REIMAGING COMMUNAL VIOLENCE & TRAUMA
Welcome to Awakening: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, where we at The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar meet weekly at 15:00/3pm EST on Sundays to learn from the Torah/Hebrew Bible portion that we just observed on the Jewish Sabbath/Shabbat from the unique lens of Mussar Mindfulness and then apply what we learn to our seated Insight Meditation and Mindfulness practice. You may join us on Zoom (link here) or LIVE on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. All sessions are recorded and can be found at our website (www.kehilatmussar.com) in the Blog section.
Before we begin delving into the weekly Torah/Hebrew Bible portion/parasha, this week being Ki Tisa, we pray that our Intention/Kavannah be of learning Torah, Mussar, and the Dharma together and practicing Mussar Mindfulness. We commit to learn and practice together once a week to strengthen our Middot/soul-traits and souls, to be of service to others and God/Hashem; indeed, to bring God’s Good to others.
We always begin our practice with our Kavanah/Intention for today’s practice: to do this type of practice and care as an act of self-care and to connect us with the Divine, and ultimately, to other people. So, before doing this engagement of learning and practice together we say: this is something I am doing to strengthen my own soul in order to be of benefit to others in the future; and then our last paragraph: this is something that I’m doing to strengthen my relationship with the Creator so that I can be a better conduit of God’s Good to others when they need me. (See below)
We use the first and third Kavanot/Intentions listed below for today’s learning and practice:
We begin with the deep recognition that this parasha, Ki Tisa, may be difficult, unpleasant, challenging, and troubling and provide discomfort for some of us to read and study. If you fall in this group, please honor this, honor your own experience. No need to push it away; to avoid admitting your embodied reaction to this text (and our ancestors’ behavior). I, myself, fall into this category. I experience Ki Tisa as one of the most brutal Torah portions, along with the previous ones of: the Flood, the Rape of Dinah (and her brothers’ violence afterward), and the Selling of Yosef (and having a meal while he is in the pit) by his brothers. To demonstrate how this arises in my own felt experience of the body: I feel a deep-seated pit, a ball of cramping fire that sits in my lower belly. And I have this embodied experience no matter what year I study Ki Tisa. I used to judge myself, as if I were not progressing in my practice and growth: like I should no longer have this felt sense of the body. However, with wise discernment, I have come to accept and embrace my experience as a gift from God: that I should be having this reaction in the body. It is a sign that I disagree with the text and decision of murder by God, Moshe, and the Levites. It is the gift of the moral compass we discussed some portions ago.
To begin, we witness God’s rage toward the Israelite’s behavior. What is their behavior? We have inherited much assumptions from our ancestors, rabbis, and rabbinic exegesis about the Israelites and their behavior of commanding Aharon (Moshe’s brother) to build a replacement god or leader, and subsequent behavior around the Golden Calf. We must distance ourselves from this commentary if we are going to attempt to look at the Israelite’s behavior with fresh eyes and a beginner’s mind. Dare I say: to engage in giving them the benefit of the doubt, which in and of itself is a mitzvah, a commandment to do. Before we practice this distancing from the inherited tradition, let’s take a brief look at what is the dominant spin.
Let’s turn to my favorite Parshanit, Rabbinic Commentator, may her memory be for a blessing, Nechama Leibowitz:
How was it conceivable that the generation which had witnessed the miracles of Egypt and had scaled the loftiest heights of communion with God at the Revelation on Mount Sinai could descend to the depths of pagan idolatry and make a calf?Leibowitz, Nechama 1995 Studies in Shemot, Part II: Ki Tissa 2, Sin of The Golden Calf, p. 549
Lots of judgment there. Lots of shock at our ancestor’s behavior. Notice the reaction. Notice the aversion. I would venture to claim that I hear anger and resentment in Nechama’s and other rabbinic commentators’ voices in response to the Golden Calf incident. There is a sense that they are caught up in their own reaction that they expressed pen to paper, which expressed perhaps part of their jealousy that the Israelites once had such an intimate encounter with the Living God and yet they went and “ruined” it by taking that relationship for granted. Behind their anger is the unexpressed assumption that had they been there, had they been saved by God and taken out of slavery from Egypt and heard the voice of the Living God at the mountain, then they would most certainly would not have engaged in the heinous act of demanding the building of the Golden Calf. And now our second quote:
…we should not be astonished at the fact that the generation which had heard the voice of the living God and had received the commandment “thou shalt not make other gods besides Me” descended to the making of the Golden Calf forty days later. One single religious experience, however profound, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshippers into monotheists.Ibid. 555-556
Nechama goes on to say she feels that only a prolonged disciplining in the precepts of the Torah directing every moment of their existence would accomplish the desired goal of transforming our ancestors from idol worshippers, which I question if they even were, into monotheists.
So, let’s encounter the actual text ourselves in Chapter 32, verse 8 states:
סָ֣רוּ מַהֵ֗ר מִן־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתִ֔ם עָשׂ֣וּ לָהֶ֔ם עֵ֖גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיִּשְׁתַּֽחֲווּ־לוֹ֙ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ־ל֔וֹ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, and said: ‘These are your gods [This is your god], Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’”
They turned away from the path that God commanded them, and they did something they were commanded not to do. Dual offense.
To practice Mussar Mindfulness in investigating this portion, we have to engage in the practice of imagining a healthier, kinder, wiser response to what our ancestors did. We have to distance ourselves from the reaction, from the judgment, from the anger, from the emotional aversion of our ancestral commentators and tradition. And even more importantly, we need to encounter our ancestors in this text as actual human beings, worthy of being given the benefit of the doubt. Why? Because they are created in image and likeness God and deserve this honor from us.
Let’s look at Moshe who models for us how to give someone the benefit of the doubt in the most charged of circumstances in chapter 32, verse 21:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן מֶֽה־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה כִּֽי־הֵבֵ֥אתָ עָלָ֖יו חֲטָאָ֥ה גְדֹלָֽה׃
Moshe said to Aharon, “What did this people do to you that you have brought such great sin upon them?”
Note that I am engaging in the religious/spiritual practice of giving Moshe Rabbeinu the benefit of the doubt in how he speaks to his brother Aharon, as I acknowledge that there are commentators that claim that Moshe is being sarcastic and is actually angry with Aharon. However, I choose to see Moshe engaging in giving his brother the benefit of the doubt by the very way he words his question: it is the people who must be responsible for causing Aharon to engage in such sinful behavior because Moshe knows Aharon intimately and therefore, knows that Aharon would have never engaged in such behavior unless he had been under duress.
And this is what Mussar Mindfulness teaches: we are created in the image and likeness of God. Because of this, we know that we have a higher self that we practice and aspire to. We know that everyone else has this ability also, and because we know this in ourselves, we extend it to anyone we encounter when they are not behaving from their wise, higher self. It is the mitzvah/commandment of giving someone the benefit of the doubt. We would want this same mitzvah extended to us when we go off the derech, off the path, which is what the children of Israel did.
Instead, what we witness in God and Moshe is a lack of withholding judgment. The judgment is rash and the condemnation and punishment are immediate. Let’s also look at the behavior of the Israelites who commanded Aharon to build the Golden Calf (technically, they didn’t command him to build a Golden Calf; rather, they command him to make them gods or a god (or a leader) to be with them, to continue to lead them in the desert). They beared the burden of waiting for Moshe to return from the mountain for 40 days. Their tolerance, their balanced patience wore thin at the moment they thought Moshe was supposed to return. When Moshe did not return as expected, they too reacted swiftly with a lack of inquiry and wise discernment. Impatience, fear, a lack of trust, and perhaps greed took over. And we witness for God’s and Moshe’s jealousy masked by anger, a god who yearned for loyalty and a leader, Moshe, who too expected fidelity to his leadership.
And now we sadly witness, with the practice of inner distancing, the consequence, the karma, of God and Moshe’s rash judgment and condemnation in Chapter 32, verses 26-28:
וַיַּעֲמֹ֤ד מֹשֶׁה֙ בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וַיֹּ֕אמֶר מִ֥י לַיהֹוָ֖ה אֵלָ֑י וַיֵּאָסְפ֥וּ אֵלָ֖יו כׇּל־בְּנֵ֥י לֵוִֽי׃
Moses stood at the gate of the camp and said, “Whoever is for יהוה, come here!” And all the men of Levi gathered to him.
וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֗ם כֹּֽה־אָמַ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל שִׂ֥ימוּ אִישׁ־חַרְבּ֖וֹ עַל־יְרֵכ֑וֹ עִבְר֨וּ וָשׁ֜וּבוּ מִשַּׁ֤עַר לָשַׁ֙עַר֙ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְהִרְג֧וּ אִֽישׁ־אֶת־אָחִ֛יו וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֖הוּ וְאִ֥ישׁ אֶת־קְרֹבֽוֹ׃
He said to them, “Thus says יהוה, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and murder sibling, neighbor, and kin.”
וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֥וּ בְנֵֽי־לֵוִ֖י כִּדְבַ֣ר מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיִּפֹּ֤ל מִן־הָעָם֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא כִּשְׁלֹ֥שֶׁת אַלְפֵ֖י אִֽישׁ׃
The men of Levi did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day.
It is Moshe’s familial kin, the Levites, who gather to him and follow his claim that God commanded them to murder their own brothers, neighbors, and family. This is Moshe’s most depraved moment that he is willing to murder or command others to murder their own family, a people who just escaped hundreds of years of the institution of slavery. This is also God’s most depraved moment that in addition to commanding (if God did) the murder of the people who are not with Moshe/God, God struck the people (all the people!) with a plague (32:35). “Some are guilty, but all are responsible (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)” in the ethos of God and our ancestors’ ancient culture, that if you witnessed the building of the Golden Calf, if you gave some gold to contribute to it even if you didn’t worship it or offered sacrifices to it or danced around it, then you are held responsible. You are struck by a plague.
And what if more than 3,000 of our ancestors did participate in either the building, offering of sacrifices, or dancing around the Golden Calf? What if this whole history is actually more complicated than our first reading or how our rabbinic commentators have been reading this event for the past 2000 years? What if when Moshe raised his banner and screamed, “Who is with God?”, many of our ancestors who actually participated in the Golden Calf went over to Moshe: because they actually were with God. Hold that liminal gray space where in their mind they could simultaneously be for God and build the calf. Building that calf was their way of worshipping the Almighty; just not in a way that God commanded or wanted. Being with God by building and worshipping the calf, trying to connect with Moshe and God, was inappropriate for the commanded expectations of that relationship. However, the impulse, the desire was holy and pure.
They were trying to connect with and be with God (and Moshe). The violation that occurred was the Israelites not honoring how God wanted to be in relationship. God did not consent to their building the calf. The Israelites did not consent to Moshe being away for longer than what they thought they had agreed upon. We witness the consequences of the hindrance of desire, as taught in the Buddhist traditions: of attachment, to wanting something to the point that one will distort the consensual terms in order to satisfy the desire. Perhaps this is for whom the plague sent by God: for those who were for God but not how God wanted.
Thank you to God, our ancestors, my Mussar teachers, and the wisdom of the Buddha and Buddhist traditions for enabling us to bring you this Torah, this Awakening of Torah through Mussar Mindfulness. May we merit that our learning and awakening of Ki Tisa bring comfort and wisdom to all beings and to alleviate the suffering of all beings. Thank you. Shalom, Namaste, Peace.
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Podcast Audio Below:
Awakening Behar: Torah Mussar Mindfulness, 33rd Sitting – Mussar Mindfulness with Rabbi Chasya of The Institute for Holiness: Kehilat Mussar
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