the Source of Life. While Moses has been listening to the Voice of G-d on the mountain, the people below have been panicking, feeling traumatized from thinking that they’d been abandoned by their leader, and despairing that the man who led them from enslavement in Egypt would ever return to them. In their despair of feeling abandoned, they construct a Golden Calf. Humans are neurologically hardwired to need something, or someone, to connect with. In 12-Step parlance, we are built to need a Power greater than ourselves. We are also built to need a P/parent, when we’re still such a young nation, one that has been born from a constricted place, Mitzrayim (Egypt).

It’s hard to have faith in something we cannot experience with our physical senses. And when we feel we’ve been abandoned, as the Israelites must have felt when Moses “disappeared” into the mountain for what must have felt to them like eternity, when our need for security, reassurance, and comfort is not being met, we will do what we need to do to compensate for this lack of support.

In the case of the Israelites, they built a stand-in for HaShem: the Golden Calf. With Aaron’s blessing, no less.

Interestingly, the Israelites aren’t the only ones who are angry in this parsha. Moses is angry at the people, and G-d is furious at them. In fact, G-d is so angry with these “stiffnecked” people that He just redeemed from slavery in Egypt that He says to Moses, “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you (Moses) a great nation” (Ex 32:9-10). G-d promised to never destroy humanity again by Flood, but He said nothing about fire…

G-d wants to be loved by His people, and the people want to feel that they can connect with G-d. But neither is connecting with the other. As Rabbi Mari Chernow writes in her essay found in “The Mussar Torah Commentary: Kaas – The Value of Anger”, “anger is almost always triggered by a breach in a relationship. Here…there is an equivalency between the original breach caused by the Israelites (building the Golden Calf) and G-d’s reaction to it”. Neither party knows how to connect with the other, and everyone is mad as a result.

But staying in a place of anger only brings about destruction, and G-d vowed not to do that again, as He had with the Flood. As it turned out, though, G-d needed Moses to intervene on His behalf, so that His anger would not consume His chosen people. “Moses implored the Lord, saying, ‘Let not Your anger…blaze forth against Your people…’” (Ex. 32:11). Often, we need to take a break, when our own anger is so strong that it can make a permanent rip in a relationship. Yet, taking a break doesn’t mean that anger is bad. We just don’t want it to be destructive. Dr. Lissa Rankin, a teacher of Internal Family Systems Therapy, writes that “anger is an emotion that shows us that someone has crossed our boundaries. It’s a necessary emotion for our integrity, because when someone crosses our boundaries, we need to be able to stand up for ourselves, and if we see someone else’s boundaries aggressively crossed, we’re supposed to be outraged.” (Dr. Lissa Rankin, “Where Does the Locus of Responsibility Lie When You’re Angry or Resentful?”).

What boundaries had been crossed that led the Israelites to building the Golden Calf in the first place? I believe that the boundary that was crossed might have been both G-d and Moses assuming that we were stronger than we were. We were just out of Egypt/enslavement. Even though G-d showered us with miracles, we had a hard time believing that G-d would always there for us; after all, where had G-d been when we were enslaved for 400 years? We are G-d wrestlers. It is human to question, to struggle, to have doubts, to waver. We are asked to place our trust in G-d whom we cannot see, touch, or hold. That’s hard. We saw Moses as G-d’s representative – and he vanished also. There was no thing and no one concrete in which we could place our trust.

And that, I believe, is why we are instructed to build a Mikdash (sanctuary), a dwelling in which the Divine Presence can dwell here on earth. As was so famously said in the movie, “Field of Dream”, “build It, and It will come”.

May we continually dedicate and rededicate our own lives and the life of our communities to the building of Holy spaces for G-d to dwell, so that we can do our human part to bring a bit of Gan Eden – Wholeness/Shalom – right down here to Earth.